Sometimes a decision is made that no matter which way you examine it, defies belief. Today I had the opportunity to see what happens at council level, when such a decision is “called in”. The call-in happened in response to a somewhat utilitarian pronouncement made last month by the Lead Member of Salford Council’s Childrens Services Committee, regarding the moving of a Youth Offender Service into a residential area of one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Salford (Blackfriars).
This history of this decision is long and dates back many months to late last year at a time when Salix Homes used a reasonably-sized building , located in a quiet cul-de-sac, as a housing office.
In it’s wisdom, the Estates Committee decided that out of all of the council and non-council buildings currently or potentially available across the entirety of Salford, only one building was suitable (or could be made suitable “within budget”). No explanation could be given as to why the 99 other vacant council-owned buildings could not be used, other than they were “unsuitable”.
Subsequent to identifying the availability of the Blackfriars housing office, the decision was made to move the YOS service there. This decision could not be challenged as it is up to the council to decide where council services are located, however the Blackfriars housing is not big enough as it currently stands, so would need to be extended. The extension would have to be paid for out of the current YOS budget, something Childrens Services would need to approve – which would be the only possible point where a call-in could halt the decision.
And so that’s how we came to the call-in, which was held today in Council Chambers at the Civic Centre. The meeting was due to start at 2pm and as I arrived around 15 minutes early, I met up with members of the local community. The community have put some fantastic arguments together, both legal and moral, but were unaware that they would have to present them to the Scrutiny Committee in a 5 minute presentation. Notes were hastily scribbled and 4 members of the local residents association condensed their 100-page case into individual well-presented arguments.
- Consultation with the local community – by it’s own admission, neither Estates nor Childrens Services actively sought to engage with the local community to consider it’s views.
- Due consideration to other options – no other options were on the table. It was move the YOS service or bust. The council had allowed the current YOS building to fall into such a state of structural disrepair, that it would cost more to renovate and repair it than to build an extension to the Blackfriars building.
- Wednesbury reasonableness – the decision was not reasonable since it involved moving a crime centre to a residential cul-de-sac, already suffering from some of the highest level of crimes across Salford. It took no account of the lack of parking for the 55 officers that would use the building, nor the lack of direct bus routes for the 175 daily users. The decision was so unreasonable, it required the majority of it’s users to travel the entire distance of Salford to get to it (Little Hulton to Blackfriars – literally from one end of Salford to the other).
- Section 17 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 – requires local authorities to consider crime and disorder reduction in the exercise of all their duties, activities and decision-making. This means that all policies, strategies and service delivery need to consider the likely impact on crime and disorder. This legal responsibility affects all employees of the Council.
One argument which was not allowed, was in relation to a document released into the public domain which showed that there were 121 serious crimes within a half-mile radius of the current YOS facility. We were instructed by council that the document was released in error, was a restricted document and it’s content could not be discussed. This was despite the fact that both Estates Services and Childrens Services suggested that there were no serious crimes in the immediate area and those crimes that did occur, were the fault of car owners and residents for failing to take basic security measures.
An Inspector from Greater Manchester Police was on hand to insist that council did not discuss the content of the crime document, as it would be a breach of the Official Secrets Act!
After all interested parties had a chance to speak: The Liberal Democrats who led the call-in, the Lead Member for Children’s Services and members of Vertical Villages and Blackfriars Residents Association – it was up to the Scrutiny Committee to vote. It’s choices: It could take no further action, in which case the YOS would move in with immediate effect. Alternatively, it could refer the decision back to Childrens Service – with the proviso that if the decision was not reconsidered, it would be referred to full Council for consideration.
Despite a last minute attempt by Labour to allow a non-voting member of the Scrutiny Committee to cast a “no further action” vote – the call-in was successful by a margin of 4 in favour, against 1.
I was deeply impressed by community members who were expected to put forward their arguments to the committee verbally, having been given less than 10 minutes notice that they would be expected to do so. Council must now meet within 7 days (assuming the Lead Member for Childrens Services decides not to reconsider his decision).
Labour have failed to learn the lesson that local communities must be involved in decisions that directly affect them. Cutting them out of the loop is inconceivable to me – the call-in has sent a message directly to the Labour-led Salford Council that if they do not engage local residents, their time in office will be short-lived.