INVESTIGATION

INVESTIGATION: ELEANOR CROSS E-MAILS REVEAL DELAY DITHER AND SPIN AT NORTHAMPTON BOROUGH COUNCIL

Lead Image:  Damage and cracking on the upper level of the Northampton Eleanor Cross
[Copyright Mathew Lewis]

By Andy Brockman

Northampton Borough Council’s already chequered reputation for its competence in dealing with heritage matters faces a new challenge, with allegations that a series of e-mails and reports, seen by thePipeLine, reveal a picture of delay dither and spin at the top of the council.  The e-mails cover the period between October 2017 and the Spring of 2018 while the council grappled with reports which stated the nationally important Northampton Eleanor Cross required urgent conservation work.  Most seriously the documents suggest that the East Midlands council was at least as concerned about media spin and downplaying the threats to the Cross as it was about actually undertaking emergency conservation work, when it ignored a report from a specialist structural engineer in November 2017 which suggested that parts of the cross were in such a poor state that it required strapping to prevent further damage or even collapse.  The documents also suggest that at least one senior politician, cabinet member for Regeneration, Enterprise and Planning on the ruling conservative group, Councillor Tim Hadland, had knowledge of the state of the Cross and the recommendations to fix it far earlier than he has acknowledged previously, including in an interview with the BBC.

The latest phase in the story of Northampton Borough Council’s alleged mishandling of the repair and restoration of the Northampton Eleanor Cross begins in October 2017.

Following pressure from individuals and outside bodies such as the Save Our Eleanor Cross Facebook group, who demonstrated that the historic listed structure was visibly deteriorating, the Council consulted the statutory adviser and regulatory body Historic England and commissioned a specialist conservation company, Cliveden Conservation Ltd, to produce a survey and plan of proposed conservation works to stabilise the Eleanor Cross.

In late October 2017, following disturbing observations about the state of parts of the Eleanor Cross  made by their own staff,  Cliveden brought in a specialist surveyor from Stress UK Ltd.   As a result the “Interim Report for the Emergency Strapping Works to the Eleanor Cross Monument Northampton”, including photographs of the most vulnerable and potentially dangerous elements of the structure, was issued by Cliveden for delivery to Northampton Borough Council and Historic England on 27 November 2017.

 

The dated and annotated description of cracking and on the Northampton Eleanor Cross as recorded in the Cliveden Conservation report.  It is this damage which prompted the recommendation that this part of the structure was strapped “as soon as possible.”
[Cliveden Conservation Ltd/Stress UK:  Fair use for the reporting of news]

 

The interim report concluded that the statue niche half way up the cross was twisting, bowing outwards and in danger of collapse.  As a result the report recommended that the cross was fenced off to protect the public and that the most seriously affected part of the structure was strapped with ratchet straps to prevent further movement.  The report concluded,

“It must be emphasised that we would advise that the emergency strapping be undertaken as soon as possible.”

However, thePipeLine can reveal that all the parties involved had been discussing the contents of the interim report for almost a month at a senior level.  Those involved in the discussions included Historic England and both senior officers of the Council, and at least one senior elected member of the Council, the Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Enterprise and Planning on the ruling Conservative group, Councillor Tim Hadland.

An e-mail dated 2 November 2017, which was sent by a Senior Conservator at Cliveden Conservation and copied to both Historic England and a senior officer in conservation and planning at Northampton Borough Council, stated,

“Regarding the structural engineer, yes we did manage to get our contact from Stress UK to come to site in time to have a good look over the monument just before we had to pack up…”

The e-mail then notes that the structural engineer issued his report “yesterday”, i.e. 1 November.

A follow up e-mail sent from Cliveden Conservation to at least one senior officer of Northampton Borough Council on 2 November , states that the report would be sent “now” to Mr A Jones, the Building Surveyor of Northampton Borough Council within the Department of Corporate Asset Management.

The channels of communication between Clivedon and Mr Jones at NBC certainly seems to have been set up because on 7 November Mr Jones sent an e-mail which noted that Clivedon had advised putting temporary fencing around the site.   The interim report suggests that this was needed as a safety measure to protect passers by because fragments of stone were falling off the cross.

 

Cracking and flaking on the Northampton Eleanor Cross photographed in April 2018.
[Copyright Mathew Lewis]

 

 

By 7 November the e-mail thread shows the conversations about the Eleanor Cross had expanded to include Northampton’s Head of Planning Mr Peter Baguley.

However, it is notable that by this stage, the communications about the state of the cross were also being copied to, or were actually run through, the desk of Mr Craig Forsyth, Northampton Borough Council’s  Communications and Marketing Officer.  For example, on 8 November Mr Forsyth was asked to comment on an e-mail from Ms Jane Jennings, to Cliveden Conservation seeking additional information about the level of risk the damage identified by Cliveden and Stress UK entailed.  Mr Forsyth suggested specific wordings to Ms Jennings, whose Linked In profile describes her as a Team Leader for Northampton Borough Council, involved in Planning and the Historic Environment.

While there is no suggestion he acted in any way improperly, Mr Forsyth’s concern appears to have been to keep control of the narrative in an attempt to show the council was responding to the concerns about the Cross in an appropriate and timely fashion.  Part of this strategy was to control the language used by all concerned.

As early as 23 October 2017 Mr Forsyth had sought to downplay concerns about the state of the Cross and the urgency of Cliveden’s work, writing in an e-mail,

“Ideally I would like to avoid terms like “emergency work”,”stabilise the structure” and “further degradation” as they tend to suggest it’s about to collapse which I don’t believe is the case.”

The close involvement of Mr Forsyth suggests that senior managers at Northampton Borough Council were acutely aware of the reputational as well as physical dangers the controversy surrounding the Eleanor Cross represented to the council.

Historic England were also involved in the public announcements about the Eleanor Cross.

On 3 November the Inspector of Ancient Monuments in the Northampton office of Historic England expressed concern that the initial wording of a press release suggested that essential maintenance had been completed rather than just the initial phase of the necessary work.  This was clearly a marker to the council that Historic England considered there was more the council needed to do to resolve the issues facing the Cross.

However, there still appear to have been communications issues within the council itself.

On 10 November 2017 Mr Forsyth observed,

“Seems it’s too difficult for us to talk to each other, even if we sit at adjacent desks.”

Even so, by the end of the first week in November 2017, other senior officers were now aware of the situation regarding the Cross and the reputational danger it represented to the council.

Perhaps with that danger in mind, the decision making was now being referred to the very top of the council, with the senior elected member with responsibility for the Cross being brought into the loop.

On 9 November Paul Walker, the Head of Regeneration, Enterprise and Planning, e-mailed the council’s  Property Maintenance Manager, asking for fencing to be put in place by the following Monday, adding [our italics],

“In the meantime Craig [Forsyth] can address the comms aspects, as this has the potential to take on a life of its own, and we can talk to our cabinet member about the situation.”

The “cabinet member” is understood to be a reference to Councillor Tim Hadland, Northampton Borough Council’s Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Enterprise and Planning.

Cllr Hadland was certainly aware of the potential elephant trap for the council which any failure to be seen to undertake appropriate actions regarding the Eleanor Cross represented.  He was part of the ruling Conservative Group under the then Council Leader David Mackintosh during the controversial sale of the statue of Sekhemka, and had seen the council’s reputation tank internationally when the councils sale of the statue to an anonymous buyer at Christie’s cost it Arts Council accreditation for five years and almost caused an international incident with Egypt [see thePipeLine passim].  Not surprisingly he had already e-mailed the then Chief Executive of NBC, David Kennedy, in April 2017 warning of the presentational and reputational risks regarding repairs to the Eleanor Cross, stating,

“Can we please crack on with this.  It is potentially high profile and we need to demonstrate action rather than ducking the issue as shown by the “Heritage Gateway Board” at our partners.”

Given his understanding of the risks of the situation it is not surprising that Cllr Hadland was now briefed about the Cliveden/Stress UK reports by his lead officer, Paul Walker.  On the same day as he had e-mailed his colleague in property maintenance, 9 November, Mr Walker e-mailed Cllr Hadland directly and wrote,

“Dear Tim,

As you can see the structure has a crack in it and potentially presents a possible danger to the public hence the request for fencing and signage.

Cliveden Conservation, whom we have requested more information from, suggest we should strap the upper structure as a temporary measure, pending the design of a permanent repair.”

Completing the circle of information the e-mail concluded,

“Craig [Forsyth] is working on a suitable draft media release.”

To reinforce the importance of the content the whole e-mail was under the subject line “Eleanor Cross Monument.  Urgent repairs”

To critics of the council that one e-mail encapsulates the root of the entire controversy surrounding the non-repair of the Eleanor Cross.

The e-mail shows explicitly that both officers at the most senior level in Northampton Borough Council, and their political masters, were aware of the potential danger to the public, and to the survival of a nationally important monument, the Northampton Eleanor Cross, within days of that danger being identified by experienced, professional conservators and surveyors.  The e-mail also shows that the same officers and elected members were equally aware of, and seemingly determined to avoid, any threat to their own reputations by doing their best to control the public and media narrative of the story.

 


Senior council officer Paul Walker, informs his cabinet portfolio holder Cllr Tim Hadland by email about the damage to the Northampton Eleanor Cross and the need for strapping on 9 November 2017.
[Fair Use for the purpose of reporting news]

 

However, another e-mail suggests there was also some indecision and drift at the top of Northampton Council as it tried to work out how to respond to the Cliveden report.

Commenting on the draft press release about the fencing off of the cross to protect the public from falling fragments of stone, Simon Bovey, the council’s interim Chief Executive, wrote on on 13 November,

“I’m bothered that the last two paragraphs make us look like we don’t know [which we don’t], but when the public would expect us to know. I prefer to simply indicate that we are assessing the future maintenance of the cross.”

However, four days earlier Northampton’s own Building Control Officer had intervened and offered the council an escape route from having to undertake the works immediately.

In November 2017 Northampton Borough Council did fence off the Northampton Eleanor Cross to protect passers by from falling fragments of stone such as these.  However, no other work was undertaken to stabilise the structure ahead of Winter 2017/2018 when freeze/thaw action might be expected to exacerbate blistering and cracking of the stone.
[Copyright: Mathew Lewis]

Following two inspections on 8 and 9 November 2017 the officer, Mr Lee Hunter, e-mailed the head of Regeneration, Enterprise and Planning Paul Walker and other senior officers stating the opinion that,

“I do not consider the building to be an imminent danger requiring an emergency action under section 78 of the Buildings Act 1984,”  the e-mail continued, that due to a significant crack there was the potential for part of the monument “to become dangerous” and concluded that the council should put appropriate fencing in place to protect the public and seek more information from Cliveden.

As is now clear, the view of Northampton Borough Council’s own officer prevailed and apart from the fencing and earlier removal of vegetation which was damaging the monument, the emergency work, including strapping, recommended by Cliveden and Stress UK was never undertaken.  However, it was not that further opportunities and the legal framework to undertake the work was not available.  Indeed, all the parties appear to have carried on as if the work was going to happen.  It is just that the actual work was kicked further down the road.

Another e-mail, also seen by thePipeLine, shows that on 10 January 2018 Historic England told Northampton Borough Council that it had requested that the Secretary of State varied Scheduled Monument Consent to enable the “urgent repairs” to proceed.  Historic England added that its Northampton Office would contact the Northampton Borough Architect “tomorrow” to finalise the application.

There were also detailed, fully costed, specification for the actual works in place as Cliveden submitted their final report and recommendations on 4 February 2018.

The first recommendation was that the emergency strapping work be undertaken as a prelude to a full conservation programme which would take place later in 2018.

With the final recommendations of the expert conservators in place, a method statement approved by Historic England and the legal hurdles regarding Scheduled Monument Consent cleared the by mid January [2018] at the latest, the only obstacle to carrying out the remedial work was Northampton Borough Council’s own willingness to commission that work.

However, no more work was commissioned.

At the root of that lack of willingness to commission the work appears to be that Northampton Borough Council was still arguing about who actually owned the Cross and was thus liable for the cost of the repairs.

Of course, both officers and elected members have a duty to treat public finance with care and Northampton Borough Council is as cash strapped as every other local authority after seven years of significant Government cuts in core local government funding.  Indeed,  Northampton might be more disadvantaged than most as the Borough is also down at least a further eleven million pounds plus in the lost loan to the former owner of Northampton Town Football Club Mr David Cardoza and the legal costs of trying to get the money back.  However, that is another story and is currently the subject of a Police investigation.

When it comes to the Eleanor Cross the argument was whether it was the Borough or the County Council which actually owned it.

That argument appears to have finally been closed by an email sent on 5 March 2018 by Theresa Boyd, a lawyer in Property Planning and Highways at the social enterprise legal firm LGSS Law Ltd.

Ms Boyd describes “investigative legal work” undertaken by herself and a colleague in response to conversations with Ms Jennings and Mr Forsyth at NBC.  The conclusion Ms Boyd reported was that Northampton Borough Council undoubtedly owned the Eleanor Cross and had done since 1965.

However, in addition to the fact that the emergency work was not commissioned and Historic England have confirmed that Northampton Borough Council only submitted an application for a grant to undertake work on the Eleanor Cross on 24 April 2018.

This was three months after the grant of Scheduled Monument Consent for the work, a whole five months after Cliveden submitted the report notifying the council that the Eleanor Cross required “emergency strapping as soon as possible.” and almost six months on from the first notification of a potential danger to the cross and to the public.

 

 

 

The e-mails demonstrate clearly, that Cllr Hadland was a party to the conversations about the state of the Eleanor Cross, at the most senior level in the Council.

 

Talking on the BBC Radio Northampton breakfast show on 8 May 2018 Ben Robinson of Historic England appeared to express some impatience with the council, stating,

“We want a programme of repairs underway this Summer.”

However, asked to confirm the timeline for repairs a spokesperson for Historic England was less specific, telling thePipeLine,

“Historic England provided advice to Northampton Borough Council to assist their commissioning of the condition report. Since the receipt of the final condition report (completed 4/2/2018) we have met with Northampton Borough Council to discuss its implications and then to discuss a grant application. The grant application was finalised by the Council on 24/4/2018.”

Speaking on the same programme, NBC’s Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Enterprise and Planning, Cllr Tim Hadland, appeared to blame council officers for the delay when he told the BBC,

“I don’t know the answer to that [the apparent delay in undertaking safety work]…There will have been conversations going on since last November about the urgency and about the works that were required culminating the application for grant which has now produced the good and the aim all along has been to get these repairs done in the Summer before another Winter.”

Later in the interview Cllr Hadland suggested that he was not familiar with the “interpretation” of the Cliveden report.

In fact, by not correcting the BBC reporter who suggested he was not aware of the interpretation of the report, Cllr Hadland was being was somewhat disingenuous.

As demonstrated above, the e-mails relating to the Eleanor Cross demonstrate clearly that Cllr Hadland was a party to the conversations about the state of the Cross at the most senior level in the council.

Not only was the Interim Chief Executive made aware of the situation, Cllr Hadland himself had been briefed about the cracking on the cross and the potential danger to the public on 9 November 2017 by the lead officer for his portfolio, Paul Walker.

In other words the chains of responsibility between professional officers and elected councillors appeared to be working properly.  It is just that the council, and Councillor Hadland in particular, were not prepared to level with their electorate in Northampton, or the wider public who are concerned about the UK’s national heritage, about what they knew, when, or explain why they had not carried out the emergency work the Cliveden report called for.


 

“I think people could accept mistakes as long as people are honest about them, but with things like the Eleanor Cross it just looks like they are trying to cover it up.”

 

At one level the officers and elected members of Northampton Borough Council carried out their statutory duty in fencing off the Eleanor Cross to protect the public, when it was notified that there was a potential danger.

There is also no suggestion that anyone acted improperly in other aspects of the controversy surrounding the failure to carry out the rest of the repairs to the Cross as recommended by Cliveden.

However, it is fair to suggest, as its critics do, that the council has, at all stages, done the bare minimum necessary to stave off, not further damage to the Eleanor Cross, but to stave off further damage to the council’s reputation by muting, if only temporarily, the vociferous and effective public campaign by local people to see the Eleanor Cross properly conserved for their town and for the nation.

This campaign of delay included pursuing the futile suggestion that the council did not even own the cross, and accepting the opinion of its own Building Control Manager that the repairs could be postponed once the immediate public safety issue had been solved, over the opinion of Cliveden and Stress UK that they should not be delayed.

The controversy has also shown the limitations of the powers of Historic England.  The statutory advisor and regulator has been reduced to the role of a bystander, watching the cross deteriorate in the hands of a landowner, Northampton Borough Council, whose strategy seem to have been to abrogate their responsibility as custodian of the heritage of the people of Northampton, while engineering a situation where the Cross would become someone else’s financial problem.  A mission which has now been accomplished with the reported award of a grant from Historic England.

Summing up the current situation Cllr Julie Davenport (Independent – Delapre & Briar Hill), a Northampton Borough and County Councillor whose borough council ward includes the Eleanor Cross, told thePipeLine,

“I think people could accept mistakes as long as people are honest about them, but with things like the Eleanor Cross it just looks like they are trying to cover it up.”

Cllr Davenport added,

“The residents just want to be told why the Council can commit millions to the new museum and art gallery, but they won’t pay for repairs to the cross, even when they are told they are needed urgently?”

In a further comment reported by Anglia TV news on Friday 12 May, Ben Robinson of Historic England said of the Northampton Eleanor Cross,

“It’s been an ever present landmark since 1290 and to lose it in this generation would be unthinkable and that’s why we and the Borough Council are stepping in to undertake the repairs to make sure it survives into the next generation.”

Northampton Borough Council declined repeated invitations to comment on the specific allegations contained in this article.  However, a spokesperson for the Council referred us to a press release dated 3 May 2018, which contains the following comments.

“Cllr Tim Hadland, Cabinet member for regeneration, enterprise and planning, said: “We know this work needs to take place urgently and we are doing everything within our power to make that happen.

“We recognise the cross is an important part of England’s heritage, and we must find a way of funding this work, which is why we’re pleased to be able to work in partnership with Historic England in moving the project forward.

“The potential for a contribution toward the work from Historic England is very welcome, given the pressures local government budgets are currently under.”

The hope is to carry out the work during the summer and autumn this year, but if this is not possible remedial measures will be taken to protect the structure throughout the winter months.”

Responding to that press release, critics of the Northampton Borough Council suggest that those remedial measures referred to by Cllr Hadland are presumed to include the strapping which was first notified to Cllr Hadland and his colleague as being required to get the Northampton Eleanor Cross through Winter 2017/2018, almost year earlier than the date they would now be put in place.

This is a timetable which suggests to critics that Cllr Hadland and his colleagues operate definitions of the terms “everything within our power” and “urgently” which are somewhat different to those used by everyone else working in buildings conservation.

Meanwhile, the last word should perhaps lie with Communications and marketing manager Craig Forsyth.  On 9 March 2018 Mr Forsyth responded to a critical post on the Save Our Eleanor Cross Facebook page telling the concerned members of the group, who are mostly local voters in Northampton,

“Please rest assured, as soon as we have some news on progress we will let you know.”

He then emailed various senior officer reporting his comment and adding a cheery,

“You can guarantee that this will not go away.”

He was right…

Cllr Tim Hadland was also invited to respond to the evidence that he was party to the discussions and decision making about the Eleanor Cross from at least 9 November 2017.  He was also asked whether it was normal practice for the Head of Communications, Mr Forsyth to suggest the wordings of e-mails to professional staff and whether Mr Forsyth was actually helping design the public face of a strategy designed to downplay the importance of repairs and delay the works recommended in the Cliveden report until NBC could obtain outside funding? Cllr Hadland told thePipeLine,

“I have not denied that I knew about the Cliveden report, merely that I had read it.

I have nothing further to add.”

[This article was updated on 14 May 2018 to include a comment by Cllr Tim Hadland.]

 

INVESTIGATION: ELEANOR CROSS E-MAILS REVEAL DELAY DITHER AND SPIN AT NORTHAMPTON BOROUGH COUNCIL
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