Wirral Council (15th July) Grant Thornton confirms whistleblower’s concerns about Wirral Council’s business grants program
Grant Thornton confirms whistleblower’s concerns about Wirral Council’s business grants program
In answer to a question of Mr. Hobro at last night’s Council meeting, Cllr Davies agreed to publish the Executive Summary of Grant Thornton’s report into their investigation into the BIG (Business Investment Grants) issue (which can be viewed by clicking on the link).
Although the names of the six companies are anonymised (referred to as BIG1 to BIG6), the executive summary does recommend whether Wirral Council should consider whether it should claw back the grant to the company referred to in the executive summary as BIG6 and consider whether it should refer BIG6’s application to the police.
Curiously the executive summary also states at the start “subject to an exemption under section 30 of the Freedom of Information Act”, which considering the Chief Executive’s statement at the same meeting that information relating to the departure of two Department of Adult Social Services officers can’t be published as it’s subject to an FOI exemption is highly curious and seems inconsistent.
As stated in the Executive Summary “This draft summary should be read in conjunction with a more detailed draft report, dated 5 June 2013”. Unfortunately this draft report is the one Wirral Council won’t release, giving the reasons stated above. Certainly the comments made by Grant Thornton and its recommendations vindicate the concerns raised by whistleblower Nigel Hobro.
The officer said that they [Wirral Council] also worked with the Manufacturing Advisory Service on culture and had made eighty-one referrals in the last year. They go in with MAS who had a list of practitioners who helped with office or shop culture and worked to add value to the business, attract industry and keep the manufacturing base. Manufacturing hadn’t gone from Wirral, Teledyne CML and Cammell Lairds were examples of positive news on jobs.
Cllr Simon Mountney commented that it was getting increasingly difficult for businesses.
Paula Basnett said their aim was to increase membership on the business forum. According to their CRM system they had had contact with four thousand businesses over the last decade. Their aim was to have an extra five hundred register each year for the business forum, but it as getting difficult to get new business users.
Cllr Mountney asked if it was a local or national target. She replied it was a local target. Cllr Mountney asked how many hits a month it was getting.
Paula Basnett said it was password protected but they measured how long visitors spent on the site and what areas were of interest to them. Cllr Mountney asked how long on average each visitor stayed for?
The Chair, Cllr Johnston asked for a report on this to a future meeting.
Paula Basnett said that since 1993 (Invest Wirral had formerly been called Wirral Direct), it had been involved with 941 investment projects and sixteen thousand jobs had been created or safeguarded.
In 2010/11 Invest Wirral had been involved with £13 million of investment covering 652 jobs, had an average of engaging with 800 companies a year and in the last three years had helped with £50 million of investment covering 3,000 jobs.
She finished by giving the contact details for Invest Wirral which were email@example.com, telephone 650 6915 and their website.
Cllr Denise Realey asked if they helped fund planning applications?
Paula Basnett said they didn’t reduce planning fees, but they could help businesses attract business rate relief on their business rates.
Cllr Denise Realey asked about the over 2,000 businesses registered on the website. She asked how they check they do good work, had they been into every business or did they just rely on the information the businesses had given? What would they do if the businesses were not doing a good job? How did they check these businesses out?
Paula Basnett said they ask for turnover, contracts and employees. If they are receiving support they measure this over six months and twelve months to see how it’s changed.
Cllr Realey asked again if any of the businesses work was actually checked.
Paula Basnett replied that for businesses that just register, they don’t vet them for the online forum as they’re not Trading Standards.
Paula Basnett gave a case study of a business that had run for thirty years in Birkenhead, Hankinson Painting Group. She said that Hankinson Painting Group had “not been complimentary about support” [from Wirral Council] but “wanted to grow” and were “eligible for funding”. They had received a Business Investment Grant (BIG) to diversify into new markets. £64,000 had been given to Hankinson Painting Group which equated to £250,000 of support and had secured sixty-eight jobs and created sixteen jobs. Hankinson Painting Group had secured new contracts in the rail industry and now had a turnover of £5-6 million and employed 244 employees. Steve Hankinson was now “very complementary” of the support received to develop the business.
Paula said that they tried not to duplicate the work of the Manufacturing Advisory Service who worked with Graham. She said they give Mark a lot of referrals. The business forum had 2,030 members. This gave members access to business opportunities, procurement, tenders, a directory, information on major developments such as the Peel Project, information on the intermediate labour market and apprenticeship information. Businesses could also search for a local plumber or architect in a forum which Paula said was “unique in the North West”. She said that other Merseyside local councils wanted access to it. She had some great case studies of inter-trading and joint working. Paula also mentioned the workshops and how businesses could use CHEST which contained details of public sector procurements over £10,000. Businesses could also sign up to a daily or weekly list of tenders.
Paula Basnett continued by saying that there were the business forums and businesses were increasingly contacting Wirral Council more and more. Under the new structure, they would go out to see businesses, agree an action plan and bring in support from sector experts (not local authority employees). From referral to action plan, the relationship manager would agree the needs and requirements of the business. The action plan would go to Paula. This support was for two types of businesses, those with five or more employees with a turnover of over £100,000 and micro-businesses with one to five employees and a turnover of £100,000 or less.
The New Brighton conference had brought business angels with money (a bit like Dragon’s Den) looking to invest in businesses that couldn’t get help from banks with their projects. There was a business angels network and a new focus on social enterprises. She said social enterprises were a business and make a profit, the only difference was in the commercial sector that the profit went to owners or shareholders but in as social enterprise it was given to who the social enterprise supports.
Paula also detailed help and advice they give businesses in the areas of development control, business rates, planning permission, schools (entrepreneurship) as well as support to schools. She said there was a SME Project Manager, Micro-business Manager, Business Angel scheme and Social Enterprise Team.
She said they were also working with social enterprises with their business plans specifically to do with working with the Department for Adult Social services.