A new era?

I haven’t always been the biggest fan of Project Genesis. For many years it was slow to supply people with detail about what it was doing, kept its intentions under wraps, and preferred just to tell us that it was good for us. We were asked to take it all on trust.

Recently, however, there has been a great deal more openness about its plans, a much greater effort to get alongside the community, and today’s opening of Fawcett Park took that to a new level with representatives invited from many local groups (Friends of the Park, Salvation Army, Royal British Legion, Scouts etc.) as well as children from five of our local primary schools, the same schools which had supplied a time capsule to be buried on the site earlier in the year.

Fawcett Park

The site, which lies off Genesis Way, includes a couple of excellent artworks and a children’s playground. I checked with the schoolchildren who had road-tested it. It’s excellent too!

One swallow doesn’t make a summer, but talking to people there was a new sense of optimism about a project which has existed for 20 years, but has gained little trust within the community. It can’t be a bad sign that there’s a new website for the project and talk of some potentially exciting developments on the Hownsgill Industrial Estate, as well as environmental projects to link Fawcett Park through to the CTC at the Cuckoo Bridge.

In the end it’s the developments at Hownsgill which will be the real proof of the pudding. Project Genesis was always supposed to feed into the commercial regeneration of the town, particularly employment prospects, and we should all watch progress on that keenly. Consett doesn’t just need more houses and pleasant green spaces. It needs places for people to work and improve their standard of living. That will be the real evidence that Project Genesis is doing more than scratching the surface of the potential of what was once the economic heart of our town.

On the money

The Project Genesis Trust has put £30,000 into a fund to make grants to local groups.

They’ve done that by allocating the money to the County Durham Foundation, who in turn will use it to fund local projects alongside the funds they administer from many other charitable trusts. Apparently this initial grant is on a “suck it and see” basis, and further money will be forthcoming if they like the way it is handled.

Project Genesis Trust has also invested a much larger (unspecified) sum of charitable monies with the Foundation to take advantage of the higher rates the Foundation is able to get. That is on a twelve month basis.

Groups won’t be able to apply directly for “Project Genesis Money”, but if they apply to the Foundation for a grant, operate in Derwentside and fit the charitable aims of the trust then they may be beneficiaries of it.

I’m pleased that money will be allocated in this way, so long as we get regular reports (as we did at the AAP tonight), because the greater the transparency the better. If this is a first salvo in Project Genesis and the County Council working together as trustees it will be better for us all. The legacy of the site is far too valuable to Consett to be allowed  to go to waste.

Answer from Council

In response to my question about what steps the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Council had taken to acquaint themselves with the Project Genesis Trust, of which they are ex officio members, I got the following response: (my summary – not verbatim)

The council has written to the solicitors acting for the trust to request them to accept different representatives as follows (in alphabetical order):

Andy Palmer: Head of Policy, Planning and Performance

Councillor Bob Young: Portfolio holder for the Environment

Councillor Neil Foster: Porfolio holder for Regeneration and Economic Development

I don’t believe any response has yet been received to this request.

The Genesis site

Recent events are giving me concern.

The failure of the cabinet to consider the “Business as Usual” proposal for Consett Sports Centre, planned and financed for the Berry Edge site, concerns me. The elimination of the Berry Edge site from the possible Academy sites concerns me.

It’s not that I’m sure that that is the right site for either, but that the county doesn’t seem to understand that it owns the site or seem very interested in engaging with the Project Genesis Trust. It seems just to have abandoned the idea of a site which brought the possibility of having college, school and sports facilities in one tight knit area which would enable children to benefit from the facilities during school hours.

It’s hard to imagine on what basis anyone would want to ignore this site. It’s huge. It’s valuable. It was given to the people of Derwentside (yes, that’s right, not just the people of Consett) and that’s a legacy which we should make the most of.

I used to complain about the lack of transparency of the project – and justifiably so.

Now what we’ve got is even worse – invisibility.

If the new county council is serious about being for all the county they’ll have to get a grip of the opportunities in this part of it. If they don’t the voters will take their revenge.

Persistence pays!

I first asked for Derwentside’s Audit Committee to have a report on “Project Genesis past, present and future” in March 2008.

At last, on January 28th 2009, an Audit Comittee Meeting has been arranged with the Chief Executive Officer with regard to Project Genesis.

I know nothing more at present, and this may not seem like a big deal, but it actually represents one of those bright rays in a councillor’s life.

Over eighteen months a spirit of teamwork has developed in this committee which resulted in members of all parties agreeing that we would not take “no” for an answer. Armed with that unanimity the Chairperson, Councillor Denise Bennett from Burnhope, took up the cudgel and the meeting was arranged.

Co-operation for a common goal is local government as it should be, and can be, regardless of party allegiances. It’s easier to achieve in small committees than in big ones, however, and it takes goodwill on all sides.

I hope this can prove a model of how Consett’s Action Area Partnership will be able to work in due course. The committee (to be called a “board”) will be bigger but with only the two Consett wards, Benfieldside, Leadgate & Medomsley and Burnopfield & Dipton included, the area and the representation should be tight enough to enable real teamwork if that’s what the members are looking for.

That’s for the future. Today, I’m just looking forward to January 28th.

Project Genesis – starting at the top

Readers of this blog will know that I have taken a real interest in Project Genesis, an interest which has not been universally welcomed!

That’s why I was very pleased that Morris Muter, Chief Executive of Project Genesis Ltd, requested a meeting with me to discuss some of the issues I have raised, and some concerns that he and others may have about my involvement. I appreciate his openness since, as the managing director of a private company which has development rights to the land, and whose business ventures stretch far beyond Consett, he would have the greatest right of any of the three parties to tell me to mind my own business (the three parties being the development company Project Genesis Ltd, the charitable trust Project Genesis Trust, and the council which was party to the creation of the arrangement and has three representatives on the trust as of right).

So I was pleased to find Mr Muter very open about the figures which he is busy preparing to make public about what Project Genesis Ltd has achieved in attracting capital projects to the town. The figures are too precise (with some commercially sensitive information) for publication as yet, but he assured me that he is intending to simplify them and make them public. That’s good news, and I have offered this website as a place on which they can be published if he chooses to.

Mr Muter also told me that, following discussions we have had previously, he has already started to provide this information, and cited as an example a recent newspaper article which you can read at http://icnortheast.icnetwork.co.uk/homemaker/property-news/tm_headline=in-at-the-rebirth-of-forgotten-town%26method=full%26objectid=21801650%26siteid=50081-name_page.html

I found Mr Muter refreshingly frank about Project Genesis Ltd, but when I turned to the question of the Project Genesis Trust, set up to supervise the project, he referred me to the trustees. He isn’t one of them, just a Patron, and so I will have to go to them for answers to some of my questions, and to encourage them, like Project Genesis Limited, to make public what they are and have been doing.

When I finally turned to the question of Derwentside District Council, and my dismay at the blocking of every attempt to get the council representatives (councillors and officer) to do what representatives do – to report back to the council – he just shrugged in what I understood to indicate, “that’s your battle”.

It’s a battle I took up again at Thursday’s audit committee. There I was able to report that the Project Genesis trustees had willingly supplied me with a copy of the trust’s last account, both through Mr Muter and then in an email from the District Council just minutes before the meeting. This was a welcome improvement since district council officers had previously found a need to “look at the legality of looking at the accounts of the trust”.

Another request I’ve made is just as important. As a council we need to consider how the interests of local people are to be protected in benefiting from this inheritance from the ironworks. When the unitary council replaces Derwentside District Council, the “ex-officio” trustees will be county figures, not Consett people. The current county leader is from Chester-le-Street, so what motivation will he have to get involved with this local project? And how interested will the Chief Executive be when he has so many other issues to address county-wide?

Having this discussion in the audit committee, the committee charged with overseeing the council’s risk-control, is just common sense. Unfortunately, common sense is not always that common at Derwentside Council.

Sniffer Owen

I first knew I was a nerd when I was the only one of the 27 Lib Dem Councillors on Durham County Council to ask to go on the audit committee. I’ll certainly know it on Thursday when I spend the morning on the Audit Committee at the County Council, and the afternoon at the Audit Committee of the District Council.

The result of this nerdiness was about four hours spent going through accounts. And did I come up with anything? Well actually, yes I did. Nothing earth shattering, but one  question I raised was how the number of allotments had risen from 68 to 84. This produced the answer that actually they hadn’t. The original figure of 64 was just plain wrong, as was 84. It should have been 87!

Was it for this that I entered local politics. Not really. Except that taking the job seriously, looking at the detail, asking the questions, is the absolutely necessary part of councillors making sure that the administration is doing the job right. And of course, there were more interesting questions.

I was particularly taken by the answer to my question about how much land had been transferred to Project Genesis this year, and for what price? The answer apparently is 27.39 hectares (which you will instantly know to be 67.68 acres) for £2 “as specified in the Genesis Project agreement”. Now that did interest me because although I’ve heard this figure before, I’ve never seen it written in any of the original agreement papers. In fact, if the papers I’ve been provided with are accurate copies, the figure in the supervision agreement is actually blank!

When you link that to the fact that the original deed setting up the Genesis Trust specified that the leader of the largest opposition party on the council should be represented on the trustees ex officio, but the current one was unaware of it, you wonder exactly what control our council has been exerting over the trust.

Sniffer Owen is hoping for answers to that on Wednesday’s meeting. Let me know if you’re interested too.

Genesis Maps

I’m expecting a surge in readership in the next twenty-four hours as people log in to see what Project Genesis was designed to do to our townscape!

I’m not sure about the precise dates of these two maps, but the print and low tech black and white design of this one B&W Genesis Map (click to open) and the detail makes it clear that it is the earliest. The Consett bypass still looks to be under construction, and certainly there is no idea that Consett is to have so much housing developed. Nor is there any suggestion that the heart of Consett should become skewed towards the Berry Edge site which many people see as the result of moving the Technical College, Sports Centre and proposed retail park there.

The second map project-genesis-trust-map.pdf (click to open) is later with the Consett bypass constructed and the earliest buildings on the Hownsgill Industrial Estate. A little bit of extra housing has just sneaked into the plan, too, down at Templetown.

The original plan was never meant to be set in tablets of stone, and that is made clear in the documents of the time, but what was meant to happen was clear from the article printed yesterday. Any change had to be approved by the trustees, upon which the Council is represented. The upshot of that should clearly have been that changes were reported back to the council , together with their justification. That’s the argument which is still going on – and it also shows the biggest weakness of the scheme.

A primary motivation of the scheme appears to have been to enable access to government grants, particularly Derelict Land Grant, on favourable terms which would not have been available to the council. There’s nothing wrong with that – except that in giving away control of the land to a development company (whose ownership has changed) and a charity (whose trustees have changed out of all recognition in a decade and a half) true accountability for this legacy from Consett’s past was also given away for all time.

All I’m interested now is in recovering as much of that accountability as is possible, through pressure and publicity, and through the active involvement of the Derwentside District Council Audit Committee. This is vital before we move into the new unitary authority which will lack knowledge of the history of the project, and may lack the will to influence the future of the project.

Project Genesis – the official story

Readers of this blog are likely to be aware that I have had an interest in Project Genesis for some time, and have attempted to get the Audit Committee of Derwentside District Council to evaluate the project to date as well as looking at its future as we move into a unitary authority. I haven’t succeeded so far, but have sought again to have it included in the June meeting so watch this space!

Some people may think I am a bit one sided in my view which is that anything which is not naturally transparent needs to be held up to the light if you’re to see through it. So just to show how keen I am to see things from all sides I attach a file 2008_06_11_22_00_04.pdf with the official story of the project up to 2003 which you can also view at http://www.derwentside.gov.uk/getmedia.cfm?mediaid=1023 pages 10 & 11.

It’s worth reading because it sets out clearly what the council saw as the achievements of the project back in 2003 – and also reminds us that it hasn’t noticeably kept its promise in the last paragraph; “the Council will – as always – keep the public informed.”

In the interests of keeping you informed, tomorrow I’ll be publishing the map of the original master plan. I know you’ll look forward to that. And no doubt you’ll make your own judgements about how effectively the Trust, on which the Council has been represented, has supervised the amendments to the Master Plan.

Genesis – in the beginning or the end?

consett-works-jpeg.jpgRecent Focus Readers will have seen my article asking where the benefits are to be found from Project Genesis. The article was taken up and developed in The Journal on Thursday. You can see the link here: http://www.journallive.co.uk/north-east-news/todays-news/2008/03/27/call-for-probe-into-charity-61634-20678991/

I’ve been doing quite a lot of digging into this project, and accept that much has been done through it, but am still to be convinced that it has delivered, and more importantly will deliver, all it can for Consett.

I propose to publish a series of articles with my findings and questions on the project through this site. I would very much appreciate two things from you, the readers:

1. To provide me with anything you know about the Project, good, bad or indifferent. You can post a comment of email me direct.

2. To write to Mike Clark (Chief Executive of Derwentside Council), Alex Watson (Leader of Derwentside Council) and Denise Bennett (Chair of the Council audit committee) urging them to support my call for the audit committee to examine the project: what it has achieved, why the charitable trust has received so little money – and spent so little even of what it has received, and how the benefits are to be protected for Derwentside when Derwentside ceases to exist.

According to Alex Watson Project Genesis has delivered “hundreds of millions of pounds” to Consett. With that much money at stake some scrutiny of the books has to be in order!