BCP Council’s shopping trolley of doom

Back in May 2021, Boris Johnson’s former guru, Dominic Cummings, painted a scathing picture of the Prime Minister. Describing a culture of U-turns, policy changes and general chaos, he likened Johnson to “a shopping trolley smashing from one side of the aisle to the other”. Since then, Cummings’ tweets and blogs have often referred to his former boss as the trolley, using the shopping cart emoji for short.

Here in Bournemouth-Christchurch-Poole (BCP) Council, the leadership has a lot in common with the PM. After all, Johnson isn’t the first Conservative leader to face a vote of no confidence this year; BCP head Drew Mellor has that dubious honour. And on accusations of avoiding scrutiny, well, Mellor’s council might be ahead of Johnson there, too.

But it’s the sense of barely-concealed chaos that distinguishes the current BCP administration. We’ve seen budget scandals, a crisis in children’s services, a collapse in social worker numbers, calamity in the planning system, Covidgate, complaints ranging from bullying in the council to support for rough sleepers, and much more. It’s been hard to keep up.

The last fortnight has been no different, giving not one, not two, but four more lunges from the shopping trolley of doom. Let’s take a quick look down the aisle …

First up, the strange case of the Poole Four. A group of Conservative councillors quit the party last week, after failing to be selected for next year’s local elections. The foursome will now represent Poole in the council as Independents. Subsequent comments revealed not only concerns about the UK leadership, but also a rift with their local Tory Association. Were their de-selections connected to possible infighting between the Poole and Bournemouth Tory groups? Long-standing Poole members were certainly unimpressed after Council leader Mellor suspended their Chair, councillor Ann Stribley, for (wait for it) proposing a motion in support of Ukraine.

Confused? Don’t worry, we all are. But though Mellor laid the blame squarely at Poole Association members, the fact is that BCP Conservatives have now lost their council majority, and are reliant on Independent votes. This reversal might partly explain the second lunge from the trolley.

As noted in a previous article, BCP Council’s 2022/23 budget is based on a KPMG report, which no-one outside the leadership team has actually seen. The near-mythical document has been described by BCP’s own financial supremo as a “non-traditional approach to the financing of local government.” Oh.

Key to the budget is the controversial sale of thousands of council-owned beach huts. Opposition councillors expected receipt of the legendary report this month but, in a late twist, it was discovered that the item has been removed from several June agendas. The last-minute change has delayed any scrutiny and debate on the beach-hut sale (and several other budget items) until at least September. What does this all mean? Well, the financial year will be halfway over before the council gets to see the plan it’s based on. And it’s still possible that key budget items – such as the beach-hut sale – will get voted down. Is this sound financial planning? Or, as one councillor described it, “casino economics”? We’ll have to wait till the autumn to find out. And hopefully by then, the KPMG unicorn will have been found too.

That’s not the only thing being delayed – which brings us to trolley lunge number three.

One of deputy leader Phil Broadhead’s projects has been the development of a new Local Plan, supposedly unifying the planning policies of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole. After an initial consultation this spring, the public feedback from the consultation was due to be published ”for the end of May”. However the timetable has been quietly delayed, and an updated council web page suggests that BCP will aim to publish a summary of the public feedback “during the summer.” I wouldn’t place a bet on that.

But even a sanitised ‘summary’ of the public feedback isn’t the same as the actual feedback itself. Why would BCP want to avoid sharing this, when similar projects often result in full publication? Do they have anything to hide? Well, anecdotally there seems to be strong opposition to the leadership’s much-stated ambition for a BCP City Region, with some scathing criticism from the Christchurch parishes in particular. Have their ideas been given an unexpected mauling? In the meantime, the Local Plan timetable continues to slip. The original projection was for the draft plan to be published in late autumn this year. But just two weeks ago Broadhead commented: “we’ll be bringing a cabinet paper in the next few months which will look at the consultation results as well as outlining how we’ll go about starting work on the local plan.” Which suggests that both the feedback and the next phase will be some time away.

Top trolleying, Phil. But the best lunge of all came just a few days ago – and this one is truly magnificent.

Back in January it was announced that Barclays staff would be leaving the gargantuan Barclays House in Poole. This provoked an aggressive purchase attempt from well-known local developer Richard Carr, which involved the demolition of the existing building. Yet recently it was revealed in the local press that BCP Council leaders had submitted their own bid to buy the whole site. This was met with consternation by opposition councillors, who appear to have first heard of the plan through the Bournemouth Echo article. But there’s more. This week the Echo went one better, revealing that BCP leaders had offered a whopping £17m for the site – almost three times as much as the Richard Carr offer. In other words, they seem to have offered £10m more than they needed to.

Considering BCP Council is already struggling with debt, and is midway through a financial year plan that hasn’t been signed off yet and could end in calamity, you might rightly ask where the money is coming from. Opposition leader Vikki Slade was more cutting: “This Conservative administration are like magpies. They see something shiny and they want it”. But what if this is all part of some cunning plan? What if the Barclays House bid is just a ruse, a Johnson-like dead cat, to distract us from the rest of the chaos? Perhaps there’s a new disaster yet to be revealed. Issues such as the failure of children’s services are still not going away.

Only time will tell. In the meantime, residents should keep an eye on the local news headlines. The next lunge from the BCP shopping trolley is surely just an aisle away.