Posted: Sat 20th Apr 2024

Councillor “gagged” from informing residents of £1.7m children’s home spend /

A COUNCILLOR says she was “gagged” from making residents aware their council was spending  £1.7 million to establish a children’s home near them.
Monmouthshire County Council’s Labour-led cabinet agreed in March to spend up to £1.7m to buy and refurbish a four-bedroom house at an undisclosed location in Monmouth as a first step in running its own children’s homes. 
As an “urgent decision” it meant backbench councillors weren’t able to “call it in” so it could be paused and reviewed by a scrutiny committee. 
Conservative councillor Jane Lucas said she had been prevented from discussing the council’s plans with local residents, who she suggested were mostly elderly. 
The Osbaston member said: “I offered to go and speak to residents before the purchase, hopefully encourage them to support it, and yet I was gagged.” 
The Tory said her “first priority” was her residents, and council officers second, and said: “I had not told residents the whole truth. I was not allowed to.” 
The comments came as the full council backed plans to develop in house residential accommodation for children in care and supported accommodation for those aged 16 and over. It also agreed if it is unable to “repurpose” existing council buildings the cabinet can increase its borrowing headroom to £3m to buy suitable properties or land on the open market. 
Cllr Lucas said she wants the home in her ward to succeed but questioned why the property had been chosen and said she was “staggered” an alternative had been overlooked where she said the four children to be housed would “not be surrounded by old aged OAPs.” 
She claimed the council “didn’t even look at that property that would have been able to home far more than four children.” 
Other councillors questioned if the council will be able to recruit staff to work in the homes and if the promised savings, from the authority reducing the number of out of county places in private accommodation it currently has to purchase, would be delivered if homes are under occupied. 
The cabinet was also criticised for making the urgent decision shortly after it had outlined the policy on developing its own residential placements to a scrutiny committee and it was questioned why the Monmouth purchase wasn’t subject to pre-scrutiny. 
Wyesham independent Emma Bryn asked if councillors could visit the homes before they open and said: “I’m particularly keen to see how post 16 supported accommodation works having experienced homelessness myself as a young person.” 
Cabinet member for social care Ian Chandler said it isn’t expected every cabinet decision should go to a scrutiny committee, but added the plan for residential homes had cross party support when it was scrutinised. 
In response to a query why an independent market valuation found the property was valued at £35,000 less than the accepted offer, the Green Party councillor said the council and Welsh Government, which is providing grant funding, were satisfied it represented “value for money” . Cllr Chandler said they were “unsure” of the alternative Cllr Lucas referred to. 
On costs Cllr Chandler said the council “wouldn’t push people into homes just to fill a vacancy” but also said running its own homes is the right approach and though there is “confidence” it will deliver savings it would still be the right policy “even if ended up costing us more.” 
On the purchase in Monmouth Cllr Chandler said it had to be completed by the end of the financial year or the council would have risked losing the £875,000 grant. ‌​‌​‌​​​‍‌​‌​​‌‌‌‍‌​‌‌​​‌​‍‌​‌‌‌​‌‌‍‌​‌‌‌‌​​

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