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Wednesday, 16 April 2014

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Copeland Council leader called to account – and answers critics

SIR – The frankly shameful way in which Copeland Borough Council’s leadership has tried to absolve itself of blame for the stadium fiasco is almost as embarrassing as the fiasco itself.

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Elaine Woodburn: ‘Opportunity to remind ourselves what a great place we live and work in’

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the scheme, and I feel sure that many others will pontificate about its merits or otherwise, the way in which the Pow Beck scandal has unravelled serves to highlight a problem; namely that the leader of Copeland, Elaine Woodburn, is too powerful and seldom held to account.

The Labour group, of which I’m at times like this ashamed to admit I’m a member, has some seriously talented people within in. But it also has a lot of people who are happy not to rock the boat, because it really isn’t worth upsetting “our Elaine”.

She has sole control over appointments to all the key positions in the council (those that come with an increased allowance), meaning that most councillors are afraid to stand up and be counted for fear of losing the chance to claim that handy top-up.

And with such a large majority, Elaine can afford to cast aside any members of the group who do put their head above the parapet and oppose her.

Political debate is stifled. The leader sends out a list of permitted questions ahead of each full council meeting, usually all lame attempts to throw brickbats at national government policy, rather than focus on the delivery of CBC. And woe betide anyone who goes off the script – the local party rules prevent anyone from speaking out of turn. A comment to the press is by pain of expulsion from the party nationally.

Should she or shouldn’t she quit? That is the debate in the pubs and clubs and on the streets of Copeland. Nobody can doubt the hard work and commitment she has given; but the reality is she isn’t up to the job, as shambles after shambles (Asda, World Cup, Transport Interchange, Albion Square taking 10 years) proves. Almost universally, people I speak to feel she should go, even within the group. But the debate at Labour Group won’t even arise. It’ll be a case of: how dare the press and local opposition question her.

I hope that the reaction to this letter will be soul-searching by my colleagues, some honest frank debate, and a resolution to improve, with or without Elaine at the helm.

But I won’t hold my breath because what we’ll get will be finger pointing, accusations and recriminations. More shame on us.

A disgruntled Labour Councillor

COUN Elaine Woodburn, leader of Copeland Borough Council, replies: Of course it is upsetting for me and my family to have to read such a letter, though the anonymity of it makes it less credible, but what is more disappointing is that the letter is riddled with inaccuracies, the facts of which any genuine, hardworking, Labour councillor should know.

The comments are more insulting to each and every Labour councillor who works hard and is committed to Copeland. To say they are afraid to speak up just demonstrates that this Labour councillor does not attend many meetings, because I can assure the people of Copeland I am challenged on many occasions and rightly so.

As a councillor, it is our duty to present the full facts of an issue, and this is especially the case if we are choosing to condemn the council and colleagues and staff, in a public way. These are the facts – albeit maybe a little late in the day for you!

Let’s put this to bed once and for all: the council was extremely disappointed when Asda took the commercial decision not to develop in Whitehaven. This was based on two factors – firstly rising land assembly costs relating to the houses at Back Ginns and other required land and also their concerns about the profitability of the store. Planning discussions had been positively concluded and the report for the planning panel written with a positive recommendation. This was approved. There were no impediments placed in the way of Asda by Copeland Borough Council, or the Secretary of State, to continue with the project.

Copeland had led and successfully negotiated the land deal with Tesco to enable the construction of the Interchange, and the full council agreed the terms of that deal in principle almost two years ago. The project faltered due to the failure to secure the Stephenson and Sproat garage site, despite the efforts of Cumbria County Council. This has been very much in the press recently and the reasons clearly articulated. It seems the member is more interested in appearing in The Whitehaven News than reading it!

Given that work has started on the Albion Square project I fail to understand the point here. In fact, the land is secured, we have a budget, and the NDA have the necessary Government approval to make this project happen. The complex development phase is complete. This process included working with colleagues from within the Council, the NDA, the former NWDA and NMP. This project will underpin the economic viability of Whitehaven town centre and I am very proud to have led the project to date. I wonder if this Councillor would be so quick to make these incorrect, unjustified and toxic allegations to the senior managers of the partner organisations – I suspect not, as they’re probably his paymasters.

Despite public sector cuts, we have an on-going commitment to the physical regeneration of Copeland. There are always risks to such an approach and some projects might not succeed, but the alternative is to do nothing, and that is not an option.

It is all too easy to blame one person and absolve yourself of any responsibility, but no council leader can make any decision in isolation. Fifty-one councillors made the decision to regenerate Pow Beck, but, as said, it’s easy to blame one person if things then don’t go to plan.

I have never said the council has done everything perfectly on this scheme, and of course there will lessons learned, but anyone who knows me or who has worked with me would know I am never backward in admitting if the council hasn’t done what it should have. However, the council can only act legally and some of the requests from the miners were illegal. If there is a Copeland councillor who is advocating that the council should act illegally then they need to take a close look at themselves, and indeed question their own role.

I have taken criticism over this project – a project led by a partnership that is still committed to making the stadium work. The World Cup would have been a welcome bonus and we are all disappointed with the news. Let me take a very unusual step, though no doubt I will opening myself up to more criticism for this, and let me give a small insight into what this council has delivered under my leadership.

These include:

securing over £1.75million of external funding for the Beacon exhibition, which has seen record visitor numbers this year;

securing the government’s commitment and funding for the Copeland Community Fund, which was the first of its kind in the UK, and which secured an initial £10million plus £1.5million for every year of its operation, and has invested over £2.7million already into valuable community projects;

lobbying for and securing the investment in transport infrastructure with the development of the Parton to Lillyhall bypass;

securing and developing nuclear opportunities including the Moorside scheme, MRWS investment and work with National Grid;

the ongoing negotiation of a community benefits package with the NDA for Harwell waste;

achieving a national award for our corporate governance;

obtaining multi-million pound housing market renewal fund for Woodhouse;

achieved £3million of efficiency savings whilst protecting services including the only discretionary concessionary travel scheme in the county;

promoting locality working and enabling communities to become more involving in decision making;

supporting young people into apprentice schemes which have seen 54 people employed as a direct result of our decision to invest in them;

clearing up the built environment by demolishing derelict properties;

securing health investment including for new facilities in Cleator Moor;

the development of the Vertex Centre in Whitehaven providing jobs locally;

continued sponsorship and support to the Whitehaven Festival;

the rejuvenation of Florence Mine as a community arts centre;

and the production of a blueprint for our future economic success.

And last but not least, the continuing endorsement of the community with increased representation for the Labour Party at the Copeland Council elections.

We don’t always get it right, but I am proud of everything that I, and other councillors, have achieved for the people of Copeland.

Coun Elaine WOODBURN

Copeland Borough Council

SIR – Is Copeland Council capable of getting anything right?

Planning a new Rugby League stadium has become a shambles. They’ve messed up on the allegations concerning the Mayor, Councillor Jackson who I believe has done a marvellous job for the borough. I haven’t forgotten the episode of the wheelie bins yet which made Copeland the laughing-stock of the country.

As your editorial said last week: heads should roll. Don’t hold your breath!

Alan GREEN

Devizes Road, Salisbury

SIR – It is only four weeks since Coun Allan Holliday tried to convince the people of Copeland that a 30 per cent salary rise was justified for leader Elaine Woodburn.

This week we have Paul Walker, chief executive (on £110,000 no less) merging two other senior posts to save £90,000, that is £300,000 +Pensions a year for three people.

Could I remind Mr Walker and Coun Woodburn and the councillors that Whitehaven is a small seaside town and Copeland has not got the population of Leeds or Bradford. A Director for People and Places sounds like an advert for Thomas Cook – would somebody from the council please enlighten me as to what her remit and job description was and did it benefit the people of Copeland and did we get value if any?

All I see is failure: failure to attract Asda to Whitehaven, failure to attract small business to Whitehaven town centre, the shambles of the Rugby World Cup and the collapsed proposed new rugby stadium placed in jeopardy.

But hold on, there is light at the end of the tunnel – out of the hat the new Whitehaven bypass rises from the ashes.

Please, Coun Woodburn, do not take the people of Copeland for fools. We are still waiting for the new Tesco and transport hub and an end to the disgrace that we used to call a bus station. I personally think that these exuberant salaries that are being paid to some senior council employees are not being matched with actions when you look at Whitehaven town centre, the repeated use of consultants and repeated failures of projects.

Tommy DOUGAN

West Lane, Flimby

SIR – Some quotes from ITV Border News on April 25: “It’s unclear yet what’s gone wrong”. IS IT? It’s obvious what’s gone wrong.

“What we do know is that £4½million for this stadium is available,” REALLY? But the cost is £5.5m isn’t it? Plus ‘access’ funding? The Whitehaven News has variously quoted amounts of up to £4.5million of NDA (taxpayer) funding via the taxpayer-funded Britain’s Energy Coast plus £1million-£1.5million from Copeland Community Fund (taxpayer funds again). Threats of compulsory purchase failed and funding to acquire access land also failed (or was it left till it was just too late?).

Another quote from the interview: “That the people tasked to deliver… it now say that they can’t deliver it” is correct but they couldn’t deliver a pizza either. “It’s hugely embarrassing and I think it’s a humiliation. I think that all parties involved in this need to take a long hard look at themselves” – before resigning or being sacked?

The community who elected some of these people to run things should seriously think about a different type of leader, ie one that THEY can hire and fire. For that matter they should also consider their choice of Jedi Jamie and his Workington sidekick ‘Cunning Ham’ were the proponents and signatories to the establishment of Britain’s Energy Coast quango headed by Brian Wilson (one of their own).

Whilst other councils organise themselves, the BEC was imposed on Copeland so as to dispense NDA taxpayer money as they saw fit (including their own £1.3million annual salary costs) by using questionable promises through ‘Calamity Elaine’ and her Copeland Council cohort. Is not saying “certainly Britain’s Energy Coast is the best hope we have in West Cumbria in delivering upon our ambitions” simply acknowledging a death wish?

So to say “it’s unclear yet what’s gone wrong” is a ridiculous, if not stupid, statement to make as a blind man on a galloping horse would see the obvious linkage between the Hub, Pow Beck, Albion Square etc.

Guess who is being quoted above? None other than he who says that we are at a fork in the road and without the geological disposal facility (that has just been voted against by the parishes) there is no future. Perhaps true for a Jedi, Jamie, but not for us mere mortals.

Arthur MILLIE

Longcroft, Egremont

SIR – The borough of Copeland has many claims to fame, among them,the highest mountain, the deepest lake and the worlds biggest liar. I think it is time to make another claim, that of having the most incompetent and profligate council.

The saga of the rugby stadium has staggered from crisis to crisis, to finally collapse in an apparent financial chaos. I, and I think many other Copeland residents, would like to know exactly how much this debacle has cost.

Perhaps Elaine Woodburn and her chief executive would like to publish the total amount before clearing their desks and leaving the council building.

I agree with your call for resignations, and as leader and chief executive in charge, they must carry the responsibility for this embarrassing farce. We do not pay our taxes to have them wasted on useless ego trips like this.

John DUCKETT

Fell View Park, Gosforth

SIR – Having just got home from having a knee replacement operation, I feel compelled to report that all is well with our hospital. All the worries that undoubtedly exist are not shown by the magnificent staff at West Cumberland Hospital.

From the friendly efficiency of the reception, introducing you to the new pain-management regime, through the professional but bantering operating team under Mr Allcock, to the ward staff on Kirkstone Ward, I couldn’t have been better looked after.

Angels? You can see how they got their name – from the newest qualified, to that of 31-year service, and in particular, two live wires, they were, without exception, ANGELS. Nothing was too much trouble; nothing fazed them, and I saw no example of supposed dissatisfaction with their lot. I have no doubt that they exist, but these people are far too professional and caring to let it show.

We, as patients, and they as staff, quickly became friends, on first-name terms, and this put you at your ease, and made something traumatic to us patients, into something that it was actually a pleasure to go through.

Whilst there, we were visited by the head of personnel services, who covered WCH and Carlisle, and we were able to tell him exactly how good his whole team was at WCH.

I would love to name individuals and their various kindnesses, but you only have the one page for letters to the Editor!

Suffice to say that I would have no fear of being treated in my local hospital in future. If these consummate professionals can operate this well under the concerns and constraints they currently have to endure, think how well they’ll react to a brand-new facility.

Thanks to you all, it was a pleasure to know you,

Dave BANKS

(Kirkstone Bed 4)

Thornhill, Egremont

SIR – For years UKIP has made wild claims about how much it costs Britain to be a member of the EU. Its approach has been simple: think of a number, treble it, then add a lot more. In other words, make it up as you go along.

But now MEP Paul Nuttall has been found out and is wriggling. It’s the Treasury that signs the cheques, and it pays out just over one per cent of all UK spending to the EU. It’s a lot of money, but nothing like the amount that UKIP claims.

The EU Single Market is vital to the British economy, and it’s vital that we are its heart and able to shape the decisions that affect us. There will always be things that need to be changed and improved but serious debate is made harder by UKIP’s distortions.

Chris DAVIES

Liberal Democrat MEP

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