Eight things we learnt from the Asons grant scrutiny meeting (and one we didn't)

The Asons grant scrutiny meeting on Wednesday 11th January was probably the most well-attended Scrutiny meeting in Bolton's long history with a packed house at the Queens Park Pavilion Cafe and thousands watching the Liberal Democrats live feed online. It was also one of the most controversial with lots more questions coming out and not an awful lot of clarity. That said, here are eight things we learnt from the meeting.

Eight things we learnt from the Asons Grant Scrutiny meeting….

1. Council officers were aware of Asons financial position of and of the tax bill of £300,000....

One of the first questions of the night asked what was on everyone's lips did the Council do a check on Asons finances before the grant was approved. Chief Executive, Margaret Asquith, confirmed this to be the case, saying “we have looked at the viability of the business, we have looked at the payback for the Council and we have made recommendation on the diligence that we have done”. More surprisingly, further research carried out by the Liberal Democrats suggests that whilst officers may have been aware, the Council’s own finance team were not involved in scrutinising these figures.

2. ….but Cllr Cliff Morris wasn’t!

When pressed on whether Cllr Morris was presented with the full facts regarding Asons’ financial position, Margaret Asquith simply replied “No”. She claimed that the officers felt it was important that such sensitive information remain confidential, to ensure businesses such as Asons could have trust in the Council. Needless to say this didn’t go down well with opposition Councillors or the general public.

3. There may be a relationship between Asons and the Labour Party

One shocking turn up for the books was the suggestion that the Asons building, on Bark Street, acted as headquarters to MP Ivan Lewis’ Labour Party Mayoral campaign, in early 2016. When pressed for clarification on whether Asons had a relationship with the Labour Party, Cllr Morris could only answer “not that I am aware of”. Needless to say computer browsers were working overtime that evening looking into this further.

4. Asons were given a grant in order to move into a building … OUTSIDE of the Town Centre.

Map in hand, Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Roger Hayes made the surprise revelation to almost everyone that Asons had been given a grant from money reserved to support town centre businesses - in order to establish themselves in a building outside of the eligible town centre area! Furthermore, Cllr Hayes pointed out that under the town centre strategy “works under way or completed” were not eligible for funding from the scheme.

UPDATE: The Council have since tried to clarify that the funding was given under a separate fund set aside for office development in the town centre, although have failed so far to provide any documentation detailing the eligibility criteria, eligible area or indeed processes involved in applying for the funding. Furthermore, a document from February 2015 shows that the council shifted the available money with the Town Centre Business Support Budget for office building into the Newport Street development fund - leaving just £500,000 available. Are the Council really saying that they gave 60% of the budget available to Asons without any eligibility criteria?

5. Asons employ 164 people (probably)

Cllr Hayes asked for clarity on the number of people employed by Asons. He pointed out that figures seemed to fluctuate dramatically from 400-500 quoted by Cllr Morris in the Bolton News on 12th Nov; 263 mentioned in the Scrutiny meeting on 21st Nov; “nearly 200” mentioned by Cllr Morris in his BBC Radio Manchester interview and finally settling at 164 confirmed by Margaret Asquith. This would mean that Asons reduced their staff numbers by 37% when they moved from Bark Street to Newspaper House - thats LESS jobs being retained in the town!

6. Cllr Morris refuses to question the morality of the decision.

Cliff Morris has no opinion on whether the council should be giving money to subsidise lavish lifestyles whilst deep cuts are being made to front line services. When asked by Cllr Hayes if it was “morally right” to give the money to Asons Cllr Morris refused to answer the question.

7. The Council don’t want Cllr Morris to speak

On several occasions it became apparent that officers were doing their best to keep Cllr Morris away from the mic, with Margaret Asquith snatching it from his grasp on several occasions to prevent a repeat performance of his recent Joe Pike interview or the disaster that was his BBC Radio Manchester interview.

8. There’s quite a few Labour Councillors looking to pick up the leadership mantle

In what was clearly a rehearsed series of questions from the Labour group, there were certainly a few speeches suggesting that Cllrs were positioning themselves ready for a leadership battle. Is this a sign that Cllr Morris is getting ready for a big announcement? If rumours emanating from the Labour camp are to be believed, we may well find a few of Cllr Morris’ most loyal supporters looking to carry on his work soon.

....and one we didn't!

Why were emergency powers used?

Anyone attending the meeting looking for clarity on why the grant was issued under emergency powers left the building disappointed. That’s not to say no one attempted to give reasons. At one point the Chief Executive seemed to suggest it all boiled down to a failure of officers to follow proper processes. But other than the often quoted “partly due to EU rules on state aid funding” no one is really any the wiser.

All in all people went away with a lot more questions than they went with, and a lot angrier too.

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Written by Kevin Walsh, Bolton Liberal Democrats

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