Mepal: How East Cambs Council kept quiet about the £53,000 management and consultancy fees paid out to develop a business case for a crematorium
- Credit: Archant
On Friday July 31 residents officially learnt for the first time of East Cambs District Council plans to abandon the re-opening of Mepal Outdoor Centre and to build a crematorium instead.
A month earlier, Lib Dem councillors were told that future options for the outdoor centre “have not been a priority looking at taking forward”.
Yet new information reveals secret work on the crematorium started over 18 months earlier with more than £50,000 spent on consultants, architect fees and investigations.
Everyone realised after the public announcement of the plans that the council must have been working in secret for some time, the assumption was that this was up to six months.
I can now reveal that they actually started working on a secret feasibility study for a crematorium in January 2019, more than 18 months earlier.
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The first payment to a management consultant was made on January 28, 2019. Opposition councillors were only made aware of the plans on July 25, 2020 and the public were only officially told on July 31, 2020, though they learnt of the plans a few days earlier through an exclusive story in the Ely Standard.
That first payment was one of five made to Hester Management Services Ltd between January 2019 and June 2020. Companies House records show this company is controlled by one individual; Shropshire based Alistair Merrick. At this time the public believed that the council was working with an operator on reopening Mepal Outdoor Centre.
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At a meeting of East Cambs District Council’s asset committee on October 8, 2018 a report on the re-opening of the outdoor centre had been discussed.
The report concluded by stating:
4.3. It is envisaged that these workstreams will converge to allow the first phase of reinstatement works to be carried out over the winter, with a view to the site re-opening for business in early summer 2019. It is not yet possible to provide a detailed timetable but officers will report back as such information becomes available.
4.4. We continue to receive new enquiries on a regular basis; all such enquirers are informed that the council is following through the outcome of the market process undertaken last year, and that no new proposals will therefore be entertained at this stage.
The centre did not re-open in early summer 2019, no new proposals were considered, and the crematorium feasibility project had started months earlier.
What did happen in the summer of 2019 was that the council engaged Benchmark Architects Ltd, a Bedfordshire based company specialising in developing plans for new crematoria. By November of last year, the council was also paying Cemetery Development Services Ltd, another Bedfordshire based company specialising in the development of new cemeteries and crematoria.
In total between January 2019 and June 2020 the council made payments of £53,171.28 towards its crematorium plan.
Further payments were made for a groundwater risk assessment, a topographical survey, and winter bird, breeding bird, reptile and botanical surveys.
It seems astonishing that the council’s Conservative controlled administration started work in January 2019 on a feasibility study for a crematorium when the public and opposition councillors were led to believe that the council was putting in place plans to reopen the Mepal Outdoor Centre in the summer of 2019.
A new letter was sent on Friday August 14, 2020 by the Conservative leader of the council to East Cambs parish councils. In it she reveals the previously confidential decision made by the council’s finance & assets committee meeting on September 26 last year.
She states: “As the operator began to carry out detailed site investigations, they raised concerns that they were unable to deliver their proposal, citing increasing costs and challenging conditions in the leisure industry which was causing a reduction to their income projections. In September 2019 the finance and assets committee instructed council to end discussions with the operator and explore alternative opportunities.”
This is of course nine months after the crematorium feasibility study had been kicked off. Is it disingenuous to suggest the council was exploring alternative opportunities when thousands of pounds had already been spent on consultant and architect fees to develop the crematorium plans?