Ten days after we submitted our complaint regarding the privatisation of the Grade II listed North Kensington Library building, and the secretive and unaccountable manner in which this was done, we received a response from the Town Clerk, Nicholas Holgate.
He acknowledged that, under the Local Government Act 1972, the Council is required to secure ‘best value’ in the disposal of any such public asset. He then stated that the Council had been advised by their agent that Notting Hill Prep School (NHP) should be regarded as a ‘special purchaser’ because they were the adjoining tenants. He argued that the rental the Council could expect from them would, therefore, be significantly higher than the market valuation as NHP had a pressing need for additional space and the aquisition of the library building would be greatly to their advantage. There were no other ‘special purchasers’, he claimed, who might have offered more, and so the Council agreed privately with NHP to lease the property to them at a substantial premium, and was content that ‘best value’ had been achieved.
He went on to challenge our claim that there had been a lack of transparency in the deal, claiming that the Council’s intentions had been made clear in various way and that it had been transparent throughout. As evidence of this he drew our attention to the following:
- a paper to the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee in May 2015 on its intention to lease the old library;
- a decision on 14 May 2015 entered onto the Forward Plan under reference 04552/15/K/AB: Provision of New North Kensington Library and Youth Centre Redevelopment at Lancaster Road Youth Centre and Isaac Newton Centre Site 128A and 108 Lancaster Road W11
- a report to Cabinet on 11 June 2915: Provision of New North Kensington Library and Youth Centre Redevelopment at Lancaster Road Youth Centre and Isaac Newton Centre Site 128A and 108 Lancaster Road W11
- a decision on on 22 September 2015 entered on the Forward Plan under reference 04651/15/K/AB: Approval to Enter into Agreement to Lease and Lease for WIC and North Kensington Library
- Cabinet Approval on 19 Novembert 2015 to Enter into Agreement to Lease and Lease for WIC and North Kensington Library.
It almost goes without saying that we were decidedly underwhelmed by this response to our complaint. Our readers will not be surprised by this, given our reputation for cynical distrust of much that the Council does and our predilection for challenging what we invariably see as their self-serving statements and self-justifications when faced with criticism of any kind. We therefore drew up the following rebuttal of the Town Clerk’s response which we will be sending back to the him requesting that he escalate our complaint to Stage 2 of the Council’s complaints procedure:
- The Town Clerk’s reply refers to ‘a paper’ to the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee in May 2015 on its intention to lease the old library. This is factually incorrect and therefore misleading. The ‘paper’ referred to was a in fact no more than a short passage in a much longer Cabinet Member’s report to the Committee and it provided only a very brief outline of what was planned.
- The Scrutiny committee subsequently (6 January 2016) expressed serious concerns about the lack of competitive tendering in the deal and questioned whether ‘best value’ had been obtained as claimed. The Committee expressed dissatisfaction with the process that had been followed and asked that the Key Decision stage be investigated and called-in (if possible). This is recorded in the minutes of the Scrutiny committee.
- In the Scrutiny Committee report the Library project is described as the ‘third and final phase of the Westway Strategy’ but it is not mentioned in the Westway Supplementary Planning Document and was therefore not included in any associated public consultation. On studying the Westway SPD we noted also that both the North Kensington Library and the site proposed for the new Library/Youth Centre complex in Lancaster Road are outside the redline area marking the boundary of the proposed Westway regeneration. We would have to question therefore how and why the proposed new Library/Youth Centre development, and the disposal of the old Library building by leasing it to the private sector, came to be included in the Westway Project but were excluded from the public consultation associated with that Project.
- The Cabinet Decision Report referenced by the Town Clerk is listed in the documentation of the Cabinet meeting in November 2015 only as ‘WIC NKL’. It would therefore have been difficult for anyone to find and recognise this report unless they were already aware of its location and/or the date of the meeting. We were only able to find it because the Town Clerk’s reply to our complaint provided us with this information – this is indicatative of a lack of transparency in the process as we had alleged in our complaint.
- According to the Cabinet Decision Report crucial parts of the decison were made in Part B of the meeting. The detail of the decision, and the negotiations that led to it, were therefore kept confidential and there are no publicly available minutes – this also indicates a lack of transparency in the process as we had alleged in our complaint.
- The Town Clerk insisted in his reply that the process had been fully transparent, but all the examples he provided as evidence of that transparency were internal RBKC reports to Cabinet or committees. The Council publishes a massive amount of documentation on its website. The website is therefore complex and opaque and cannot reasonably be described as user-friendly. It is difficult for the public to find information they are seeking unless they are familiar with the website and have prior knowledge of the existence of a particular report and the name and date of the committee involved – this also is indicative of a lack of transparency as we had alleged in our complaint.
The Grenfell Action Group is opposed to this whole business in principle, firstly to the manner in which the Grade II listed library building was lost to the private sector, but also to the enforced billeting of the replacement library in a newbuild multiplex. Furthermore, we do not accept the Council’s defense of their handling of this affair and, whatever claims the Town Clerk may have made on their behalf, we will continue to robustly and forensically challenge any assertion that the process followed by the Council was competent, appropriate, transparent, and in the best interests of RBKC residents.