Councillors Say They Won’t Approve £4m Hitachi ‘Smart Islands’ Project Until They Have More Information
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” That was the view of Cllr Gaz O’Neill at yesterday’s Full Council meeting, where members voted unanimously not to sanction spending on the proposed £4m ‘Smart Islands’ project, being run in collaboration with Japanese multinational company Hitachi.
Councillors said they wanted the item removed from the budget and would review the decision later this year, once they’d received the information they’ve been promised on the scheme.
They had been asked to approve the Capital Programme, which outlines spending on major projects over the next five years.
It showed the Council is considering spending £750,000 in the upcoming financial year on the project, which includes a vehicle hiring, sharing and scrappage scheme and electric vehicle charging points.
This would be followed by £2.25m in 2017/18 and £1m the following year, which the report said would be funded from grants.
But Cllr Fran Grottick revealed that an email sent last week to all councillors by Senior Development Officer Diana Mompoloki had suggested the Council could have to fund up to 20% of the work.
That was £800,000 on a £4m project, said Fran. “Where do we find that from?”
And even if the project could get all the funding from grants, Cllr Grottick was concerned there could be other costs for the Council.
She had checked her figures and discovered that £111,000 had been spent by the Economic Development team just to get to the point of applying for grants for the Porthmellon Innovation Centre, which, she said, “is largely untenanted.”
Fran said it was “not just question of money but officer time and officer focus.”
She said she’d prefer that time spent researching the Smart Islands project and its potential benefits in the future, is spent “trying to support the community and businesses that are here now.”
That worry was echoed by Cllr Gaz O’Neill.
He said grant funding was “never the end of story“ and “there’s no such thing as a free lunch – someone has to pay for it.”
Gaz says he was not against the concept of the Smart Islands project, but in the current economic environment it was “a luxury we can’t afford.”
“We can’t be looking at cutting front line services while funding, potentially, 20% of a massive project that the majority of the public see as totally unnecessary,” said Gaz.
Cllr Colin Daly likened the approach to that of the Sports Hall.
“Even if we get a 100% grant, that’s not the end of the story,” said Colin.
He said the Carn Gwaval facility was “a free gift” but had turned into a huge drain on the Council’s revenue.
Councillors also had concerns that any budget decision made at the Full Council could come back to bite them in the future.
The Chief Executive Theo Leijser told them that the capital programme is, “only indicative” and that any projects will still need to go to the relevant committee for approval.
But Cllr O’Neill wasn’t convinced.
Gaz said he wanted an assurance that if it was approved, they wouldn’t be told in the future that this had, “already been fully supported and endorsed by Full Council.”
“We would be presented with it in a fashion that it was a fait accompli,” said Gaz.
But councillors also felt they couldn’t make any decision on the scheme without having more information.
Fran said members had been promised a workshop on the project, but she had only received confirmation of that the day before the meeting.
And she said she had spoken to councillors on the TEDI Committee, under which this project falls, but there “was not a single member who could say much about the Smart Island project.”
Council Vice Chairman Steve Sims said that wasn’t the case and she hadn’t come to him to talk about the details.
Steve also said the Council had “no capital liability” with all the money coming from the Local Enterprise Partnership or project partners.
However, the TEDI Vice Chairman Ted Moulson disputed this, saying Steve “couldn’t announce we are going to get 100% funding for it.”
Cllr Moulson said the project could bring “great benefits in economics, society and infrastructure” to the islands but if they couldn’t get all the costs covered “we cannot afford it – it’s as simple as that.”
Ted also attacked the Council’s economic development strategy.
He said the islands generate more than 90% of their income through the visitor economy yet there, “is a perception in the public that the Council is anti tourism and not developing the industry to a sufficient degree.”
He felt funds should be, “directed to supporting the current community and businesses we have now.”
Cllr James Francis went further.
He said the Council had, “lost sight of the community’s perception of the way we operate” and that islanders were far more concerned about the provision of transport, and other “far more important” issues surrounding the economy of the islands.
But Council Chairman Amanda Martin disagreed. She said those who “have kept abreast of this know there are good reasons to support it.”
Amanda was surprised at some members’ lack of knowledge of the approach, saying it had come from a Planning Strategy paper, written when Cllr Gordon Bilsborough chaired that committee nine years ago in 2007.
And she implied that the Council’s independent status could depend on the project.
She said there was a “need to fit in with government wishes on this because we are going to them to ask for support on the longevity of our unitary authority.”
But Cllr Marian Bennett was worried by this.
She said, “I find the claim this morning that if we don’t go with the Smart Island project, we might end up having our unitary authority status removed by government, sort of a bit threatening,” although Amanda replied that was not what she actually said.
In the end, councillors voted to remove the Smart Islands project from the capital programme until they had more information on the scheme.