At the Council meeting reviewing the Kora library decision

This morning I spoke at Cambridgeshire County Council’s Highways & Community Infrastructure Committee meeting, which was debating the future of the Kora project at the library. Here’s (approximately) what I said:

Good morning.

My name is Phil Rodgers, and this meeting is, to some extent, my fault. The information that has brought us here today was uncovered by me, sitting at home with a laptop one Thursday evening earlier this month.

The reason I was doing this research was because I was trying to understand why the Council had been working so exclusively with this one organization on the library project, and seemingly in such secrecy.

I want to stress that I found no evidence of any improper relationship between Kora and anyone at the council. But I did find out, fairly quickly, that Kora’s lead negotiator had been involved in another enterprise centre project in 2009 that went into liquidation owing a lot of money, and that he had been disqualified from being a company director for eight years.

You now have to decide whether to press on with the Kora project, or whether to rescind the decision that this committee took on 2nd June. The report in front of you quite rightly highlights the reputational risks to the Council of pressing on.

I think one of the most striking things about Cambridge Central Library that has emerged during all this, is the fact that it is the fourth busiest library in the country, with around 850,000 visits per year – pretty impressive since Cambridge is only about the 50th largest city. The Central Library is a precious asset that needs to be safeguarded in a way that people can have confidence in. Given what we know now, I do not think that people will have confidence in a project involving Kora.

For the good of the library, for the good of the Council, and for the good of the people that it serves, I urge you to rescind this decision and find another way to address the very difficult budget pressures that I know you face.

And I want to ask one more thing. Please can we have a more open and transparent process this time. Because I can promise you that whatever happens next is going to be subject to a level of public scrutiny that the Kora project clearly wasn’t ready for.

Update: Thanks to Antony Carpen for filming my statement:

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My prediction for the Romsey by-election result

This is the first scheduled post I’ve done, so I’m hoping it’s appearing as if by magic at 10pm on Thursday. It’s been a busy day, so this’ll be brief. At the start of the campaign I expected Labour to win fairly comfortably, but as the campaign has gone on my opinion has shifted towards the Lib Dems. However I think Labour are still likely to win narrowly – though I’ll be delighted to be proved wrong.

Here’s my best guess at the by-election outcome:

  • Con: 6%
  • UKIP: 3%
  • Green: 22%
  • Labour: 36%
  • Lib Dem: 33%

Counting of the votes will start shortly at the Guildhall, so we’ll soon know the result. Getting my excuses in early, by-elections are particularly tricky to predict, and with a fairly low turnout the outcome is heavily influenced by how good the parties are at getting their supporters to go to the polls.

Update: The result has now been declared, and was:

  • Labour 829 (37.3%)
  • Lib Dem 782 (35.2%)
  • Green 467 (21.0%)
  • Con 100 (4.5%)
  • UKIP 46 (2.1%)

Congratulations to Zoe Moghadas, and commiserations to Nichola Martin and the other unsuccessful candidates.

Here’s the result in the context of the last decade’s local election results in Romsey:

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The battle over Romsey’s boundaries

As polling day in the Romsey by-election hurtles towards us, controversy has broken out about the proposed changes to Romsey’s boundaries. The Lib Dems have accused Labour of supporting “proposals that would rip apart the strong Romsey community”, while Labour have hit back, accusing the Lib Dems of hypocrisy after they put forward their own amendments to the proposed boundaries. Here’s an attempt at a summary of the situation, with what I understand to be the positions of both sides. As regular readers will know, I’ve been involved in the Lib Dem campaign – but I am not speaking on their behalf here; I’m just trying to set out the facts as I understand them.

Here are the current boundaries of Romsey ward, courtesy of the handy Election Maps website:

As you can see, it covers the area between Mill Road and Coldham’s Lane, and a little way to either side, on the eastern side of the railway line. It’s a fairly compact ward, thanks to the high-density terraced housing in a lot of it.

As I’ve previously discussed, there is a review underway of the County Council’s division boundaries, which is expected to reduce the number of County Councillors representing Cambridge from 14 to 12. This is likely to have knock-on effects for the City Council as well, since it’s generally agreed that it would be a bad thing for the County Council divisions to have different boundaries from the City Council wards – at the moment the two coincide, making things a lot easier for everyone. Some time ago, the Labour party put forward detailed proposals for how the boundaries in Cambridge should be redrawn. As I understand it, the bulk of Labour’s proposal was put together by former city councillor Ben Bradnack, and Ashley Walsh, leader of Labour’s group on the County Council and historian of the Cambridge Labour party. Here’s what Labour proposed for Romsey:

My apologies for the poor quality of this picture; this is the best I could find on the Boundary Commission’s website. Essentially, what Labour proposed is that Romsey’s northern and southern boundaries should both shift some way to the south, losing the area around Coldham’s Lane, and gaining an area to the south down as far as Cherry Hinton Road, which is currently part of Coleridge. The proposed new boundaries look rather like a shouty cartoon head; the pointy nose is the Burnside area at the end of Mill Road, and the mouth contains Langham Road and Perne Avenue, which would be in the neighbouring Cherry Hinton division. The rather jagged haircut follows the line of the traffic barriers which stop wider vehicles from travelling between Coldham’s Lane and Mill Road through Romsey Town. The area to the north of this line currently in Romsey would be shifted into Abbey.

The Boundary Commission adopted Labour’s proposal for Romsey almost unchanged in their draft recommendations:

The main difference from Labour’s proposal is that the upper lip of the head moves west a bit, to shift some houses on Perne Road into the Cherry Hinton division, but this affects only a small number of voters – the Boundary Commission’s plans are otherwise identical to Labour’s.

Last time similar boundary changes were proposed in Romsey, there was considerable local opposition, and the Lib Dems have sought to make the most of the issue in the by-election campaign. Here is the front page of their newspaper distributed last weekend:

It features candidate Nichola Martin and Lib Dem campaigner Donald Adey in fine “glum councillors” form, standing by the Romsey Town & District Allotment Society sign, which under Labour’s proposals would no longer be in Romsey.

Despite the proposals being put forward by the Labour group, an article appeared on the Romsey Labour website saying that Labour councillors, and their by-election candidate Zoe Moghadas, were “fighting to maintain the boundaries of Romsey as an independent and discrete ward in the City”. As already discussed, after I posted a comment pointing out that the proposals originated from Labour, the article disappeared from the Romsey Labour site, though (at time of writing at least) it has reappeared again, complete with my comment.

The latest development in the story came yesterday, with the publication of this document on the City Council’s website, which contains Lib Dem amendments to the Boundary Commission’s proposals. This provoked a flurry of outraged tweets from Labour activists, swiftly retweeted by their comrades:

The Lib Dem amendments will be discussed at the City Council’s Civic Affairs committee meeting at 5pm on Friday – the day after polling day in Romsey. It should be an exciting meeting. But what exactly are the Lib Dems proposing for Romsey? And does it really justify Labour’s charge of hypocrisy? Unfortunately, the Lib Dem document doesn’t include a map, but I have done my best to make one, based on its description of the boundaries. Here it is:

The Lib Dem amendment would leave the western edge of Romsey at the railway line, where it is now; the eastern edge, where it borders Cherry Hinton, would stay where the Boundary Commission proposes. The northern border would move back north to where it is now – with one exception, which I will come back to. The southern boundary would also shift northwards, though not all the way back to where it is now; part of the extra area of Coleridge would be retained.

So what is the basis of Labour’s charge of hypocrisy? Doesn’t the Lib Dem amendment retain all of the current Romsey ward, adding a little bit of Coleridge too? Well, not quite. Look back at the first map up above, and on the eastern (right-hand) edge, you’ll see one area that the Lib Dem amendment doesn’t restore. Here’s a closer look:

This little peninsula of Romsey consists of Nuttings Road and Uphall Road (which is the straight bit at the north end of Nuttings Road, not marked on the map). It’s on the left just after the railway bridge as you head out of town past Sainsbury’s on Coldham’s Lane. It currently contains 85 voters, though according to the Boundary Commission’s demographic projections, by 2020 it may have as many as 88. Labour’s boundary changes, adopted by the Boundary Commission, move these voters, plus 1,576 other north Romsey voters, out of Romsey and into Abbey. The Lib Dem amendment moves the 1,576 other voters back into Romsey, but not these 85. And that, as far as I can see, forms the entire basis for Labour’s charge of hypocrisy.

I’ll leave you to decide for yourself whether you think that’s reasonable or not.

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Romsey ward boundaries

With a week to go until polling day in the Romsey County Council by-election, the campaign is in full swing, with leaflets once again plopping onto doormats, and party workers exercising their knuckles across the area. As I’ve recently rejoined the Lib Dems, I have also been out on the doorsteps, trying to encourage Romsey voters to support Nichola Martin – which you might want to bear in mind while reading the rest of this article. While Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Greens have all been running active campaigns, my impression is that the seat is likely to be a close-run thing between Labour and the Lib Dems – but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

One issue that has been featuring in Lib Dem literature in Romsey, particularly in the northern part of the seat, is proposed boundary changes. Plans are afoot to “redistrict” Cambridge, reducing the city from 14 to 12 County Councillors, and moving a lot of the seat boundaries around. In Romsey, the proposals would move a lot of local residents out of the seat, instead placing them in Abbey (which would be renamed as Barnwell). A couple of weeks ago, an article appeared on the Romsey Labour website about this issue. Here’s what it said:

Defend our Ward Boundaries against changes

Councillors Anna Smith and Dave Baigent supported by Zoe Moghadas are fighting to maintain the boundaries of Romsey as an independent and discrete ward in the City.

The Boundary Commission have now issued proposals that intend to increase the size of wards to 8000 and reduce the amount of county councillors.

This proposal if enacted will probably lead to a reduction in City Councillors along similar lines.

The article was illustrated by a charming photo of the Romsey Labour team holding up “I ♡ Mill Road” stickers. I posted a comment on the article which read as follows:

It was the Labour Group’s submission to the Boundary Commission that originally proposed removing the northern part of Romsey from the ward. The Commission’s proposals for Romsey are almost identical to the boundaries that the Labour Group suggested.

Here is the Labour Group’s submission (starting on page 5): http://www.lgbce.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/24508/PoliticalGroups-Combined-and-Linked-Cambridgeshire-2015-02-03.pdf

Here’s what it says about Romsey: “Romsey Division incorporates all the existing division minus those parts of northern Romsey absorbed into the new Barnwell Division, following the line of the existing traffic barriers. It is bounded by the railway in the west until that meets Hills Road at which point it is clearly then bounded in the south by Cherry Hinton Road, of which it retains only the north side. To the east it is bounded by, but does not include, Perne Road, Perne Avenue, and Gisborne Road. It does include Brooks Road and Brookside. The name Romsey is chosen in recognition of the historic consideration that Coleridge Division was originally created out of Romsey. Unlike the present Petersfield Division, Mill Road east of the railway serves as a community unifier. Residents in the existing Romsey and Coleridge divisions identify themselves as residents east of the railway and locate Mill Road as the central spine of their community. In particular, Mill Road serves as a key transport routé for Coleridge residents who access the road via Coleridge Road.”

Sadly, this article now seems to have mysteriously disappeared from the Romsey Labour website. It used to be here, and as I write you can still see it in Google’s cache here. I hope the Labour group have resolved any internal differences on this issue amicably.

Update (23 June): Romsey Labour have now un-deleted the article, which you can read here (with my comment intact). Meanwhile, Labour have accused the Lib Dems of hypocrisy after the Lib Dems produced some proposed adjustments to the Boundary Commission plans. I’m hoping to find time to do a longer blog post about this today or tomorrow – polling day in Romsey is on Thursday.

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Questions about Regus Kora

A number of people have been asking questions about Regus Kora, the company that has been working with Cambridgeshire County Council on the proposed Cambridge Library Enterprise Centre. After doing some further research, I have some questions too.

My questions concern Roger Perrin, who is described on this LinkedIn page as “Global Managing Director Regus Kora”. Although names of Kora staff have been redacted from the minutes of the meetings between Kora and Cambridgeshire County Council, it seems very likely that Mr Perrin is the “RP” referred to throughout the minutes. Here’s a sample extract, from the meeting of 16 September 2014:

From his LinkedIn page, we can see that Mr Perrin has been involved with a number of different companies during his career. Indeed, he has previous experience of similar projects – here is an article from the Cambridge News in 2009 in which he’s launching an “enterprise hub” called Start Cambridge. I didn’t remember hearing about this before, and it no longer seems to be operating, so I did a little research to see what had happened to it. During the course of this research, I turned up a number of interesting facts.

Firstly, there’s Start Operations Limited, of which Mr Perrin was a director. I say was, because as you can see from the company’s filing history at Companies House, the company was dissolved last year following a liquidation. From the Statement of affairs document filed on 9 February 2009, it seems that it owed its creditors around £1.5 million when it ceased trading.

Secondly, if you go to the Companies House Disqualified Directors Register and enter Mr Perrin’s name, it turns up this record (I’ve redacted Mr Perrin’s address and date of birth):

So it seems from this record that Mr Perrin is just over half way through an eight-year period of being disqualified from acting as a company director. If you click on the reason code, it explains that this is because of section 7 of the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986. The explanatory notes say:

Sections 6 – 8: Disqualification for unfitness to act as company director –
6: Duty of court to disqualify unfit directors of insolvent companies.
7: The Secretary of State may accept a disqualification order where the conditions in section 6(1) are met and it appears to him to be expedient to do so in the public interest.
8: Disqualification after investigation of company, under companies and other legislation.

Company number 03215974, mentioned in the record, is (or rather was) Start Architecture Ltd, which was “dissolved via compulsory strike-off” last year – its filing history is here.

Naturally, this raises a number of questions about the Cambridge Library Enterprise Centre project:

  • Did Council officers know about Mr Perrin’s history when they decided to work with Kora on the CLEC project?
  • If did know, why didn’t they tell the councillors who were deciding whether the project should go ahead with Kora as a partner?
  • If they didn’t know, why not? The information is all on the public record – due diligence should have turned it up.

Cambridge people need to know the answers.

Update: The Cambridge News has an article about this here. As it says, the County Council has issued a statement:

“The highways and community infrastructure committee agreed in principle on Tuesday to approve the proposals for an enterprise centre. No signing of any contracts has yet taken place.

“In light of information that has come to our attention the council’s executive director for economy, transport and environment has following consultation with the committee chairman suspended further work on the project, pending consideration by the committee.”

Second update: I want to make it very clear that I am in no way suggesting that Mr Perrin has done anything illegal. My point is that councillors should have been aware of his background when making decisions about the project.

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Race against time for Cambridge Central Library

Following Tuesday’s meeting of its Highways and Community Infrastructure Committee, Cambridgeshire County Council yesterday (Thursday 4th June) published its Decision Statement – the full document is here, but the key decision about the Cambridge Library Enterprise Centre (CLEC), which councillors on the committee approved by just 7 votes to 6, is this:

clecdec

Publication of the Decision Statement started the clock ticking on the last chance for opponents of the scheme to stop it going ahead. Unless 24 members of the Council ask for the decision to be reviewed, it will come into force just three working days after the publication date, i.e. on Tuesday 9th June. As I understand it, the final deadline is at the end of the working day on Tuesday.

Efforts are currently underway to assemble the necessary number of signatures. But will there be enough to get the decision called in? Here is the current political make-up of the County Council:

cccmakeup201506

The Conservatives are by far the largest party on the Council. Indeed, following yesterday’s emphatic victory in the Wisbech South by-election, they now need to gain just two more seats for an overall majority. Labour and the Lib Dems have both campaigned against the Enterprise Centre, but their combined strength is just 20, four short of the necessary total. The Conservatives have been consistently in favour of the CLEC scheme, though it’s not impossible that there might be one or two prepared to ask for it to be called in. Two of the three UKIP councillors on the committee voted against the scheme on Tuesday, so there may be some UKIP signatures too. Amongst the four Independents, Mike Mason voted against on Tuesday, and group leader John Hipkin said the scheme’s opponents had made a “powerful case”, though added that he would have abstained had he been on the committee. Overall, however, it’s far from certain that the necessary total of 24 signatures can be reached in time.

If the scheme’s opponents do manage to assemble the required signatures, the decision will be reviewed at the next Full Council meeting, which is scheduled to take place on 21 July. Even then, the scheme may well still go ahead – it would then depend on a vote of the whole Council. By that time the Romsey by-election will have taken place, almost certainly boosting the ranks of either Labour or the Lib Dems by one, but it would still take almost all the non-Conservative councillors combined to defeat the large Conservative group.

Who knew libraries could be so exciting?

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Risks to the Cambridge Library Enterprise Centre project

[See below for an update]

At yesterday’s meeting of Cambridgeshire County Council’s Highways and Community Infrastructure Committee, one of the issues councillors had to decide was whether to proceed with the proposed Enterprise Centre at Cambridge Central Library. This controversial project proposes to close a large part of the third floor of the library to the public, and effectively rent it out to a private company, Kora, who would charge users a fee to access it.

There are thirteen members of the committee, whose makeup reflects the political balance of the council: six Conservatives, three UKIP, two Lib Dems, and one Labour and one Independent councillor.

In the event, the vote came down to the wire, as the project was approved by just seven votes to six. All six Conservatives voted in favour of the project; the four Lib Dem, Labour and Independent councillors, who all represent districts in or near Cambridge, voted against. That left the three UKIP councillors, who split two-to-one against the project. However, that single UKIP vote in favour, from Ramsey councillor Peter Reeve, was enough to see the project go through.

It’s notable that all the councillors on the committee who represent districts in or near Cambridge voted against the project, whereas those in favour were all from parts of Cambridgeshire more distant from the library. Here’s a map showing the places that the councillors on the committee represent. Instead of colouring by political party here, I’ve used green for councillors voting in favour, and red for those against:

If Peter Reeve’s Ramsey constituents wanted to visit Cambridge Central Library, Google Maps tells us that they would face a round trip by car of at least 90 minutes – and that’s when both the A14 and the traffic in Cambridge are in a good mood. Public transport would take about twice as long. It seems bizarre that the fate of Cambridge Central Library is being decided by the vote of a councillor whose district is so far away from it, and whose constituents, as well as having a library in their own town, can get to Peterborough Central Library much more quickly.

Thanks to Freedom of Information (FoI) law, we know a good deal about the Enterprise Centre project. An FoI request from Paul Lythgoe produced a response including redacted minutes of 37 meetings between Kora and Council officers dating back to December 2013 – though it seems that the initial approach from Kora was in January of that year. One of the many interesting facts revealed by the minutes is that Cambridge Central Library is the fourth-busiest public library in the country, receiving 850,000 visits per year – pretty impressive given that Cambridge is only the 49th-largest UK city. Another interesting fact is the existence of a “Risk Log” for the Enterprise Centre project. I have asked for a copy of this to be released under FoI, so we may find out more about it. But one Risk Log entry that the minutes did mention was about the committee meeting itself. The minutes commented that “The risk is around delay to the meeting date. There is not a high chance of the proposals being turned down at the Committee meeting.” I expect those involved felt rather differently by the time of yesterday’s vote.

We’ll have to wait and see what, if anything is revealed about the other risks to the project covered by the Risk Log. But there is one particular risk that I would like to know more about, and I wonder whether it has been fully considered – the question of state aid. The EU rules on state aid are designed to prevent governments using taxpayer-funded resources to give particular organisations an unfair advantage over others. In general, state aid is not allowed. The rules are quite complex, but it is interesting to consider whether they might apply in this case – after all, here we have a taxpayer-funded resource, Cambridge Central Library, being used to provide a valuable commercial opportunity to one particular private company. Fortunately, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) has published a handy document outlining how to decide whether something qualifies as state aid or not. Let’s have a look at what it says (page 4):

  1. Is the assistance granted by the state or through state resources? In the UK, this means national or local government. So, clearly, yes.
  2. Does the assistance give an advantage to one or more undertakings over others? It’s clear that Kora comes within the definition of an “undertaking” – it’s a private company, providing services to paying customers. The definition of an “advantage” is crucial here – the document says it’s “…not just a grant, loan or tax break, but also use of a state asset for free or at less than market price.” Let’s come back to this in a minute.
  3. Does the assistance distort or have the potential to distort competition? This isn’t a very high hurdle – the document says “If the assistance strengthens the recipient relative to its competitors then the answer is likely to be yes”. Certainly, having the use of the top floor of the Central Library will indeed strengthen Kora relative to its competitors.
  4. Does the assistance affect trade between EU Member States? Kora is part of an international network of Regus “business lounges” which allow members from many countries to access their facilities. So they are certainly providing services to other EU member states.

So it looks like the question of whether this is state aid or not boils down to whether the arrangement involves “use of a state asset…at less than market price”. So just what is the market price for the top floor of Cambridge Central Library? It seems to me that we don’t know the answer to this question, because instead of offering the facility on the open market, the County Council has been working in secret for many months with a single company on an exclusive basis. Have they really got the best possible price for this valuable taxpayer-funded asset? If they can’t show that they have, how can they be sure that this isn’t state aid?

I am not an expert in EU law, and there may be some glaringly obvious reason why this project does not qualify as state aid. But I would be very interested to know what it is. I am sure those involved will want to be careful that they are not contravening the rules. As the BIS document says: “A scheme that does not follow the rules could be forced to close, even after it is launched. Giving state aid illegally could result in the money having to be clawed back with possibly very serious consequences for the recipient.” I think that’s definitely one for the Risk Log.

Update (4 June): One reason why this may not count as state aid, it seems, is the “de minimis” rule, which specifies a minimum threshold. According to the Government website, the limit is €200,000 over a three year period, which at current exchange rates would amount to around £49,000 per year. If the benefit to Kora amounted to less than this, then it would not count as state aid. Without knowing more about the financial arrangements between the Council and Kora, it’s hard to say whether this limit might apply. Also it’s not clear (to me at least) whether any similar arrangements entered into by Kora with other councils would also count towards this limit. But we can at least estimate what the rental value of the top floor of the library would be, by looking at its rateable value. According to the City Council’s website, rateable value is “an assessment of the annual rent the property would demand if it was available to let on the open market at a fixed valuation date.” Currently, the valuation date is April 2008. Thanks to another Freedom of Information request, (number 2321 of 2013) we know that the library’s business rate valuation is £510,000. Assuming the third floor is worth about a third of this, that would suggest an annual rent of £170,000 – though that is based on 2008 prices, and I imagine commercial rents in Cambridge have gone up a bit since then. On the other hand, Kora is only planning to occupy some of the top floor. Still, on the face of it, it still seems likely that the question of state aid needs to be considered.

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