Opposition brands Acorn Plus overspend report a ‘whitewash’

Acorn Plus lorry used by Horsham District Council
Acorn Plus lorry used by Horsham District Council

AN EXTENSIVE study into who was responsible for the Acorn Plus overspend was labelled a ‘whitewash’ last week as the leader of Horsham District Council was accused of ‘watering down’ the responsibilities of cabinet members.

The HDC Acorn Plus Working Group was set up last year to investigate why the recycling scheme went nearly £800,000 into the red in the last financial year and to clarify cabinet members’ roles in such crises.

Chaired by Leonard Crosbie (LDem, Trafalgar), the group produced a report setting out clear definitions of cabinet members’ responsibilities, but some members said amendments by leader of the council Ray Dawe (Con, Chantry) made the project ‘a total waste of time’.

The argument came over the wording of the definitions, which Mr Crosbie said working group members had chosen ‘deliberately’.

He said: “The reason for that was clarity. We were seeking to determine that the role of the cabinet member was unambiguous.”

Although members agreed that the scheme had been a resounding success, some said Mr Dawe’s amendments diminished the responsibility of the cabinet.

Leader of the Horsham Liberal Democrats David Holmes (Horsham Park) said: “This is a reluctance to accept responsibility and I think this is not what the Government intended when they set up the cabinet system.

“Where the buck stops between the cabinet member and senior officer is not going to be solved by these amendments and I am quite concerned about that.

“I accept that senior officers have significant responsibility, but cabinet members, according to our constitution, have overall responsibility and they have got to be required somehow to monitor what’s going on and take responsibility if something goes wrong.

“I think the suggested amendments will leave us with something no clearer than what we have now.”

Working group member David Skipp (LDem, Roffey North) added: “I think this is a watered down, whitewash version which makes the working group a total waste of time.”

George Cockman (Ind, Steyning) also a member of the working group said: “We are throwing away hours and hours of carefully steered work here.”

He suggested members try to resolve the wording on the night, but Conservative members defended the changes saying officers have a role to play as well.

Cabinet member for art heritage and leisure Jonathan Chowen (Con, Cowfold) said: “I take my role responsibly. I do not need notes or words regarding it.”

He acknowledged the difficult decisions he has made regarding Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre, but without his officers ‘it would have been practically impossible to take this responsibility’.

Working group member Philip Circus (Con, Chanctonbury) said the report had struck the right balance between officers and cabinet members’ roles.

“We were working in a spirit of non-partisanship in this working group but the fact partisanship has come out tonight is regrettable.

“The balance is right in this report. I think there’s no question of portfolio holders accepting responsibility.”

Quoting from the document he said: “The first key role of all the executive members’ responsibilities is ‘to assume responsibility of a portfolio of services and functions on the council’.

“Whatever we replace it with, it is not a whitewash and it does not need to be referred back [to the working group]. It was an excellent piece of scrutiny and I think it was the best piece of scrutiny that I have seen.”

After much debate the amendments were passed by a majority vote.