(Interim Strategic Director) To consider the attached report.
The interim Strategic Director presented a report on the progress with the establishment of the proposed Group Company Structure.
The interim Strategic Director reminded the Committee that the Cabinet had agreed in July 2019 to establish a group of companies, wholly owned by the Council, to deliver the following services:
(a) a Services company to deliver the Housing Repairs Service;
(b) a Development company to directly undertake development activity for the Council; and
(c) an Investment company to hold property assets for long-term rental.
The interim Strategic Director stated that a Steering Group had also been constituted to oversee the Group Company establishment, and consisted of three members of the Cabinet, the Chief Executive and the interim Strategic Director. Once the companies had been established, the Steering Group would be replaced by a formal Board structure. Up to this point, the Steering Group had concentrated upon the appointment of the specialist advisors to facilitate the Group Company set-up, including a consultant Development Director for the Development company; key decisions on governance, finance or land ownership had yet to be made. The model being used for the Group Company was based on best practice, as many Councils were setting up this type of company.
The interim Strategic Director then gave the Committee a short presentation on the initial design work that had been undertaken by Puttock Brown, the consultants appointed by the Council to provide the design and communication material for the new group of companies. This included the choice of ‘Qualis’ as the name for the companies: Qualis Group; Qualis Commercial; Qualis Living; and Qualis Management.
Councillor Murray opined that there was no information in the report to allow any proper scrutiny of the decisions made by the Steering Group, and highlighted the appointment of Puttock Brown as an example of this. The interim Strategic Director responded that the Steering Group had followed the Council’s procurement rules for the appointment of all of the consultants, and the tender submissions for these appointments could be circulated to Members if they wished. The Deputy Leader of the Council, Councillor S-A Stavrou, added that the Steering Group had listened to the advice of their consultants and took a collective decision for each appointment. The section of the report outlining the skills and experience of the newly appointed Development Director was also highlighted.
Councillor Murray enquired if there would be any independent members of the new Group Company Board when it was set up? The interim Strategic Director replied that the formal Board structure was subject to legal advice, and the Board composition and structure had yet to be decided. The legal advisors were being requested to provide information about how similar such structures were operating elsewhere and what lessons the Council could learn. The Chief Executive added that independent board membership would be very important and it was being considered.
Councillor Murray stated that he was not happy with this process, as major decisions were being made by just three Members – all from the same political group. There had been no involvement by the other political groups with potential expertise from their individual Members.
The Deputy Leader reiterated that all of the background papers were available for perusal by Members, and questions could be asked of the Members and Officers involved in the Steering Group. There was never any intention by the Steering Group to be secretive, however the Council needed to modernise and reform to enable it to provide the services for our residents without funding from the Government. There was a deadline of March 2020, which was when the Housing Repairs contract with Mears would expire. The interim Strategic Director added that the Services company would focus on providing the Housing Repairs service initially, but other Council provided services could be transferred to it in the future. With the current Housing Repairs contract expiring in March 2020, the aim was to have the group of companies established in the next two months.
Councillor H Kane pointed out that the proposed name of ‘Qualis’ had little relevance to Epping Forest, and Councillor Knight asked why Members at Council were not requested to suggest the company name? Councillor A Patel, one of the members of the Steering group, explained that the Steering Group was given three choices for the company name. It was necessary to proceed with the registration of the company, so the Steering Group selected the most appropriate of the three suggested names. The interim Strategic Director acknowledged that the selected name had little direct relevance to Epping Forest, but added that ‘Qualis’ was latin for quality and it symbolised the desire of the Council to provide quality services to its residents. The Group company names had now been agreed and registered, and it had cost the Council £4,900 to establish the name and logo.
The Chairman acknowledged that much had been completed to establish the Group of companies, and reassured Members of the Committee that further progress reports would be received for consideration at future meetings of the Committee. The Chief Executive reiterated that the background papers for the work undertaken so far were available from the Democratic Services section.
(1) That the progress with the activities undertaken to date to establish a Group of companies wholly owned by the Council be noted.