Koragate – the latest

Liberal Democrats on Cambridgeshire County Council continue to defend Cambridge Library against the Council’s proposals to let Regus subsidiary Kora open an Enterprise Centre on the third floor.

The call-in of the Highways & Community Infrastructure Committee (HCI) decision succeeded and the LEC proposal went to the County Council’s General Purposes Committee (GPC) in March. Cllr Roger Hickford proposed a motion instructing HCI to consult, provide more information and then reconsider – and that is what was passed. What was missing was further work on alternative options to Kora.

The Library Service did consult, with two presentations by Roger Perrin, MD of Kora: one for councillors and one for the public. They created a new section on the LEC as part of the general library consultation, which was extended to allow time for people to have a say on the LEC.

An energetic and determined group of campaigners has been working on raising awareness and lobbying councillors, as well as carrying out research. One campaigner, Paul Lythgoe, submitted an FoI request to flush out the Council’s dealings with Kora. It was answered – much later than legally required – and revealed a copious series of meetings between officers and Kora.

There was a strong public attendance at the HCI committee meeting on 2nd June, with speakers raising concerns about probity and transparency as well as about the uncertain financial case – the anger at the loss of library space almost eclipsed by the fury at the way in which the decision was taken. Despite stellar performances from the public speakers and from Cllr David Jenkins, who gave us a presentation showing the flawed methodology behind the officers’ figures; the proposal was agreed for a second time – this time by 7 votes to 6. Jocelynn Scutt (Lab), Mike Mason (Ind), Gordon Gillick (UKIP) and Peter Ashcroft (UKIP) voted with Lib Dems Barbara Ashwood and myself, while UKIP’s Peter Reeve voted with the Tories to allow the proposal to sneak through.

We called it in again, this time to Full Council; working with Labour as well as with the library campaign group. We were advised by the Council’s Chief Legal Officer that it was not possible to re-call it to H&CI for a third consideration, as that would be an ‘abuse of process’. But from our point of view, Council would provide the opportunity to explore procedural issues such as secrecy, lack of competition, and procurement protocols.

In the middle of all this came yet another dramatic revelation. Phil Rodgers, a Lib Dem member, discovered that Roger Perrin, who styles himself ‘Global Managing Director’ of Kora, is disqualified from being a director and that he has already had one business fail, leaving over £1.5m of debt.

We continued with the call-in to Council, which succeeded, closing on 26 names from all four opposition parties, including some councillors who had previously backed the proposal. There will be a special council meeting, probably on 9th July, to review the motion. However, the HCI chair Roger Hickford has reacted by calling a special meeting of HCI to consider the LEC – surprising this is allowed, in view of the ruling we were given before. House rules?

I believe we still need to take this to Council because the Kora case has highlighted some deep faults in council practice, that need to be addressed at a higher level than one committee – especially as that committee has been found wanting twice on this issue.

Cambridge Central Library to close café and turn third floor over to ‘enterprise centre’

Rural Tory and UKIP county councillors have today voted to convert the top floor of Cambridge Central Library into an enterprise centre run by an outside company (KORA), and to close the café.

Cllr Barbara Ashwood (Lib Dem) opened the debate by saying that while she is generally very supportive of the library service, she could not support this because of the paucity of background information. The report left her none the wiser, and she was not sure what was really meant by entrepreneurs’ lounge, international membership and the KORA Club. More information was needed on KORA and how the services would be reconfigured. She said she needed more detail before she could make this sort of commitment.
Amanda Taylor (Lib Dem) also spoke of the need for assurance about KORA and to know if they are good at what they do. Although independent, if they are located in the library they will be seen as part of the County Council and affect the Council’s own reputation. It would be bad to lose the café, which caters for parents & children and  pensioners, to whom it offers economical lunches – a welcome contrast to commercial outlets in the Grand Arcade. Ironically, bookshops are improving their resilience by augmenting the books sales with cafés, but we are told the County’s library café is losing money. Amanda said that before any decision is taken, there should be consultation with library users as well as a presentation by KORA.

Cllr Susan van de Ven (Lib Dem) described it as an ‘enormous change’ for one of our key public services and that it was our job to ask questions.  On behalf  of residents who had contacted her, she asked what would become of the Cambridgeshire Collection during the interim period before being rehoused in Ely.  She also asked how GCSE and A level students would cope if the library was closed during exam period.   She said she felt it was entirely reasonable to have an opportunity to question KORA before decision making, and felt this was not a decision that should be delegated.

Labour councillor Noel Kavanagh highlighted the risk involved — there are other facilities in Cambridge offering the same services such as the CUP Pitt Building and the University Centre which could be undermined. Any new café might well end up having to be closed at particular times to accommodate business events.

Tory, UKIP and Independent councillors all supported the proposals and talked of the need for assets to pay for themselves and of the potential international links as well as to skills & employment and the opportunity for cross-fertilization of ideas.

Cllr van de Ven moved an amendment to the motion calling for a deferral pending a presentation from KORA, which I seconded. Unfortunately we were outvoted on the amendment and the original recommendation went through. 

For a copy of the report to councillors, see here:
http://www2.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/CommitteeMinutes/committee-document.aspx/committees-new/hci/2015-03-17/Reports/8816/150317-5.doc
38 Degrees is running a petition called Don’t privatise the third floor of Cambridge Central Library, in which they highlight the dubious tax arrangements of KORA’s parent company, the Regus Group. It’s already on over 600 signatures.