November 16, 2022 11.00 am This story is over 17 months old

Council leader’s interference in grounds maintenance decision called “disgraceful”

Contract will return to tender process

South Kesteven District Council will put a grounds maintenance contract out to tender for a second time after a “disgraceful” last-minute intervention in the scrutiny process by the authority’s leader.

Conservative councillor Kelham Cooke was invited by the chairman of a scrutiny meeting on Tuesday to speak on the future of the arms-length EnvironmentSK company.

He recommended to the committee that the contract be put back out to tender despite a previous bid “did not generate any significant interest” according to officers.

However, Councillor Cooke’s interference was challenged by opposition members who accused the leader of trying to tell the committee, designed to scrutinise decisions of the authority’s senior members, what to do.

Officers were originally recommending bringing grounds maintenance services in-house, ending the contract with EnvironmentSK and dissolving the company in a bid to make £352,000 of savings.

However, Councillor Cooke, said the opportunities around commercial operators had not been “fully explored”.

He  said he was not challenging officers’ integrity, hard work or honesty but that a further tender would provide “100% clarity” on the way forward.

He added: “It’s about making absolutely sure that when we make this decision we have fully tested the market.”

His move was immediately officially picked up and proposed by the committee’s vice chairman, and fellow Tory, Councillor Gloria Johnson before being seconded by Conservative Barry Dobson.

Independent Councillor Ashley Baxter queried why the leader would “suggest to the committee what we propose or do not propose… surely it’s for the committee to make proposals?”

Another Independent Councillor Phil Dilks suggested Councillor Cooke “doesn’t like the recommendations before us” and had appeared to ask “can you change it to recommend that his cabinet does something else?”

He said: “It is highly irregular, for the leader of the council to come along to a scrutiny committee, that is here to hold the leader and executive to account and to scrutinise their decisions, effectively to tell us what to do and then for a member of this group to immediately say ‘oh yeah we’ll back that.”

“It is not just highly irregular, it is absolutely disgraceful.”

Councillors were told it was the chairman’s discretion for which non-members could speak.

Responding, Councillor Cooke said he often attended scrutiny meetings and that he was “only” there to reiterate that “we need to be absolutely 100% sure when we take that decision that we’ve explored all the options.”

Discussions during the rest of the meeting called for more clarity about the tender bid, an original near £600k loan and the value of equipment bought by EnvironmentSK.

Councillor Cooke’s recommendation was later approved and the item will return to scrutiny once the tender process has been completed.


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