Picture this scene. An embattled Conservative leader sees the failure of their headline economic policy. As the plan collapses, critics surround them from every side – even their own. With the economy plummeting, the leader needs others to bail them out financially. And then, at the moment of greatest humiliation, with public finances and services at risk, they see only one thing left to do.
Pretend that everything’s fine.
No, we’re not talking about Liz Truss. This is Drew Mellor, leader of Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council (BCP). But as we’ll shortly discover, Mellor and his deputy Phil Broadhead have quite a lot in common with the UK’s prime minister (PM).
First, how did we get here? In January this year, Mellor and Broadhead revealed a cunning plan to raise £50m by selling the council’s 3,500 beach huts to itself. Mellor insisted he was supported in this by the UK Government itself. The strategy was set out in a financial report from KPMG, described by the leader as “a massively in-depth piece of work”. Indeed, this report was so good that no-one outside BCP leadership was allowed to see it. Challenged on the reason for this secrecy, Mellor claimed the report couldn’t be shared as it hadn’t been completed. Deputy Broadhead went even further, insisting “there is no KPMG Report!”
BCP leaders kept up this narrative for half the year, claiming as recently as mid-July that the mythical KPMG Report wasn’t ready. But over the summer, as a crucial council vote on the annual budget was delayed further and further, the story fell to pieces.
First it was revealed that Government ministers were not supportive of the beach-hut plan after all. In fact they’d spent weeks trying to deter Mellor from his scheme, which in reality had been dead in the water since at least June. The Levelling-Up Secretary went further, formally blocking Mellor’s scheme, and releasing a statement in which he fumed that “some councils have attempted to abuse a loophole to do dodgy deals which only benefit the bottom lines of consultancies”. Ouch.
Then, with the deal publicly trashed, the KPMG material was released late in the summer. BCP residents and opposition councillors were amazed to discover there’d been not one but three KPMG reports, all completed, and the earliest dating back to 2021. And things got even worse when it was revealed that Mellor had personally intervened to suppress their publication. Which was awkward, since he’d previously denied doing so during a council scrutiny meeting.
Drew Mellor’s reputation may have taken a hammering, but the biggest loser from this scandal was the council finances. The beach-hut sale was intended to plug a £50m hole in the 2022/23 budget, but after the scheme was ruled out, Mellor needed funds fast. His last resort was to go back to the Government to request a whopping £76m emergency bailout.
It gets worse. The beach-hut meltdown seemed to have distracted some minds from another fiscal nightmare. Finance officers were already struggling to deliver a balanced budget for the following financial year, with the prize for failure being a Section 114 notice (also known as ‘bankruptcy’). With BCP described as being “on life support”, Mellor’s team facing scrutiny of council finances by Government ministers, and no guarantee of the emergency bailout even being granted, the situation could hardly be described as normal.
Yet Drew Mellor was defiant as he settled down for a special scrutiny hearing last week. Declining to answer direct questions directly, Mellor kept to the lines he’d been repeating throughout this tumultuous saga. There wasn’t any contrition or regret on show, even as outraged councillors contemplated the loss of some local services, increases in charges, and a likely three per cent rise in council tax. Playing a straight bat for more than two hours, Mellor refused to acknowledge any failure or breach of trust at all. And when it was put to him that the doomed beach-hut scheme had drawn BCP into danger, Mellor replied: “I remain unapologetic.”
If you’re feeling strong, you can watch the whole show here.
But now the updated finance report has been published, the immediate future for BCP seems bleak. As well as the loss of some council services, and increases in charges and council tax, jobs may also be at risk around the region. There was even an admission that council assets may need to be sold, contrary to previous assurances. Yet controversial (and expensive) projects such as the FuturePlaces consultancy appear to be ring-fenced, which will undoubtedly raise eyebrows.
Leaders Drew Mellor and Phil Broadhead continue to insist that everything is awesome. But their cash-strapped council is approaching voluntary bankruptcy conditions. And many observers are increasingly worried about what happens next, especially with Broadhead seeming to lobby for BCP to become a so-called Investment Zone, potentially putting at risk planning laws, employment rights and environmental regulations.
Even some of Mellor’s own team have been struggling to swallow this. This weekend former Conservative councillor Jackie Edwards announced she’d resigned from the party, citing “a lack of getting the basics right”. Her departure leaves BCP Conservatives in a clear council minority.
But what of long-suffering locals, looking from a malfunctioning national government to a malfunctioning local authority, with a cost-of-living crisis about to hit and the money seemingly gone? Do residents get any solace from Mellor’s unblinking defence of his financial management, even as the council faces massive cuts? No more than from PM Liz Truss’s vacillations as bills rise and the pound falls. These days, it’s not enough just to insist that everything’s going to plan, as recent opinion polls have shown.
This needless saga will give BCP residents a lot to think about in the coming months. Are local leaders really in control? Or are they living in a land of make-believe?