The Isle of Wight council’s Corporate Scrutiny Committee voted in favour of officer recommendations at tonight’s (Tuesday) meeting in relation to the Cowes Floating Bridge.
The vote, five in favour (all Conservative councillors) and three against (all opposition councillors), carried to motion which will be taken to Thursday’s Cabinet meeting.
The Chairman, Cllr Richard Hollis (Con) started the discussion by reading out this statement,
“There’s been a tremendous amount of public interest and concern about this project and a lot of conjecture and misinformation has been and continues to be bandied about. Much of it completely ill-informed and unfair to various parties including officers of the council, who are not in a position to reply. And I’m talking about on the media, the media.
“With the understanding that the legal situation would be past the mediation stage in January I put together 43 questions back in November from all the documentation that was available to me at that time. Unfortunately because of Covid I could not get to see individuals.
“A fair number of the questions are answered by the documentation that we now have, but a lot of them however, cannot be answered at this stage because of ongoing legal proceedings which are at a stage of ‘without prejudice’ and that is important. Without prejudice mediation. But they will be in time and can help form a basis with others for a future approach for this committee.
“Married to a lawyer I have free access to understanding the concept of allowing all parties time to mitigate their losses and how the legal process works. Obviously some more vociferous councillors in the community do not.
“However, I’d like all view points to be noted so that they can form a contribution to finding the correct solution to the problem that we are confronted with.”
He went on to say,
“It is clear within the report there was a lack of political engagement in the project in the beginning and the people in charge at the time must take some responsibility.
“Councillor engagement is required as clearly stated in local government guidance at that time. This administration inherited their lack of due diligence. Unfortunately the current administration has had to deal with the major shortcomings of FB6, which remember have evolved as time has progressed after launching in summer [May] 2017. At the same time I am sure someone will explain why the demand for FB6 just to be scrapped is plainly naïve.
“The legal proceedings aside we have to look forward as to where we are going. It may be a much lighter floating bridge made from different materials. We have the expertise on our doorstep or it may even be a lifting bridge, but for present we have to play the hand of cards that we have been dealt not the ones that we would liked to have been dealt. Having said that and that is purely my view, I would like to proceed.”
Questioning lack of political oversight
Leader of the council, Cllr Dave Stewart (Con) spoke next. He praised Cllr Ian Stephens (Island Indie Network) for securing the funding from the Solent LEP when he was leader of the Island Independents, but went on to point out the lack of political oversight in the procurement process.
This was later countered by Cllr Ian Stephens, who said they [the Indies] followed the procurement process of the previous Conservative administration, which meant elected councillors do not get involved with procurement issues – to avoid suggestions of brown envelopes. Cllr Stewart gave a longer statement at the end of the discussion, see below.
Beston: Will the money have to go back to SLEP?
Cllr Michael Beston (Con) was the first to ask a question,
“If we were able to borrow the money to build a new FB what would happen to the original funding we were granted from the Solent LEP (SLEP)?”
Cllr Stewart replied that the SLEP are closely monitoring situation, and will be working with IWC independently to find a way forward.
“If we were not to complete the contract that was agreed with the SLEP they would then consider whether they would need to ask us for the money back as part of the process.”
Hendry: Can’t we just scrap it?
Cllr Stephen Hendry (Con), got in with the second question, saying he understood how important the floating bridge is to residents in Cowes and East Cowes, but asked the leader to explain for residents elsewhere “why we can’t just scrap it”.
Cllr Stewart replied that obligations were made to the SLEP in return for the funding, commitments such as improving the economy, numbers carried etc. He said it has always been their priority to maintain a link for east and west Cowes and wider employment on the Island.
Quirk: A wider Island transport strategy
Cllr Chris Quirk (Con) if the IWC could apply to the Government’s levelling up fund to deliver a wider Island transport strategy, looking at improving connectively across the Island, to include a road bridge across the Medina to allow movement between Ryde and Cowes, not going through Newport.
Cllr Stewart said he was in favour of a proper road bridge across the Medina, and given the success of the St Mary’s junction should look at how to improve Newport as a destination, rather than a “town of traffic”.
“I would hope officers are looking into how we bid into that fund to improve our Island infrastructure. After the outcome of meditation we can look at all aspects of how that plays together.”
Jones-Evans: Silenced by mediation
Cllr Julie Jones-Evans (Indie Members Group) was the first opposition member invited to speak. She questioned why they were having the discussion at all, as it was going over old ground and the restrictions of the legal mediation meant there were many questions she wanted to ask, but couldn’t.
“I do not want to put the council in any position that would jeopardise the mediation. I have real concerns about decisions that were made, but I’m not going to ask about those.
“I don’t agree with the recommendations, but can’t tell you why because I don’t want to put us in a bad situation.”
Jones-Evans: How many objectives achieved?
She did refer to a August 2015 document, which laid out a list of objectives for the new vessel, and asked how many have been fulfilled? They included items such as:
- Reduce queuing times
- Increase crossings
- Shorter crossing time
- Greater capacity for vehicles
- Improved passenger accommodation
- Reduce carbon emissions
- Improve energy efficiency
- Less congestion in and around Newport
Cllr Stewart said that officers can deal with that, but added that if the mediation process was successful “many positive things can happen”. He added,
“I want to give our lawyers and officers every opportunity to deal with claims that are on the table.”
Jones-Evans: Uncomfortable with doubt being cast
Cllr Jones-Evans said her observation was that doubt was being casted on previous administration and their ability to deliver this project successfully – she said she felt uncomfortable with this.
“I don’t think that is the mood music I am feeling from the public, everyone wants to look forward. They want resolution, and a service that is fit for purpose.”
Leader: Was the council sold a pup?
Cllr Stewart replied that they [IWC] didn’t know what the problems were until the vessel hit the water.
“The question I ask myself is, was the council sold a pup with floating bridge 6? I’m certainly inclined to the view that this vessel was not and is not fit for purpose.
“The litigation is based on the premise that FB6 can be fixed to a standard that ensures good and reliable service, but that in order to do so and as a result of all the costs incurred in dealing with the emerging issues a substantial claim has been put on the table. That’s about as close as I can go at this point.”
Hollis: You seem to have a lot to say
Cllr Jones-Evans expressed her frustration that they are there to scrutinise and can’t and suggested the item should have been deferred until the next meeting. Chairman, Cllr Hollis, replied.
“You seem to have a lot to say, perhaps others people might like to ask questions and if there is nothing to talk about then I won’t ask you to answer, you know, any more points.”
Cllr Jones-Evans is heard telling the Chair she found that very rude, but no apology is given.
Lilley: What is the interim plan for the community?
Cllr Michael Lilley (Island Indie) explained that while the mediation process is ongoing, people still need to cross the Medina River.
“What is the interim plan for the community, what does the IWC intend while sorting out the long term?”
Cllr Stewart said the intention is to ensure a good and reliable link, they need and deserve and goes on to read out stats for January and February this year, when schools were closed and most people were staying at home for lockdown.
Andre: If sold a pup, do we still owe money?
Cllr Debbie Andre (Island Indie) asked,
“If we were sold a pup, do we still owe money to SLEP?”
The leader replied that the money was provided on the understanding the requirements agreed would be met.
“If we can’t meet that because we are unable to maintain the service, SLEP have engaged with us to ask what we intend to do to meet that commitment, they actually are looking independently to review what we do do moving forward, but in a positive tone they are keen to work with us.
“This is not about the money, it’s about a service for the community that we all agree is important. The litigation in my view needs to come to a head, the mediation will enable us to deal with that aspect.”
Andre: Are we committed to spending more?
Cllr Andre went on to explain the “huge public concern that more and more money is being put into FB6”. She asked if there was a way IWC can provide a service without committing more funding to FB6.
Cllr Stewart said the problems occurred over time and under the warranty they have to allow the builders to deal with the issues as they arise, whether that is chain, hydraulics etc,. He explained the costs to the IWC such as the passenger vessel, the push barge (£100,000 per annum).
“All the figures and costs we have incurred form part of our mediation process. So other parties know. Whether we’re successful or not that’s what mediation is about, but I’m satisfied that FB6 is able to provide a service to the community and all the while it can do that it should do, because that’s what it was built to do.”
Cllr Andre pushed again for an answer, saying, “Are we committed to spending more money on FB6? Where is that line drawn?”
Cllr Stewart, replied
“We need to dispel this myth that FB6 is not providing a service and isn’t generating income, ‘cos that’s not true.”
Cllr Stewart failed to mention that the income is wiped out by the losses (see our Deep Dive series).
Weedall: Put out more positives
Sheila Weedall from the IW Association of Local Councils picked up on the poor communications highlighted in the PWC report (see here) and suggested that if more of the positives were put out, “we’d be in a better position going forward”.
Cllr Stewart replied by saying,
“If we don’t give that information, people fill the void with rumour or innuendo which is incorrect.”
Stephens: It was left to the professionals
Cllr Ian Stephens (Island Indie Network) gave some background to what happened after he secured the funding from the SLEP.
“Once we secured the money, we expressed a wish for a link, be that floating bridge, tunnel or bridge, it was left to the professionals to look at via our lead officers at the time.
“We spoke with bridge builders and put them in touch with officers, we followed the procurement process of the previous administration. Everything was dealt with as with the previous administration.”
Stephens: We did not bend the rules at all
Cllr Stephens went on to say,
“We did not bend the rules at all, we undertook the task in hand and our wishes were that it was dealt with on the IW, by the IW for the IW. That is as far as elected members go, because we have a body of professionals, we pay them good money and expect them to undertake the way forward. That was their brief and they had the opportunity to go and source consultancy.”
He said that elected members stood two paces back from the procurement process, “because members should not be involved”, to avoid suggestion of wrong-doing or ‘brown envelopes’.
Cllr Stephens said,
“It is the LEP’s responsibility as much as the IWC’s responsibility to make sure that funding is spent appropriately and correctly, and during my term as Leader nobody came to me and said there was something that was going awry.
“We’ve got to say that we’ve got here legitimately, honestly and responsibly. We have to move forward and continue. The Leader knows he has my support in taking this forward, I’m not there to criticise, I am there to get the best we can for the people of the Isle of Wight, businesses and residents of Cowes and East Cowes.”
Cllr Peacey-Wilcox had wanted to speak, but like many of the councillors, experienced connection problems and couldn’t be heard.
Before the vote Cllr Stewart read out his conclusion,
“As I said at the outset of my introduction, whatever the outcome of the litigation, it is this administration’s intention to ensure the communities of East and West Cowes have the ‘good and reliable’ link they need and deserve. We recognise, as does the LEP, that Floating Bridge 6 was paid for and built on this expectation.
“Was the council ‘sold a pup’ with Floating Bridge 6? I am certainly inclined to the view that this vessel was not and is not ‘fit for purpose’.
“Our case for litigation is based on the premise that Floating Bridge 6 can be fixed to a standard that ensures a ‘good and reliable’ service. But that in order to do so, and as a result of all the costs incurred in dealing with the emerging issues, a substantial claim has been put on the table.
“Central to that claim will be understanding the environment in which both Floating Bridge 6 and indeed Floating Bridge 5 have had to operate.
“With all I now know, I wonder whether the demise of Floating Bridge 5 was not just down to its age but was hastened by the impact and challenges of the spring ebb tides, now being experienced by Floating Bridge 6. These have been all the more noticeable because of the levels of detailed attention given to them; Floating Bridge 5 never received similar levels of attention or scrutiny.
“This leaves me to believe that future management of the link between East and West Cowes will also require closer monitoring of the operating environment to confirm any long tern changes in conditions that may require action from the responsible bodies, such as dredging the channel.
“There are those who say we should give the Floating Bridge back and get another one. They don’t however explain how this would done and paid for, or how the LEP would be refunded the £3.8 million they could be entitled to reclaim for failure to meet our contractual agreement.
“There are also those who suggest we should repair and bring back Floating Bridge 5.
“Well I and other councillors undertook a visit to Floating Bridge 5 – and I have to say I quickly concluded that this vessel, currently the home to rust and seagulls, is just not a viable replacement option.
“There are those who have suggested we have not listened to advice from stakeholder groups and engineering experts.
“Well we have listened, and some innovative suggestions have come forward. I think those linked to environmental impact are particularly interesting, as we look to push ahead with our carbon reduction and climate change strategy.
“But I must bring members back to the reality of our current situation.
“Notwithstanding the legal process in which we are currently engaged, or that fact that we have a financial commitment to the LEP of some £3 million pounds, or that an alternative vessel would need to be designed, built and paid for – this may no longer be the best solution in the longer term.
“A number of future alternatives have been suggested – including replacement with a fixed link consisting of a proper raising bridge or reviewing the necessity for a Floating Bridge to carry vehicles and people.
“It is not for me to comment on these proposals at this time as we are engaged in legal action. But I am listening to all proposals, understand their motivation and they will be properly considered in due course.
“Our immediate concern has to be securing the reliability and efficiency of the link we already have in Floating Bridge 6.
“Looking to the future, matters such as changing tidal and environmental conditions will need to be properly explored and assessed; as will the future needs of the community in the light of other road and infrastructure improvements (such as St Mary’s Junction) and the requirements of the travelling community in terms of their needs for road or passenger transportation in the future.
“Finally, there are the cost implications of any alternative link between East and West Cowes.
“Although the council is in a more robust and sustainable financial position than we were when the agreement with the SLEP was signed, we still have very little available money in the way of capital funding.
“We were only able to allocate a sum total of £9m of council funds to support new starts in our capital programme for the next three years, as set out in our budget, agreed by Full Council in February this year.
So, saying we will replace the Floating Bridge is not as simple as it sounds.
“We do not yet know the outcome of legal action and until this position is resolved no other plans can be taken forward at this time.
“In concluding the presentation of the report on Floating Bridge 6 it is my view that the time has come to stop using it as a ‘political football’ and focus on the future.
“I therefore propose the following key steps moving forward:
- Firstly, we make full use of all of the legal avenues available to have any design and build failures put right once and for all.
- Secondly, we confirm our commitment to communities of East and West Cowes to have a good and reliable service for the future.
- Thirdly, we continue to learn the lessons from the contract management member oversight to ensure the wider Island receives value for money for all contracts and investments made on their behalf.
- Finally, we must meet the requirements and expectations of the Solent Local Enterprise. I am pleased to confirm the LEP are keen to work with us to review the project and help us find the best way forward.
“One thing I can say is that whatever happens in the future, the community needs of East and West Cowes for this vital link will remain our priority and we will do all we can to ensure that service provision is maintained.”
The recommendation from the officers put to the vote:
Corporate Scrutiny Committee is asked to consider the recommendations below:
(i) Note that there were no issues with the approach taken to procurement, tendering and contracting.
(ii) Note the recommendations from both the PWC and Internal Review Board and provide a view on these documents.
(iii) Acknowledge that the committee cannot delve deeper into all of the efforts made to resolve the boat’s challenges until the action under the contract is concluded.
(iv) That a future Corporate Scrutiny Committee review the outcomes of the mediation as a basis for making recommendations on lessons learned for the whole council from this project.
(v) That Corporate Scrutiny Committee notes the questions from the Chairman and agrees that where these have not been addressed through the report or cannot be addressed due to the legal situation, they will form the basis of the review of the outcomes of the mediation process.
- Cllr Richard Hollis (Con)
- Cllr Michael Beston (Con)
- Cllr Vanessa Churchman (Con)
- Cllr Stephen Hendry (Con)
- Cllr Chris Quirk (Con)
- Cllr Debbie Andre (Island Indie)
- Cllr Julie Jones-Evans (Indie Members Group)
- Cllr Michael Lilley (Island Indie)
The motion was carried.
Image: © With kind permission of Allan Marsh