Lisa Nandy and the Strange Case of the Virile Viscount’s Potholed Drive …

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Is this, I wonder, a case of keeping your friends close and your enemies even closer?

Lisa Nandy is a once and future candidate for the leadership of the Labour Party.

Who am I?

I am a well trained, thank you SQW, and experienced Treasury Green Book standard project appraiser.

I was not impressed by Nandy’s or, I suspect, her SpaAd’s foray into socio-economic regeneration project appraisal between Christmas and New Year 2021.

One should be wary of riffing off an article in the Daily Mail and a consequent Twitter pile on …

… by the upper middle class with nothing much to do.

Socio-economic regeneration, incidentally, is what the grown ups call levelling up. The socio bit is an attempt to remind folk it is about people, if not individuals, rather than mere business units.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities did not support etc, but approved a bid for funding made through the Getting Building Fund to the South East Local Enterprise Partnership that had gone through the LEP’s rigorous appraisals process.

The bid was the latest of three submitted to the LEP.

All three were successful.

The LEP clearly does not have the delegated authority to approve a bid exceeding £299,999.99.

The second paragraph of Nandy’s letter amounts to little more than padding and was clearly designed to play to the gallery. One assumes the letter was never meant to be private correspondence.

The second paragraph is not, therefore, worthy of comment.

The third paragraph is where Nandy or her SpAd dives head first into the shallow end.

That the estate is a beneficiary of the project is beyond dispute.

There was no need to write to Michael Gove about the details of the project as had Nandy’s SpAd bothered to look on the SELEP website they would have found all the detail on the website. And spent three hours or so reading through it as I did. Admittedly, I am trained to tease out the details of such projects and looked up other information elsewhere on the Internet to put the project into some wider local context.

Apart from anything else, the funding for this project will come out of the SELEP’s allocated funds and is in line with SELEP’s own plans.

The meeting of a sub group of the SELEP Board, the Accountability Board, that approved the project for submission to DLUHC was chaired by SELEP’s deputy chair and there were Conservative Councillors in attendance as SELEP Board members. Hardly unsurprising given all of the highest tier of the local authorities in the SELEP area are Conservative controlled.

The chair, Christian Brodie and Sarah Dance, deputy chair of SELEP are not Conservative Councillors. A cursory online search revealed no record of any party affiliation, but a lot of information about two successful, experienced and clearly well regarded business people. The sort of folk with whom Rachel Reeves and Sir Keir Starmer QC claim they want to build partnerships.

How in God’s name does Nandy think a system may be devised to stop people from being lobbied? I, a junior civil servant was more than once subject to some discreet and not so discreet lobbying. Surely anyone in public life, including a Member of Parliament is subject to approaches from folk, especially constituents to put in a good word; help a person catch the eye of someone or nudge something to the top of a pile?

Ultimately, one has to rely on people meeting the ethical standards of their organisation and having some sense of personal morals of their own that may set a higher standard for their behaviour, both personal, private and official.

Boris Johnson, as we know, is not such.

A Duty to Process

This may sound a bit pompous, but Nandy needs to get her head around the fact that appraisers, first and foremost, owe a duty to process, to see it is applied fairly, rigorously and thoroughly, without fear and favour in all cases.

Secondly, they owe a duty to the applicants, many of whom may be small organisations, quite often in the voluntary and community sector, who have put their heart into their applications. They deserve the appraiser’s best endeavours.

Thirdly, appraisers have a duty to their employers and political masters.

A cross cutting theme is a duty of appraisers to themselves, their sense of self respect and, let me be frank, a sense of their own self preservation and that includes not giving in to unwarranted pressure and lobbying.

Applicants do have a right of appeal against decisions with which they disagree, a right to know why they were turned down and by whom as well as an entitlement, legal if not moral, to feedback and advice for future bid writing.

I, when a civil servant and member of the Labour Party sat in meetings with Councillors of other parties, some of whom knew of my party allegiance. It would have been wrong of me to have suspected them of being venal, because of their party memberships and vice versa.

We did, I think, good business for our respective constituents. My role was partly to speak up for groups disadvantaged in the labour market. I well recall working with a Liberal Democrat Councillor on issues relating to the differently able and those with physical disabilities.

Real politics is built on consensuses, even if they be only temporary and/or one particular issue. It is how we get things done at a practical level in government.

The comment about taxpayer money being protected at all times is frankly beneath contempt with regard to this project.

Egregious means outstandingly bad, even shocking which again is inappropriate in the context of this funding application. An alternative now archaic meaning of egregious is remarkably good.

One does wonder if this project would be acceptable to Nandy if it were in Grim Oop North Land?

One would be very surprised if a future Labour Government committed to net zero, greater use of public transport and wider access to the countryside and culture for all would oppose the funding of such a project wherever it was located.

The Museum of Wigan Life

The Museum of Wigan Life in Wigan with its Labour run council and Labour Member of Parliament was the beneficiary of £1.6million of capital funding for its refurbishment in 2010, £500,000 of Heritage Lottery Fund money was matched by (Labour run) Wigan Council and Wigan Leisure and Culture Trust.

I make no comment about the appropriateness of such funding or its cultural significance outside of Wigan. I suspect the Museum of Wigan Life is not of international significance, but I would not necessarily begrudge it funding to improve, say, accessibility to the building.

I would point out to Nandy the dangers of joining the media in an ignorant attack on a project funded even if only partly by public or Lottery money.

There is nothing more than The Sun or the Daily Mail like to do than run an article demanding to know why a legally constituted lesbian collective of lone parents who have been subject to domestic abuse has received, say, Lottery funding when Fred and his mates, who meet up once every Wednesday in the back room of a pub to reminisce about their time on National Service have been refused monies by the Lottery to attend the D Day celebrations in Normandy.

The collective will have jumped through numerous hoops to get their money when, odds on, Fred would want the Lottery monies for his day trip paid into his personal bank account. Fred’s application would have been sifted out at the preliminary stage of assessing a round of bids.

You may, dear reader, wish to skip to the end as I now propose to turn in detail to the Charleston Trust.

Charlton Trust Applications in Detail

Charleston is an artists’ house and studio museum of international significance in the heart of the South Downs National Park in East Sussex and home to the renowned Charleston Festival.

The Charleston Trust has preserved what was for a few summers the rural retreat of the Bloomsbury Set.

The initial tranche of funding, although there is no suggestion in the documentation that this was a three phase project in funding terms from the outset, was for a loan of £120,000 from the SELEP South East Growing Places Fund to create a café-restaurant in the Threshing Barn on the farmhouse’s estate. This work was part of a wider £7.6m multi-year scheme, the Centenary Project, which aimed to transform the operations of the Charleston farmhouse museum.

When the application was submitted to SELEP, £4.5m had been raised from private contributions, with a further £2.7m from public sector bodies, including the Heritage Lottery Fund. The details of the project application may be found here and here.

The GPF was made available to SELEP for investment as a recyclable loan scheme. Loan repayment schedules for each project are agreed within the credit agreement which is put in place at the start of the project. Repayments against these projects are returned to the central pot for reallocation to new projects.

The loan was approved with a completion date of Autumn 2018.

I have a penchant for schemes recycling funding that may not be snatched back at the end of the financial year.

The second and third applications that were made to the Getting Building Fund are fully linked, in retrospect, although a cursory examination suggests that the awarding of the first sum of money did not guarantee that the second amount of monies would be forthcoming as a result. I would not, however, rule out it being a major factor in the decision making around the second application for funds.

Some details of the second of the three applications:

“Charleston is currently accessed via a farm track off the A27 east of Firle in East Sussex. Whilst improvements have been made to the access off the A27 in recent years with the introduction of a ghost island right hand turn lane, the access track is collapsing and riddled with potholes and large cracks.

Visitors frequently face punctures or drive into the ditch trying to navigate access. There is significant visitor feedback to indicate that visitors are discouraged from repeat visits due to the poor quality of access.

As a result of the poor single carriageway track, we are limited in our ability to grow the events and festivals programme which our new buildings were developed to encourage. The project comprises the resurfacing, widening and provision of additional drainage to the farm track and will improve and increase access to the site to allow for the increased visitor numbers and to encourage repeat visits. This investment will secure the long-term maintenance and viability of the asset. The lack of access is currently an obstacle to growth.

We are also seeking additional project funding (outside the scope of this business case) to
enable the creation of a new cycle route into the South Downs National Park. The landowner, Firle Estate, would reclassify the route accordingly. A new public cycle route into the South Downs National Park would connect to the proposed Highways England A27 East of Lewes shared use path connecting Lewes with Eastbourne. This off-road route alongside the A27 will be completed by 2022 and will enable cyclists and pedestrians to safely access to Charleston and the South Downs National Park from Lewes, Polegate, Eastbourne and the East Coastway railway stations in between.

Cyclists will be able to make use of the free visitor facilities and bicycle repair facilities at Charleston which have been funded by the South Downs National Park, as well as Charleston’s garden which is now free for all to visit as a place of wellbeing and creativity.”

As one will note, we are talking about not just improving the access to the Charleston Trust property and enhancing its opportunities to raise additional revenue, but also helping to maximise the return on investments made by another public body in the immediate area. The funding was, therefore, a partnership bid to the SELEP by The Charleston Trust, The Firle Estate, South Downs National Park and East Sussex County Council with the Trust as the lead partner. The estimated value of project management support provided, in kind, by the Firle Estate was £10,000.

The £89,000 sought and subsequently awarded was to repair the surface of the access road and allow improvement works to drainage. The repairs were as far as the entrance off the access road to the Trust property. No money was sought for work on the road beyond that point to a farm on the Firle Estate and just past that, Tilton House.

If anyone seems on the surface to be getting a cost free benefit from the road improvement then it would seem to be Tilton House, but any division of the cost for improving the roadway after the entrance to the Chartleton Trust is a private matter between the Firle Estate and the owners of Tilton House.

The project summary of the third and final application:

“To widen and resurface and improve drainage to the access track to Charleston from its junction with the A27 east of Firle. Charleston is an artists’ house and studio museum of international significance in the heart of the South Downs National Park in East Sussex and home to the renowned Charleston Festival.

Poor drainage has led to erosion of the subsurface of the existing road which has led to a broken surface with cracks and large potholes. The road is now in a very poor state. Our Access Consultant, Jayne Earnscliffe, made the following comment in a recent audit of the site:

‘The road is in a dire state of repair and is no longer fit for purpose for safe or comfortable use by drivers, cyclists or pedestrians. Areas of the road have subsided and the going is treacherous in places’.

Our business plan focuses on growing audience numbers and encouraging return visits to our programme of events and exhibitions; however, the poor condition of the access track is actively discouraging repeat visits and is a barrier to growth.”

The sum sought and subsequently awarded was £240,542 and built upon the previous £89,293 and, given the nature of both applications, they added value to the first £120,000 granted in the form of a soft loan.

There is a logical progression in terms of loan and grant funding.

I would not be an appraiser, if I did not have some minor quibbles.

The third application sought £240,542, citing the previous £89,293 GBF grant as matched funding. I would be inclined not to count the figure as match, preferring to see a valuation of the road as at 4th June 2021 providing the match figure. The second project enhanced the value of an existing capital asset and the road arguably counts as part of the Firle Estate’s contributions in kind to the project.

The Firle Estate’s contribution in kind for this application seems to be the same £10,000 of estimated management support as submitted previously. I would have expected a separate figure, given the additional money was not guaranteed as a result of the agreement of the £89,293.

Appraisers do not necessarily have to be negative about a project, especially if there is a sense it is being undersold.

Now to the wider perspective for a moment.

Claimant count unemployment in the Lewes area currently stands at:

Youth unemployment is relatively high. The road improvement should safeguard, if not create new permanent jobs as well as see more seasonal work available during the summer months.

Improved public transport access is proposed and this may well make getting to the location easier for those without access to private means of transport:

“Improvements to the road will also allow a regular bus service to Charleston to encourage green travel and we are in discussions with Cuckmere Travel about introducing a regular service to Charleston later this summer when the works are complete.”

In summary, the pothole project over which many got so het up was the third tranche of three phases of funding to develop the potential of the summer retreat of the Bloomsbury Set to encourage high value tourism, extend length of stay and increase spend, creating jobs in the process.

SELEP is looking to address with projects like the Charleston Trust an issue with which we are familiar here in the West Midlands, namely making the best use of a cultural asset, in their case, the Bloomsbury Set’s summer home, and here Stratford upon Avon.

How do you maximise the spending and/or stay of affluent cultured vultures in your locale?

Due Diligence and a Lack of Consistency

To forestall any comments here, on Twitter or Facebook, I would observe that any Minister or would be Minister who does not approach a report in the media about such a project as this one with some degree of scepticism is politically immature and clearly has time on their hands.

Any Minister or civil servant who signs a letter to be put in the public domain without undertaking some degree of due diligence is no better than Boris Johnson.

And on any other day of the week, Nandy and Labour are forever talking about the need for responsibility, power and funds to be devolved from central to local government organisations.

But clearly, there is some devolution we like and some we do not.

Sir Keir Starmer QC has made it clear he does not trust the local and regional officers of the Labour Party to organise the selections of Parliamentary candidates. In future, constituencies will only get to pick the candidates for their seats from shortlists drawn up by Labour Party headquarters in London.

Devolving functions and power over funds and the responsibility for them requires an acceptance of diminution of power and responsibility at the centre.

I wonder if Gove passed Nandy’s letter on to the SELEP Secretariat for a substantive reply.

I know I would have done in his place.

Twice recently in a list of places Nandy says are ripe for levelling up, she has included nowhere below a line between Wigan and Grimsby, but has included Aberdeen which the last time I looked was still in Scotland.

Gove too hankers to extend his brief beyond England and is using the United Kingdom Shared Prosperity Fund as a means to sideline the devolved administrations.

Do we see an area of common ground developing between Nandy and Gove?

Nandy has a novel take on localism, seemingly chatting with some old fogies in a café in Leigh, Lancashire, and then drawing up socio-regeneration plans for places like Yorkshire.

Gove with his eye on Number Ten, in contrast, communes with the thoughts of prominent Italians of 15th Century Italy.

Were I coaching Nandy in this line of work and using her letter as part of a performance review, I would have been desperately seeking two positives for every negative in preparation for it.

I once told off a Grade 6 civil servant for using contractions in official correspondence as the chatty style might be taken as disrespectful.

Nandy might like to consider that the community of socio-economic practioners is broadly based and many of those working within it, like Christian Brodie and Sarah Dance are doing so alongside their day jobs, they are committed to their communities and not just vote grubbing politicians passing through on the way to better things, like the leaderships of their respective parties.

Empathy is something a little absent amongst many on the Front Benches of both the Government and the Official Opposition.

A legal take and comments on the access road

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