Labour concerns over damning Active report

Swimming at Morpeth Riverside Leisure Centre.
Swimming at Morpeth Riverside Leisure Centre.

The Labour opposition has raised concerns about the impartiality of a scathing report into Active Northumberland, which manages leisure services for the county council.

A summary report following a highly-critical review which highlighted ‘very poor leadership’ and ‘very poor governance’ at the charitable trust was published in February.

But Labour has raised questions over ‘the so-called independent report’ as it was compiled by a company, Engage-n-Change, which was only set up in June last year, and whose sole director, Ken Dunbar, then joined the board of Active Northumberland not long after the report was completed.

A Labour group spokesman said: “It is not independent when it was authored by a company owned by a man who is now a director of Active Northumberland as of December 11, 2017.

“Coun Cath Homer (the cabinet member responsible for leisure) might want to reveal how much this company, Engage-n-Change, was paid to produce the report she’s placing so much store in and why, when she tabled the report in full council on February 21, she didn’t declare Mr Engage-n-Change was a director of Active Northumberland?

“She might also want to answer where the contract for this work was advertised and whether Engage-n-Change won the work as part of a fair tender process?”

A spokeswoman for Northumberland County Council said: “The independent strategic review into Active Northumberland was commissioned in July 2017 and concluded in November 2017.

“Ken Dunbar, of Engage-n-Change, was appointed to carry out the review given his significant knowledge and experience in the business and leisure industry, as well as his track record of leadership and management in diverse and multi-partner organisations.

“Ken joined the board of Active Northumberland in December 2017. This was after the conclusion of the review.

“At absolutely no point during the review was there any conflict of interest. Ken’s in-depth knowledge of Active Northumberland and areas where improvement is needed will now help the organisation greatly as it moves forward.

“Within the council’s internal financial rules, a direct appointment can be awarded to a consultant who has the specialist expertise necessary to carry out a short-term contract, especially when the work is needed as a matter of urgency, as it clearly was in this case. The contract award value did not exceed the competitive tender threshold of the council.”

The Labour spokesman also claimed the council is blocking the financial donation from Arch which the charity has received over the past two years, but the council spokeswoman said that the Arch board ‘has not blocked the £1million charitable donation to Active Northumberland and has absolutely no intention of doing so’.

At last week’s audit committee meeting, Judith Stonebridge, vice-chairman of the Active board, provided an update to councillors about what has been happening in the wake of the critical report.

“As a board, we acknowledge that the first thing we need to do is make sure we have a strong board, that we’ve got a good skill mix on there and that we’ve got the expertise to be able to take things forward,” she said.

New board members have joined and they are in the process of recruiting an independent chairman, while it was announced last month that a new chief executive -Mark Tweedie – has been appointed.

The board also met the chief executive of Northumberland County Council, Daljit Lally, to discuss the recommendations of the review and to clarify and agree what the expectations are going forward.

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service