North Northants Council blasted for 'complete lack of transparency' over £4.5m Kettering museums project

‘I believe that your integrity as a council is very much in question’

By Kate Cronin
Saturday, 16th July 2022, 6:00 am
Updated Saturday, 16th July 2022, 9:17 am
Members of NNC's executive visited the Glam building site for the first time this week
Members of NNC's executive visited the Glam building site for the first time this week

Council bosses have come under fire from the chair of a leading group of arts volunteers over the cloak of secrecy he believes they have thrown over a major scheme to transform the town’s museums.

The GLaM project will see the library, Manor House Museum and the Alfred East Art Gallery refurbished and extended as part of the publicly-funded project.

An initial £4,060,000 pot was insufficient to finish the scheme, so members of the authority’s executive approved a further £75,000 from council coffers in March this year. But on Thursday (July 15) the matter was once again before executive members, this time for another £412,000 to cover the ‘worst case scenario’ overspend after it emerged the existing cash will only last until the end of this month.

At that meeting at the Corby Cube, the angered Chairman of the Friends of the Alfred East Art Gallery and the Manor House Museum David Brown gave a furious speech outlining his concerns regarding the lack of transparency and his annoyance at having to read of developments in the Northants Telegraph, rather than hearing direct from the council.

He said: “Following the release of the news that a further £400k would be required to complete the building work.. there was the predictable flurry of adverse comments on social media that did not reflect the NNC in a good light.

“Most of the comments were based on a lack of information and understanding of the nature and complexity of major capital projects. This has arisen through the almost complete lack of transparency, communication and explanation about the project through social media and the press, something that has dogged the enterprise from the start.

"This may be acceptable when the project is commercial, but in this case it must be borne in mind that it is a public project.”

Mr Brown said that the protests about felling trees, bats, the Blitz Cafe concerns and the rebranding issues could have been avoided if the public had been engaged in a ‘proper debate’.

He added: “Even special interest groups and others more closely affected by the scheme have had no substantial updates on progress, or the basis for decisions. At this critical stage in the program the NNC requires the public’s support and must address this communications issue with urgency.

"Please tell people what you are doing and why you are doing it and stop this ‘behind-closed-doors’ method of governing. I believe that your integrity as a council is very much in question.”

Cllr Anne Lee was also concerned that a decision to delegate financial issues to officers meant that the issues would ‘disappear even more from public view.’ She raised concerns about whether exhibits would be sold off or retained and how the spaces would be used.

Back in March, stakeholders expressed concerns over how the new name for the project – Cornerstone – had been decided on. They said they had not been consulted during the secretive decision making process and were heavily critical of the new name, which is shared with a right-wing group of Conservative MPs.

In reply to Mr Brown, deputy leader of NNC Helen Howell, who has responsibility for sport, leisure, culture and tourism, said she had two pages of communications that had been sent to stakeholders updating them at various stages of the scheme. She said that these groups could then share those updates with their own networks.

"We have held site visits in November and March.. but it still remains and active building site,” she said.

"The executive went up to view the site for the first time on Tuesday.

"We are trying to get the building across the line. We can’t allow the public on the site.”

Executive member Cllr Lloyd Bunday said that he was dismayed by Mr Brown’s speech and comments on social media. He said: “I get the distinct impression that if it wasn’t a swimming pool, we shouldn’t have done it. A swimming pool didn’t meet the criteria for this funding.

"This idea of Kettering, Kettering, Kettering does frustrate me. We’re North Northamptonshire and Kettering is benefiting very well out of it and for someone to question out integrity, well I’m dumbfounded quite frankly.”