The Bickerstaffe Record

Cotterill on the Council, Leisure and culture

A bit of self-defence

02.19.10 | Comment?

I was asked by a local journalist whether I wanted to defend myself  from a really quite personal attack on my character by the Chairman of West Lancashire Community Leisure Trust, in the light of the story about theft from Burscough Leisure Centre, which the press had decided to cover in January (I don’t think I even did a press release – it was just picked up off from this blogpost).

That was a very nice offer from the journo.  I’ve got fairly thick skin, but even to me the attack (which I reprint in its entirety below) seemed to be going a bit far, and as I set out in my response, it was not really appropriate for the Chair of a supposedly independent Trust to be making.

As it happens, the local journo decided to use just a few words of my full reply, and I think the Chairman came out smelling a bit more of roses than was really appropiate.

Heh ho, that kind of thing happens.  But as I wrote something quite a lot fuller, including a polite enough commentary on the damage I thought the Chairman might be doing to his own cause, I thought I might as well set it out here for anyone interested.

My reply to the letter from the Chairman, to whom on this occasion I don’t afford the usual anonymity, as he did not seek it in his letter:

I have to say I was a little surprised at Mr Bullock’s intemperate and baseless attack, and do feel I need to make a few points in response.

First, I think Advertiser readers might be a little confused at when the incident or incidents reported on actually took place.  Mr Bullock now appears to be suggesting that the matter at hand is some fifteen months old.  This seems to at odds with the report in the Advertiser of 20 January in which it is stated that ‘Officers have confirmed to the Advertiser money disappeared during a number of thefts which were reported to the police in February 2008.’  This lack of clarity does suggest there are still some unanswered questions about governance issues, and that the Advertiser was jutified in publishing the story in the public interest.

Mr Bullock appears keen to suggest that I have attacked Serco’s staff and the Leisure Trust’s trustees over this affair.  This is simply not the case. 

My original post stated quite clearly that:

‘I feel sorry for the local Serco staff, many of whom are ex-council staff,  and for the trustees of West Lancashire Leisure Trust who are now having to ask and answer some pretty tough questions.’

I also suggested that the theft matter, in itself, should not be overplayed:

Now, we shouldn’t get carried away.  If it is confirmed as theft, then theft is theft; it happens, and it may not be Serco’s fault that it’s had a thief on the premises, either as an employee as a visitor.’

 This is actually very close in tone to Mr Bullock’s suggestion that ‘one bad apple’ should not damage the reputation of the staff as a whole, whom I know to be a dedicated group of people.

Accusing me, without any basis in fact, of disregarding the feelings of staff and trustees appears to be a convenient tactic for deflecting attention from the real governance issues at hand.  In this, it is redolent of the Conservative administration’s now usual approach when its management of the council is found wanting.  The most recent example of this was when the council’s performance rating was downgraded by the Audit Commission; rather  than address the serious management issues at hand, the leader of the council chose instead to attack me on the basis that I had disrespected council staff, despite there being absolutely no evidence of this.

The fact that the Chairman of the Leisure Trust chooses to use the same tactics is of concern.  Of even greater concern, though, is that he appears to be aligning himself fully to the Conservative administration dubious electoral strategy by suggesting that ‘section of the voting public’ might be ‘alienated’ by my actions.

The reason such closeness to the Conservative council is of concern is quite simple.   A key reason for the establishment of the Leisure Trust some five years ago was that it should gain charitable status, and thereby bring significant financial advantages to the provision of leisure services in the borough.  

Five years later, this status has not yet been attained, and so such financial benefits have been brought.  It is only through the efforts of Labour councillors that this delay has been formally raised as a concern, and the matter was finally reported on at Executive Overview and Scrutiny on 04 February.

The report notes that: ‘While some applications were rejected due to the structure and governance arrangements of the organization, the principal reason for rejection for applications from previously local authority operated facilities, was the ongoing influence of the local authority over the day-to-day operation and restrictions for development.’

My very real concern is that the Leisure Trust does not indeed currently have enough distance from the local authority, and that when the Charities Commission finally comes to assess any application from the Leisure Trust for charitable status, it will be found wanting on these grounds; for the chairman of the trust now to adopt both methods and objectives which are clearly in keeping with the current administration is not a good portent, and there really does need to be an urgent review of the overall relationship between the Trust, the council and Serco Ltd, to ensure that governance arrangements are robust enough to withstand proper scrutiny.   This is a point I will be making at full council on 24 February.

Lastly, I cannot help but comment on Mr Bullock’s attack on my own character when he says ‘The Board is voluntary in contrast to the councillor who receives an allowance as we give our time out of a sense of public duty’.

I try not to conflate the different roles in West Lancashire that I play, but I think in these circumstances it might be worth pointing out that, while I certainly receive an allowance for my work as councillor (which takes up a significant percentage of each working day) I also act as voluntary Director to one not-for-profit company and as trustee and treasurer to two other charities in West Lancashire. 

As it happens, in one of these treasurer roles I have been working closely with Serco staff to deliver community projects.  My bid writing work has just secured a £14,900 investment to be made on Serco-run facilities, and I have just submitted a further bid for £18,000 to accompany this, as well as working with Serco on another bid to Sport England of around £26,000 in value.  I have given this time out of sense of public duty.

And this is the initial letter from The Chairman of the Leisure Trust:

Dear Sirs,

Following a recent publication by Cllr Cotterill with reference to money being stolen from one of our Sports Centre I now say as follows. As the new Chairman elect of West Lancashire Community Leisure I felt it important that I meet with our employees who have worked extremely hard over the last twelve months in very difficult circumstances.

These hard working people felt betrayed and deflated by Cllr Cotterill’s remarks, which showed a total disregard for the services they have been providing for the people of West Lancashire. They feel that they are being used as a political football by Cllr Cotterill without any consideration for them or their families as they have participated fully in an ongoing police investigation in a professional and dignified manner while maintaining a service to the public. As he has elected to rake over the coals of a matter now some fifteen months on in an attempt to gain political advantage from a self serving perspective, of a very serious matter, he has merely created the greatest act of perfidy to all employees for the sake of one bad apple.

As the new Chairman it is my duty to support and represent their views and make it perfectly clear that we are immensely proud of the staff, their achievements, dedication and the services they provide to West Lancashire. The councilors failed attempt to create a miasma is most likely to serve to alienate sections of the voting public.

Yours faithfully,

John D Bullock

 He also added this comment to the press, which I took mild exception to and responded to in the latter part of my submission.

‘The Board is voluntary in contrast to the councillor who receives an allowance as we give our time out of a sense of public duty’.  

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