Regeneration – Counting the cost

If you’ve been following our attempts to engage with the Regeneration Strategy for the past five years, you’ll know just how difficult that has been.

Regeneration officers have come and gone leaving Cllr. Tim Pike, the Cabinet face of Levelling-Up and Economic Development, as the only remaining original player, having overseen the different incarnations of the Regeneration Strategy since it was first published back in 2018. Since that time, Havant Borough Council has spent at least £2,500,000 on Regeneration staffing and external consultancy costs, with an as yet undisclosed additional sum in related expenses. This is, of course, on top of the £4,100,000 spent on buying the Meridian Centre and the Bulbeck Road car park.

On the credit side of the account, the council raised £9,050,000 from the sale of Brockhampton West back in January, 2021, a site now advertised as a logistics park (incidentally, a cheaper and better option for Amazon than 32 New Lane) while at the same time declared by Southern Water as the site for its controversial water recycling plant. The money raised from that HBC property sale was supposedly ring-fenced for Regeneration, though to be fair that was before the costs of the split from East Hants probably took large bites out of it.

So what’s changing in 2023?

Well apart from the fact that this must surely be the year in which Dunsbury Park’s freeport opportunity starts generating its promised income, HBC have now ‘Passed Go’ on the Regeneration Strategy game board for what we think must be the third time now, having picked up £1,600,000 from the Brownfield Land Release Fund to enable them to demolish the Bulbeck Road car park. Having achieved little other than a couple of sizeable property transactions, the sinking of the Local Plan and the failure of two Levelling-Up fund bids over the last five years, is this going to be a case of ‘third time lucky’ for the Regeneration team?

Well, with a new and freshly energised team shaping up in the Civic Plaza, we certainly hope so. Back before Christmas, the HCS committee met with the first two experienced new hires and we’re feeling cautiously optimistic that there’s a new approach shaping up. Cllr. Pike still holds the reigns of Economic Development, but with Cllr. Rennie now taking a leadership role on Regeneration, the signs are encouraging. HBC are currently recruiting for another Regeneration Manager paying up to £80,000 pa to supplement one they’ve already hired and applications have only just closed for a Regeneration Officer (Strategy), paying up to £46,549 pa. We’re looking forward to working with the new team, including the successful candidates once they’ve got their interviews out of the way in a couple of weeks time.

Counting the costs

With this fresh new team at the top, we thought we’d make use of the Freedom of Information Act to take a look at the cash spent to date so we could try and draw a line under past endeavours as we help the new team to move forward.

First a disclaimer.

The FOI process is a little time consuming and needs a bit of surgical precision with the questions asked so the numbers below do not actually give the complete picture. There are a couple of significant companies known to have been engaged in regeneration activity during this period which do not appear in the data disclosed so far. It may well be that these resources have been funded from different accounting lines in the council.

The numbers also exclude known future spend of £140,000 for 2023/24 which has already been committed through a purchase order signed in the last month of the previous accounting year. Also excluded are the expenses claimed against the council’s budget for regeneration activity or the costs and expenses incurred by our elected councillors relating to the regeneration activity over the past five years. Data for the year 2018 was unavailable but given known staffing and activity in that year, we can assume that similar numbers would apply.

So bearing in mind these disclaimers, let’s look first at the monthly spend over the period from January 2019 through to March 2023.

That’s a total of £2,037,690 over period shown, an average of £0.5 million a year, that’s almost £43,000 per month.

So where did it all go?

There are a large number of individual cost elements in the data so we’ll just focus on the top ten, which between them account for the lion’s share of £1,842,302.

An interesting set of numbers there, with Fabrik just tipping Womble Bond Dickinson into a close third place.

Regular readers will be well aware of Fabrik, the team behind the rather embarrassing vision of Havant’s future which finally saw the light of day in February 2020 after a significant delay. Deliverables from Fabrik, most notably their infamous ‘Levelling-Up Fund Lookbook’, contributed to the council’s failure to secure £12 million of UK Government Levelling-Up funding in 2021 and the subsequent failure to secure £30 million in 2022. (As an aside, the inclusion of the undeliverable timeline at the end of that document did not help the council argue against the Planning Inspectors’ decision to throw out the last Local Plan. If you’ve not seen it before, take the time to watch the video at the end of that post.)

Womble Bond Dickinson may be new to our readers, a law firm engaged by HBC to assist with all things legal including advice regarding the costs and legal implications of the regeneration strategy. This includes, for example, helping to sell Brockhampton West, for which their bill to the council was £53,000. As its website tells us, “We understand how hard local government works. Our lawyers support local government and the wider public sector across the UK, advising on a wide range of matters – from bespoke advisory to large scale, multi-party transactions.” While we’re on the subject of Brockhampton West, Lambert Smith Hampton, also on this list, scooped just over £90,000 for their part in the sale. (The costs associated with the purchase of the Meridian Centre, £64,624 to Montagu Evans and £5,000 to Wilkes, Head and Eve, seem small in comparison.)

Far more disquieting is the fact that Havant Borough Council has used Womble Bond Dickinson (WBD) for much of their legal work. Bond Dickinson were the solicitors used by Post Office Ltd to prosecute over 700 sub-postmasters for alleged crimes based solely on evidence from the deeply flawed Horizon computer system. As you will no doubt be aware, the Court of Appeal has quashed scores of these convictions, with more to follow.

The Court of Appeal has found that the investigative and disclosure failings of Post Office Limited were “so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the “Horizon cases” an affront to the conscience of the court” and that, in their conduct of the prosecutions, the Post Office “reversed the burden of proof”.

There are hundreds of firms for the council to choose from and it is extremely disappointing that our council has chosen WBD.

If we were to take into account that early signature on a purchase order for the coming year, then Downton Associates would comfortably slot into second place behind the salaried officers in that previous chart, an impressive performance for a consultancy first engaged by HBC as recently as August 2022.

The way forward

Over the past five years, Havant Civic Society and our peer members of the Havant Borough Residents’ Alliance have spent a considerable amount of effort trying to engage with the various regeneration teams. Unlike the council officers and their subcontractors, funded in part through the council tax we pay, our members and other residents are fully invested in the future of the borough. Many of us also have long years of valuable commercial experience to bring to the council as unpaid consultants and volunteers.

We’re looking forward to a refreshed engagement with the council on regeneration as it begins a fresh start in 2023. This time, maybe rather than just asking us to water the town’s flowerbeds, they might ask for our input, listen to what we say, challenge our reasons and include us in the setting of a realistic, viable and deliverable direction. That’s the way to attract inward investment and encourage the right type of employment in the optimum places that our families and grandchildren will thank us for.

Here are just a few examples of previous HCS and HBRA contributions to Regeneration ignored in previous years:

HCS response to Opportunity Havant Strategy document, October 2018
Deputation to Council, November 2018
Deputation to Cabinet, February 2021
HCS/HBRA input to Cabinet Paper on Havant Town Centre Regeneration, September 2021
HCS/HBRA Presentation to Regeneration team, November 2021
HCS/HBRA consolidated questions at new Local Plan kick-off meeting – July 2022

It’s worth noting that the last document in that list was issued by the combined HBC/HBRA team to the Local Plan team on 29-7-2022, the day after the meeting. The responses were finally received a month later, with the condition that we could not even share them with our own committee members let alone our membership!

Certainly our questions sometimes contain uncomfortable facts and may challenge the strategies in place at the time, but we’re probably the most battle-scarred consultants you’ll find and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We don’t charge for our services, in fact, we pay the council!

Perhaps it would help if they considered residents as ‘internal’ investors in Regeneration.