Reflections on an Unusual Meeting
At the regular Parish Council meeting last night (13th May), the five current councillors elected Richard Marks as Chair and David Imlach as Vice Chair. In each case there was a single candidate who received three of the four available votes while one particular councillor, who was presumably indifferent to the conduct of future meetings, abstained.
Formalities completed, the meeting proceeded and aside from the routine agenda, the item that occupied by far the largest amount of time was a discussion of the finances of the construction of Cocking Village Hall; the very building in which the meeting was taking place. It will come as a surprise to many villagers that this matter is still being actively discussed so long after the Hall's opening in October 2010. There is obviously considerable history behind the subject, but it emerged at the meeting that in response to a recent letter signed by a handful of unnamed individuals, the Parish Council had felt it necessary to seek advice from both the District Council's legal department and SALC, the Sussex Association of Local Councils.
It is important to point out that there was no suggestion of wrongdoing by any individual councillor or by the Council itself, still less any suggestion of misappropriation of funds. Furthermore, it was reported that the accounts had been fully audited with all income and expenditure accounted for. In its reply to the Parish Council, SALC did however comment that the Council had been remiss in not giving a clear explanation of the finances of the project in its minutes. In response to this criticism, the Council resolved at the meeting to apologise for its omissions and to consider improvements to its financial reporting in the future.
Taking a broader view, many would think that apologising in this way is a very generous gesture when the overall picture is of a highly successful project culminating in the provision of a well-built hall that is a credit to the village; A hall that was acknowledged to have been financed very largely with grants solicited by the former Council Chair, Frances Russell.
It seems that the lack of clarity at the heart of this matter arose from the fact that, like so many large capital projects, the original budget was slightly overspent. The overspend was about £15,000 - well under 10% of the total cost, but it did not delay the project and the unusually large reserves the Parish Council had prudently built up for just that eventuality were used to cover the shortfall. It was explained that a major factor in the overspend had been the failure of some benefactors to pay the full amounts originally pledged. For example, one of the most significant donors finally contributed only half of the £40,000 it originally intended to give, citing changes in the national financial climate that had occurred over the life of the project. In such circumstances it can be seen as a tribute to the project team that the building was still affordable and handed over in such great shape.
It was stated that the actions taken at the time were entirely necessary to complete the project on schedule and that all councillors had been kept fully informed by email during the summer period when there were no Parish Council meetings. Admittedly, failing to report the details in the minutes was a mistake, but in the scheme of things also understandable. So it is to be hoped that this matter can now be closed as there is no doubt that Cocking has a fantastic asset in its Hall and the Parish Council has more important things to focus on than a prolonged debate over the minutiae of past actions and the minutes of long forgotten meetings; issues that now seem to have very little significance.