Cambridgeshire County Council has launched a review of its processes following the collapse of the Cambridge Library Enterprise Centre project earlier this year. Here’s my contribution:
Dear Cllr Shellens,
I am the blogger who published the article on Friday 5 June that revealed Mr Perrin’s disqualification from being a director. I subsequently spoke at the Highways and Community Infrastructure meeting on 26 June. I thought I would send you some notes about the sequence of events that led to the publication of my article, and some comments on the process. I am happy for this contribution to be published online.
As you know, on Tuesday 2nd June the H&CI committee voted by 7 votes to 6 to proceed with the Kora project. This was immediately followed by an effort to gather the 24 signatures required to call in the decision to Full Council, with a deadline of 5pm on the following Tuesday, 9th June. At the time it was uncertain whether the necessary number of signatures would be reached, and indeed only 26 signatures were gathered by the deadline, though the call-in was rendered moot by subsequent events. With this background, then, I spent some time on the evening of Thursday 4th June researching the Kora project. I was partly motivated by wanting to help the call-in signature-gathering effort, and partly by wanting to have something interesting to write about on my blog.
My starting point was the details of the 37 meetings between County Council officers and Kora that had been revealed a few days earlier in response to Paul Lythgoe’s Freedom of Information request (FOI 5101). Although the minutes redacted the names of the Kora staff involved, it only took a couple of Google searches to find out that the “RP” who appeared frequently in the minutes was Roger Perrin, listed as “Global Managing Director Regus Kora” on this LinkedIn web page: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/roger-perrin/4b/20a/479
The same web page gave Mr Perrin’s previous career history, including a nine-year period with Start Developments. Further searches soon turned up an article (http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/New-virtual-services-hub-starts-Cambridge/story-22507594-detail/story.html) from the Cambridge News in 2009. This described an “enterprise hub” called Start Cambridge being launched by Mr Perrin, which seemed to have similarities to the proposed Kora project. A natural next question was what had happened to it, since it no longer seemed to be in operation.
At this point I turned to the Companies House website, to see what I could find out. I was also looking for any connection between any of Mr Perrin’s companies and anyone at the Council, which might help to explain why the Council had worked so exclusively with this one organisation. I didn’t find any evidence of any improper relationship of that sort, but I did find plenty of other things.
Companies House is currently going through the process of making company data freely available. On its existing site, there is a charge of £1 for downloading documents. While this is of course not prohibitive, it does make it more difficult to do wide-ranging search and analysis when you have to pay a pound to access each search result. Fortunately, there is already a beta version of the new site (https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/) with lots of company information freely available. Using this, I found out a lot more about Mr Perrin’s past record as a company director, which is a complex one. In summary, Mr Perrin has been a director of a number of companies with “Start” in their names, some of which had been liquidated owing significant amounts of money to creditors. For example, here is a “Statement of Affairs” document listing the creditors of Start Operations Limited: http://bit.ly/1FwyqwB
At this point I thought I had enough material for a blog article, saying that Kora’s director’s previous enterprise hub project had gone bust, which was clearly of relevance to the proposed CLEC project. However, to have maximum impact on the call-in process before the Tuesday deadline, I thought it would be a good idea to get wider coverage, so I contacted Jon Vale of the Cambridge News by email. This was at about 7pm on Thursday 4th June – Jon was covering a South Cambs District Council meeting at the time. Shortly afterwards, I thought to enter Mr Perrin’s name in the Companies House Disqualified Directors search, and found that he had been disqualified for a period of 8 years starting in 2011. I sent Jon a further email with this. There was then a good deal of back-and-forth over the next day as the News reviewed the basis for the story and decided whether or not to run it, and sought comments from the Council and Kora. I sent Jon a draft version of my article, and reviewed his story before we both published simultaneously at 7pm on Friday 5th June.
That’s basically a summary of my involvement in the sequence of events up to the publication of my article. Now for a couple of comments.
Firstly, the investigation I did really wasn’t very difficult or complicated. I went from the FOI 5101 minutes to Mr Perrin, from Mr Perrin to Start Cambridge, and from Start Cambridge to Companies House to find out what had happened to it. Council officers have stated that their standard due diligence process covered Regus Kora but not its representatives. They must have known that the CLEC project would be controversial and would attract public scrutiny. They should have prepared for that by doing at least some of the sort of scrutiny that members of the Cambridgeshire public would inevitably do. The information that killed the project was openly available with just a few basic web searches. The Council has to do a better job of preparing its projects for public scrutiny. Doing so can only improve them.
Secondly, freedom of information has been a key ingredient of this whole story. Paul Lythgoe’s FOI request gave me the starting point for my investigation, and the Companies House open data was vital in reaching its conclusion. In contrast, the Council kept the CLEC project away from the public gaze for more than two years, with 37 meetings taking place with Kora without even Cambridge councillors, let alone the wider public, knowing anything about them. Then when the project was exposed to public view, it rapidly collapsed, primarily thanks to the use of open data. As officers noted, legally there was no impediment to proceeding with the project; but as councillors of all parties wisely recognised, politically it had become untenable. This does not mean that the Council should fear open data, because it has killed this project. Rather, the Council should embrace it, because it makes projects strong enough to survive public scrutiny, and helps to win vital public trust. While there will always be a need for some information to be confidential, the secrecy in which most of the CLEC project was conducted meant that a great deal of effort was needlessly wasted.
Finally, I’d like to convey my best wishes to you and your committee for the difficult job you have to do in conducting this review. I hope your conclusions will help the Council improve the way it meets the many challenges it faces.