“CURSE OF SEKHEMKA” CLAIMS THIRD VICTIM AS NORTHAMPTON COUNCIL CHIEF QUITS

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Egyptian people are devastated by the resignation of Chief Executive David Kennedy from Northampton Council
[Image:  thePipeLine]

Who can say that there is no Curse of the Pharaoh’s, or at least no Curse of the Court Scribe?

On Tuesday [18 July 2017] the last man standing from Northampton Borough Councils controversial sale of the sale of the funerary statue of Old Kingdom Court Scribe Sekhemka, Chief Executive Mr David Kennedy, announced his resignation from the council after a period of sick leave and an interview under caution by Northamptonshire Police regarding the contentious loan of £10.25 million to the then owner of Northampton Town Football Club, David Cardoza.   The cash subsequently disappeared amid accusations that one of Mr Cardoza’s associates, developer Howard Grossman, used some of the Northampton Council Tax payers cash to fund planning applications in north London rather than to build a new stand at the club’s Sixfields Stadium on the edge of Northampton where the money was meant to have been spent.

Mr Kennedy’s political boss at the time the loan was made had already fallen victim to the loan scandal.  It is alleged that Mr Grossman also hid a donation of £30,000 to the fighting fund of the then MP for Northampton South and former Leader of Northampton Council David Mackintosh, for the 2015 General Election campaign through the use of third parties.  Mr Mackintosh, who had been Leader of the Council and who worked with Mr Kennedy to drive through the sale of Sekhemka, was forced to stand down as candidate for Northampton South at the 2017 General Election after barely two years on the green benches in Westminster. Possibly the shortest Westminster career since Baldrick became MP for the rotten borough of Dunny-on-the-Wold.

Mr Kennedy and Mr Mackintosh  engineered single mindedly the sale of Sekhemka, against local, national and international opposition, but the political pair might not have been the first victims of the alleged curse.  On the day before the sale of Sekhemka at Christie’s in July 2014, the estate office of Castle Ashby, the family seat of the third facilitator of the sale of the statue, the Marquis of Northampton, whose ancestor had gifted the statue to the museum on condition it was on public display in perpetuity, was severely damaged in a fire.

Coincidence?

Back in the real world, at the same time as Mr Kennedy announced his resignation in an e-mail to staff a spokesperson for Northampton Borough Council confirmed that Mr Kennedy’s leaving deal contained none of the so-called “Golden Goodbyes” such as pay offs, bonuses, or other enhancements which are common when long serving senior staff leave an organisation, thus suggesting Mr Kennedy may not have had much choice about submitting his resignation.  The Council spokesperson told the Northampton Chronicle and Echo,

“Mr Kennedy’s resignation is not the subject of any termination payment, pension enhancement or settlement agreement.”

 

In fact Mr Kennedy’s time at the helm of Northampton Borough Council had almost certainly been on its final countdown since the publication of the damning report, by accountants Price Waterhouse Cooper, into the Northampton Town loan and if there is to be a leaving party it is more likely to be held by the [many] opponents of Mr Kennedy and Mr Mackintosh.  thePipeLine will send a bottle of warm prosecco in recognition that under the Kennedy/Mackintosh regime Northampton Borough Council has been the gift which keeps on giving, illustrating as it does so many of the things which are wrong about the way the UK’s heritage and museums are managed in 2017.

In its report to the council Price Waterhouse Cooper concluded that the council cabinet was not provided with a full, robust business case for the loan before  the loan was approved in principle.  In addition it was suggested that professional and opposition concerns regarding the loan were not followed up and that,

“A number of the emails raise concerns about the short timescales and pressure from management and politicians to conclude arrangements. It is evident that these time pressures significantly reduced the Council’s ability to challenge and fully evaluate the professional advice it had obtained as part of the preparation for the Football Club loan.”

These conclusion came as no surprise to those campaigning on heritage issues in Northampton, in particular the Northampton Battlefield Society who had recognised from their own experience the same toxic mixture of political and administrative pressure, coupled with the selective provision of information to other councilors within a highly centralised administrative structure, identified by PWC.   Running in parallel with the Football Club loan and the sale of Sekhemka was the attempt by Mr Kennedy and Mr Mackintosh to push thorough the development of football pitches and other infrastructure on the registered Battlefield of Northampton.  Critics allege that the proposed development was not only contrary to the stipulations of the National Planning Policy Framework, but that it was a Trojan Horse, designed to open up the area of the battlefield to further more overtly commercial exploitation adjacent to one of the main roads into Northampton from the M1.

When it comes to Sekhemka, sources who worked with Mr Kennedy prior to Mr Mackintosh taking over in 2011 report that, while the evidence is that he acted properly in strictly legal terms, he was certainly the driving force behind the withdrawal of the statue from view at the Guildhall Museum and that his preferred course of action was always to use the sale of the statue, which it was claimed at that time would raise at least £8 million, as a way of funding future museum developments and the restoration of the historic Delapre Abbey, which also sits on the historic battlefield and is close to the Northampton Eleanor Cross.  The same sources state that Mr Kennedy hoped, wrongly as it turned out, that such ring fenced use of the funds for heritage projects would head off any sanctions from the Arts Council and Museums Association.

However, even at Delapre Abbey the “curse” has taken effect.  At the time of writing the Delapre restoration is currently well behind schedule and over budget by more than £1.5 million.  A tab which has to be picked up by Northampton’s long-suffering Council Tax payers.  Meanwhile the nationally important Eleanor Cross has been the subject of an unedifying row between Northampton Borough Council and Northampton County Council over who actually owns it and would thus be liable for the urgently needed repairs to the scheduled monument.

On Wednesday [19 July 2017] the Council announced that it has appointed specialist contractor Cliveden Conservation to advise on the restoration, while still not admitting responsibility for the upkeep of the Eleanor Cross.  Historic England are understood to be watching the situation closely.

On 6 December 2016 Mr Kennedy went public with an apology  stating he was “sorry for loan mistakes’.  None of these other issues were mentioned.  However, his former political boss Mr Mackintosh seemed content to throw Mr Kennedy and other council officers under the proverbial bus when his spokesperson responded to the scandal telling the press,

“Any actions David took in regards to the loan as leader were taken in good faith based on the expert advice and information supplied to him by officers of the council.”

Opponents of the council also suggest that the poor advice, and poor judgement continued into 2017.

On 26 June 2017 Northampton Borough Council announced that it had “not had any success” in recovering any of the £10.25 million loaned to Northampton Town Football Club, in spite of committing a £950,000 fighting fund to the attempt.

The following day Mr Kennedy was one of two NBC officers interviewed under caution by Northamptonshire Police, the other being the Borough Solicitor Francis Fernandes.  At the time of writing neither person has been charged and the Police investigation continues.

In 2010, ahead of a local government conference on policy making in the age of austerity  Mr Kennedy gave an interview to the Guardian in which he stated,

“These are very challenging times. Local government needs the confidence to innovate and not just wait for the government to tell us what to do. We face cuts of 25% – but the issue is what we will do with the 75% of our budget we will still have, and [how we will] deliver the most we can for local communities. That is about central government trusting in local government.”

It is now clear that Mr Kennedy and Mr Mackintosh presided over a regime which actually destroyed that trust in local government, at least in Northampton.  Their style of leadership was predicated on driving through their vision of growth and headline grabbing or prestige projects.  Projects such as a new bus station which caused traffic chaos on the day it opened, or giving false hope to a local charity set up by a grieving mother that football pitches could be built on a nationally important historic battlefield, regardless of the checks and balances in the planning process.  Most damaging of all, Mr Mackintosh and Mr Kennedy appeared to be prepared to operate with apparent disregard to the norms of best practice and due diligence in the public sector.

The result of their tenure in office has been catastrophic for the reputation of Northampton Borough Council and, in the case of the cash driven sale of the statue of Sekhemka, catastrophic for both the town and its museum which lost Arts Council accreditation, and with it access to funding requiring such accreditation, for five years.  The Sekhemka scandal was equally damaging to the reputation of Art Council England and the wider UK Museum Sector which were shown to be utterly toothless and incapable of enforcing their own ethical rules or of preventing the export of works of art which met all three of the Government’s criteria for intervention.

As the statue of Sekhemka almost certainly languishes in a vault in the United States, locked away from the from the eyes of scholars and visitors, the only hope remaining to those who campaigned against the sale is that the departure form office first of Mr Mackintosh and now of Mr Kennedy, will encourage the investigation into their conduct of council business to be extended to include the many questions which still surround the sale.

In particular campaigners want to know what was the legal basis which saw the Marquis of Northampton gifted with over £6 million of money generated by the sale of a statue by the council, which the Council Leader claimed repeatedly that the Council owned and why that gift was made in a manner which, experts say, was legal but “tax efficient” for the recipient.  A recipient who happens to be one of Britain’s richest aristocrats.  A man who was already notorious in academic circles for using valuable art objects such as Andrea Mantegna’s ”Adoration of the Magi,”which he sold to the J Paul Getty Museum in Malibu for a record $10.25 million and the controversial  Sevso silver, as a means of getting richer, or of  paying for his divorce settlements.

Of course it is probably more likely that with Mr Mackintosh and now Mr Kennedy, gone the current leadership of Northampton Council will consider that the Augean Stable has been given a good sweep.  However, the shadow of the Sixfields loan and the other actions of the disastrous duo could yet be a long one and next move belongs to Northamptonshire Police.

Meanwhile, with the case of the Curse of Sekhemka apparently proven by events, the History Channel documentary about the curse, complete with cheesy reenactments of Council Meetings and shadowy assignations with men in grey suits, cannot be far off.

Of course it might be that the explanation for the premature end of two careers at the top of the political and administrative tree in Northampton is more prosaic.

It could just be that the people of Northampton were unfortunate enough to find two men in charge of the Borough who believed that they always knew better than anyone else and were prepared to manipulate or ignore due diligence and due process to get their own way, only to find their ambition massively outstripped their competence.

If anyone in Northampton, or anywhere else, can shed light on any of these issues thePipeLine would love to hear from you.

Meanwhile, in a bank vault somewhere in the United States,

 

[Image thePipeLine with thanks to Mike Pitts for the base image]