Westminster Council’s internal report into the £6 million Marble Arch Mound Scandal left us with a lot of questions – so at last night’s Scrutiny Committee meeting to assess its findings we demanded answers. Labour had previously called for an independent investigation but this was rejected by the Conservative Council.
The Scrutiny Committee wasn’t enough to explain how this was allowed to happen, but we still learned some shocking details about how this Council mismanaged residents’ money:
- The meeting uncovered how opportunities to rethink the scheme were missed in February when the design radically changed to no longer have a view down Oxford Street and the original plans to use soil – necessary to enable the vegetation promised in the glossy CGI promo pictures used until the Mound opened – were dropped in favour of using lower quality sedum, leaving plants dropping off the Mound on opening day.
- The Committee was shown how once Cllr Caplan (then Deputy Council Leader responsible for the Mound project) had urged officers to reduce costs, no Cabinet Member or Senior Officer asked how the cost savings were actually achieved. Obviously essential infrastructure was temporarily taken out of the costings of the formally approved budget, only to be added in other ways after the project was given the final go ahead.
- Senior officers admitted that they hadn’t visited the Mound since late June and the meeting showed how the Conservative Group of Councillors were the last senior officials to visit the Mound prior to opening, with a drinks party onsite three days before the Mound opened to the public on July 26th. No Councillor, Cabinet Member or senior officer who visited the site raised any concerns that things might be amiss.
- They confirmed that no Cabinet Member or senior officer checked that they were on track to meet their sponsorship targets (predicted to be at least £450,000, an estimate described in an official Cabinet Member report as ‘considered conservative at this stage and could be substantially higher’)
The meeting exposed a culture of complacency where questions weren’t asked, optimistic assumptions weren’t challenged, mismanaged costs weren’t checked and everything was seen as rosy until the reviews came in. It showed how political expectations to ‘operate at a quicker pace’ led to corners being cut.
Despite a formal request by the Labour Group for the Leader of the Council and Cllr Caplan to come to the meeting to answer questions, neither attended and all questions were answered by council officers.
Labour Group Leader Cllr Adam Hug said:
“The findings of this report show the culture of complacency that surrounded the £6 million Marble Arch Mound, a complete lack of oversight and political leadership. It’s evidence of a Conservative administration on Westminster Council that has been in power for far too long. They have become arrogant, out-of-touch, and incompetent and it’s time for a change.”
Cllr Geoff Barraclough said:
“The council’s Tory leadership are pinning the blame on a handful of rogue officers but there was a clear failure of culture from top to bottom. The project became a juggernaut that nobody was able to criticise. At least three opportunities to stop the Mound were missed as councillors and officers were dazzled by the CGI and failed to ask basic questions like “have you budgeted for toilets?”