Substantial issues which need urgent attention revealed by investigation into Seaford Town Council

The sign welcoming residents to Seaford.
The sign welcoming residents to Seaford.

An independent investigation into Seaford Town Council revealed ‘substantial issues’ which required urgent attention.

The report compiled by ex chief executive of Wealden District Council Sheelagh Douglas, who works for the independent body B3sixty was commissioned by the town council in response to criticisms levelled at the town council by Seaford MP Norman Baker.

Seaford Museum.

Seaford Museum.

Costing thousands of pounds, the investigation also acknowledged there were either at least elements of the truth or fact in most of the points raised by the MP.

However there were also understandable reasons or circumstances behind some of the apparent failings which needed to be taken into account.

The report said in some cases the allegations were purely the result of misunderstandings about how things worked.

It was released at a meeting of Seaford Town Council last night (Thursday April 10) at Seaford Baptist Church in Belgrave Road where councillors were given the chance to discuss it and members of the public could ask questions.

In a press release issued by the town council following the meeting, it said the report concluded that while some changes were needed, on the whole the town council was doing a good job with the limited resources it had.

Ms Douglas said the council needed to improve the way it communicated with the public, pointing out the high turnover of staff, who had different filing systems, meant correspondence was mislaid or forgotten about.

She also said the council had a system where all correspondence had to be seen by the town clerk when it went in or out, creating a log jam effect.

The report highlighted delays in dealing with renewing Seaford Museum’s lease when it was trying to secure significant funding to build a bridge and install a lift.

In her report Ms Douglas said: “It is clear that the museum trust have acted perfectly correctly throughout this episode.

“It is equally clear that the town council processes have been less than efficient, that the turnover of staff has caused significant problems and that the management has failed.

“There is no doubt that the museum trust deserve an unequivocal apology for the way in which the issue of their lease has been dealt with.”

In the town council’s press release, it said the report concluded: “Town councils do not have the same power or resources of other local councils and so to expect a council with only six and a half office staff to operate in the same way and at the same level is unreasonable and to criticise them for not doing things which they are not allowed to do, by law, is unfair.”

The town council admitted while the report did recommend some changes that would improve the working of the town council such as; improving communications with local community groups and including the community more in the decision making process, it also recognised that this was not a new problem and that the “situation looked little different to that which pertained when the Liberal democrats held control of the council pre 2011.”

One of the points raised by the MP was that the delegation of an extraordinary amount of decision-making to the town clerk to an extent which he called “unwise and undemocratic”.”

But Ms Douglas said the amount of delegation to the town clerk was not excessive and conformed with efficient operation of the council.

Her report added that misunderstanding of the role and powers of individual councillors, however, had lead to inappropriate delegations being established by the council.

Another criticism by the MP in his ten points raised was a proposal for a council tax increase of almost 10 per cent for the next financial year starting in April.

But Ms Douglas said although a comparatively high precept increase (in fact 8 per cent), the political process behind setting it and the budget process which lead to it were perfectly permissible under current legislation.

She did recommend that budget reports should include a clear explanation of where the money was being spent in narrative form which was easy for people to understand.

The MP also cited the introduction of a new Standing Order that gagged councillors, even telling them they could not use the title “councillor” when they wrote to the local paper, without first securing the town clerk`s permission.” Ms Douglas said this allegation was incorrect.

Mr Baker also raised the point: “The abandonment of the council meeting last week because a member of public, perfectly legally, wanted to film the meeting, despite the fact that Communities Secretary Eric Pickles is taking through Parliament new laws explicitly to give the public such rights.”

But Ms Douglas said the filming of meetings of the council was excluded in accordance with Standing Orders and common practice.

She added proposed changes in this respect were yet to come into force for local councils.

Ms Douglas’ report also told the town council that the decision to build a new clubhouse at Seaford Head Golf Club was not something which had been rushed over and that it was a major project for a town council to undertake, at a cost of some £1.8m, when the council’s turnover was £1m.

In her report Ms Douglas, who is a qualified accountant, said: “It is likely that the ongoing costs will greatly restrict what else they will be able to do for quite a few years.

“In addition the budgets for 2014/2015 look fairly optimistic in light of the late start of the project and the effect on Golf Course income of the recent bad weather and the resistance to increased membership costs.”

She advised the council to carry out a risk assessment on the project to take account of possible difficulties and short falls.

Leader of the Conservative controlled town council Paul Franklin (Con) said: “This investigation has cost the tax payers of Seaford thousands of pounds to undertake and while it has revealed that the town council has done nothing wrong Mr Baker should have followed normal procedure if he had a complaint or concern rather than issuing them through press releases as a political stunt.

“I am very pleased the independent reviewer recognises the hard work we are doing and perhaps now Mr Baker will let us get on with serving the people of Seaford instead of using us as a political football.”

But Mr Baker added: “I called for this investigation to take place because it was becoming clear to me, through my own experiences and those of my constituents, that Seaford Town Council was dysfunctional.

“This independent report proves that my main concerns were justified and that there are serious shortcomings in the Tory management of this council.

“Since 2011 the Conservatives on the town council have had five resignations and another leave their party.

“This is not a sign of a group capable of running a town council and the people of Seaford deserve much better than this.

“I hope now at last the Tory group will take its head out of the sand, stop denying there is a problem, and act on all the recommendations of the independent examiner.

“The first thing the Tory council should do is to apologise to my constituents in Seaford for the appalling service and lamentable management that has been the hallmark of this administration.”