Influence, groupthink and fear. Leeds and the stifling of the transgender debate

hearnowtIt’s three weeks since Leeds City Council controversially cancelled a room booking made by Woman’s Place UK, a group set up to campaign to ensure women’s voices are heard in the debate around proposals to change the Gender Recognition Act.

We don’t yet know the ins and outs of how chief executive Tom Riordan came to the decision – the council has yet to respond to three Freedom of Information requests on the matter. In a way, it doesn’t really matter.

Because it’s clear already that despite its claim to be always in favour of free speech, the council’s action came as a result of it taking sides in the polarised and sometimes toxic debate around gender identity and the law.

lewiscutJustifying the decision to cancel the event, the council said it had received a “number of complaints from people concerned about the alleged use of controversial and potentially discriminatory language” used at other WPUK meetings. “We would not want to provide a platform for those using hate speech or expressing views which are transphobic.”

The choice the council faced was simple: take the safe option and act on hearsay from partisan third parties about what may or may not go on at WPUK meetings, OR stand up for free speech and endure the accusations of transphobia that would inevitably follow. It chose the former.

Did it make its choice out of conviction or fear? Probably both.

Fear?

It’s a sign of the times that in making the decision the council feared being labelled transphobic more than it feared being accused of censorship.

It’s not alone.

It’s becoming clearer by the day that we’ve got to the point (in 2018 FFS!) where many employees in civic, public and other organisations up and down the country feel forced to observe a code of silence on the debate around transgender rights.

In the last couple of days, small groups of MPs and academics have stuck their heads above the parapet to express their concerns about dialogue being stifled, viewpoints censored, and individuals harassed, but overall the silence is still deafening.

Conviction?

stonewall3If Leeds council is genuinely convinced (and sadly it appears to be) that what gets said at meetings of the WPUK is hate speech, where did that conviction come from? Here’s a possible simplistic explanation.

What all the organisations affected by the code of silence – Leeds City Council included – have in common is that for years their management and staff have been receiving policy guidance and training on equality issues from LGB advocacy groups like Stonewall.

Stonewall, in particular, has become so trusted for its long-standing pioneering work for lesbian and gay rights that the accepted national measure of the success of equality policies for any large public or private organisation (Leeds City Council included) is where it ranks in Stonewall’s annual Workplace Equality Index.

By the time Stonewall broadened its remit in 2015 to start campaigning for trans equality, it already had massive reach – over 750 organisations at the last count, operating in every industry and every area of civic and public life. That’s a very effective (and lucrative) infrastructure of influence.

When it decided to put the T into LGBT, its clients throughout the country, Leeds City Council included, will have compliantly and in good faith accepted without question its authority to set the agenda for this new campaign in the battle for “equal rights”.

Why would they have questioned it?

getoveritIf Stonewall is fighting for it, it must be right. Stonewall has always been on the right side of history. Whatever Stonewall says, goes. Or, as Stonewall recently put it: “What we say is true. Get over it.”

But a problem has emerged: the organisation and its holy and infallible texts are being challenged, most vocally by feminist groups like the one whose booking in Leeds was cancelled.

The answers to many of the questions these women are asking could have profound implications for the way society works, not to mention our understanding of science and language.

They include: should all men who identify as women have simple legal access to women’s spaces – their toilets, refuges, prisons, clubs and sports teams? Can someone with a male anatomy who identifies as a woman and is attracted to women claim to be lesbian? Should a 16-year-old schoolgirl be allowed in law to self-identify as a man? Is being a woman no longer about biology but just a feeling or a social construct?

For Stonewall and its establishment disciples in public and private boardrooms, including Leeds City Council, the answer to all those questions is ‘yes’.  And that’s fine. Everyone’s entitled to their opinions.

What’s really not fine, though, is the new suffocating orthodoxy that comes along with that ‘yes’: that if you’re asking those questions, you’re a transphobe, that if you’re feeling uneasy about, say, the implications of abandoning single-sex spaces you’re guilty of a hate crime.

Councillors and MPs silent

Which takes us back to Leeds City Council, who, we now know, believe that allowing such questions to be asked in a council building would be providing “a platform for those using hate speech and expressing views which are transphobic”.

Leeds City Council, where to my knowledge only one local councillor out of 99 has raised any query about the council leadership’s cancellation of that meeting (if there have been more, please let me know). From the city’s six MPs, not a word. Total radar silence.

All of our local political representatives – irrespective of sex, party or faith – magically and miraculously believe the exact same thing on this most nuanced of topics.

Or they’re too craven to rock the establishment boat.

It beggars belief that in the 21st century such a depressing mix of groupthink and cowardice could be so firmly entrenched at the heart of our local democracy.

Councillors, none of these women you want to keep quiet are trying to wipe out the rights of transgender people to live free from fear, harm and discrimination, but this is a complex subject that’s not going to get solved without calm, open debate.

Your silence – in itself a tacit refusal to admit there’s a debate to be had – is a slap in the face of women in Leeds who just want to talk about their rights and how best to safeguard women and children as the law evolves (which it eventually will).

Sorry reputation

In the meantime, the council is currently working with Stonewall to finalise its Gender Identity Guidance for schools. Will there be a debate about it in the council chamber? Clearly not, because “controversial and potentially discriminatory language” might get used and views which the council leadership and its advisers have decreed are transphobic might be expressed.

Will parents who might be critical be given a look at what is proposed for their children before it gets enshrined in council policy and moves Leeds up the Stonewall equality rankings? As if.

Will any councillors raise any questions about the guidance, whatever it ends up saying? On current form, no.

Councillors, none of this is going to go away, even if the consultation that closes today is kicked into the long grass. While you sit silent in your debating chamber, scrutiny boards and diversity seminars, in the real world the city is earning itself a sorry reputation. You’re going to have to take notice, listen and talk to your constituents – even the adult human female ones – at some stage.

Why not start now?

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Council pulls plug on Carillion involvement in Leeds restoration project

tower-works-engine-house-july-2015-jestico-whites-1-800x450

Leeds City Council has decided to call off the involvement of a Carillion subsidiary in a high-profile restoration project on the south bank of the River Aire.

The project – to restore the Grade-II listed Engine House at Tower Works – was one of three major pieces of construction work involving Carillion or its subsidiaries in the Leeds area.

The company went bust in January this year, shortly after it had been selected as the preferred bidder for construction of the first phase of a major new piece of infrastructure in the city, the East Leeds Orbital Road.

It was also one-fifth of the way through a £4m contract to extend a cycleway into Leeds city centre.

The wholly-owned subsidiary involved in the Engine House project, Carillion (Maple Oak), didn’t go into liquidation, however.

It was selected as preferred bidder for the project back in July 2015, but, according to a report published at the end of last week on the council’s website, no contracts have been signed and no work has been undertaken at the site.

The council has now decided to abandon the procurement process after writing to the company asking it about its financial standing and its plans for the project following the collapse of the parent company.

It wasn’t convinced by the company’s reply.

“On balance of the case put forward, it is considered that there is too much change in circumstance and uncertainty in the position put forward to provide the Council with confidence that its requirements could be currently met by Carillion (Maple Oak) Ltd,” the report says.

“Due to the reasons as set out at exempt appendix 1, it is recommended that it would not be in the public interest to continue with the procurement process. It is therefore proposed that the Council abandons the procurement exercise without award of a contract.”

So it’s back to square one. The council says it’s barely out of pocket for aborting the process and is now going to look at how the restoration project “can be taken forward in a timely manner”.

Tower Works in limbo?

1447831071_(c)forbesmassie---tower-works-carillion(3)

CGI of the Tower Works plans

Meanwhile, what happens to the rest of the Tower Works site – owned by Homes England (the former Homes and Communities Agency) – is unclear (to me at least).

Back in 2015, the HCA (as it then was) selected Carillion Maple Oak as its preferred bidder too, but early last year ended up rewriting part of the contract when it became clear that the scheme as originally conceived was commercially unviable.

A new planning application reflecting the changes (from building homes to sell to building homes to rent) will be needed but hasn’t appeared yet.

You’d imagine that Homes England has been in conversation with Carillion Maple Oak too about how it sees its future …

We’ll see.

 

 

 

 

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Who’s getting what arts cash in the post Leeds2023 divvy-up?

MARIA STUARDA; OPERA NORTH, 2nd June 2010

A list of who gets what arts funding over the next four years from cash-strapped Leeds City Council was released this afternoon.

Under a new scheme devised with the ill-fated bid to host the European Capital of Culture 2023 in mind (and the “cultural strategy” born of it), funded organisations have been divided into two distinct groups: an “investment programme” for the city’s eight big cultural hitters, and a “development programme” supporting “small to mid-scale” cultural organisations.

Of the £1.77m worth of grants that are set to be approved by a meeting of council bosses next week, £1.56m (or 88%) will go to the eight big hitters, with the remaining 12% shared between 34 other arts organisations.

The big four of the Leeds arts scene (West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds Grand, Opera North and Northern Ballet) all take a financial hit compared to the previous grants triennium (2015-16 to 2017-18), but still account for over three-quarters of all arts grant spending.

Twelve new organisations have made it onto the development programme (11 of them receiving the minimum £4,000 allocation). They include Leeds Big Bookend, Jazz Leeds, Cloth Cat, the Geraldine Connor Foundations, Pyramid of Arts and Leeds Community Arts Network.

The last of these is currently in heated dispute with the council over its plans for the Carriageworks theatre (more of which in a post next week).

Among the 18 organisations who got something last time round, but nothing this time, (there’s no way of knowing if they applied for funding) are Red Ladder Theatre, Hyde Park Unity Day and arts festivals in Kirkstall, Headingley and Garforth.

red1

Oi! Red Ladder reacts to an earlier funding setback

Red Ladder were brought back into the Arts Council fold with a £660k grant in June last year, so won’t be that stressed, you’d imagine. If they even applied for local funding, that is.

With their considerable share of the cash come some civic obligations for the eight big hitters:  they’ll be required to deliver “additional activity for the council, including specific activity in targeted locations; delivering a percentage of their work with an international focus, offer explicit support to emerging organisations, and implement plans to pay a living wage”.

There are a couple of elements of the council’s arts spending that are not covered in the above. There’s a “level 1” programme which involves no cash grant, but advice and networking help from the council’s arts team for artists either new to the city or “starting their creative journey”; and there’s £380,000 that’s been set aside in this year’s budget for a “cultural legacy” for the city.

What that legacy should be (it’s been dubbed Act II of the Leeds2023 bid) is going to be discussed by … erm … interested parties at a meeting tomorrow afternoon in the Town Hall.

Here’s chapter and verse of who’s getting what.

artsgrants201822

 

 

 

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Enquiry into Leeds hotel loan write-off points to “poor judgement” by decision makers

hilton

The part-finished Arena Hilton

 

An enquiry into what went wrong with a taxpayer-funded loan to a hotel project in Leeds says that weak processes in place at the time the loan was being approved led to “poor judgement” by decision makers.

The £4.8m loan – which was supposed to help kickstart the stalled construction of a Leeds Arena Hilton Hotel – was granted to Wakefield-based Oxford GB Two (OGB2) by local quango, the LEP, in November 2013.

Just over two years later both Oxford GB Two and its building subsidiary had gone bust, and the part-built hotel was left in development limbo. The loan was finally written off in September last year.

The findings of the internal inquiry carried out by councillors on a working group of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s watchdog scrutiny committee were published yesterday and are due to be discussed at a meeting of the committee next week (Wednesday 24th January).

They say, inter alia, that:

“It is unclear who provided ongoing independent support to the project as it progressed through the approvals and monitoring processes … weak processes in place for LEP loans at the time led to poor judgement by decision makers … There does not appear to be clear director level oversight of the grant application at any point in the process … decision makers should have insisted on clear independent advice … “.

The report is critical too of the fact that the loan terms were agreed with members of the LEP’s investment panel not (as you’d imagine) at a formal meeting, but by email.

It also queries why the LEP accepted its role as “junior lender” for the project (a riskier role than senior lender, as the LEP admitted at the time), and says that it’s not clear whether the consequences of being “junior lender” (lack of influence, unlikelihood of recovering funds) were fully spelt out in the formal papers considered by the decision-making panel.

All in all, there’s a fair bit that the councillors on the watchdog committee haven’t been able to get clarity about, including why there was such a rush to get the loan approved.

lurene

Boss of Leeds & Partners “delighted”

There’s no mention in the findings either of the role in the project of Leeds City Council’s (now defunct) inward investment and tourism arm, Leeds and Partners. L&P had been supporting GB Group’s hotel plans and, by the time of the loan announcement, were “delighted” with the relationship they had established with the company.

The findings make it clear, however, that it was Leeds council (not the LEP or the WYCA) who had ultimate accountability for the LEP’s money at the time the loan was made.

As a handy timeline of events provided with the committee’s report shows:

It was the council who sold the hotel site to Oxford Group in 2011.

It was officers of the council who endorsed OGB2’s initial expression of interest in a loan in late 2012.

It was an LEP investment panel chaired by the leader of Leeds council who recommended approval of the loan three months later.

And it was two bodies (the LEP board and City Region Leaders’ Board) composed of local council leaders (including Leeds) who rubber-stamped the loan deal in April 2013.

“LCC officers confirm that they believe appropriate structures were in place to manage the decision making,” the report says. “The Working Group believes a more explicit statement clarifying relative roles and responsibilities between different decision-making bodies would assist in demonstrating and achieving good governance.”

Amen to that.

Could it happen again?

Under pressure from central government (n.b. devo fans), LEPs and combined authorities now have to take their governance, accountability and transparency much more seriously than was the case back in 2013. Never say never, but we’ll have to hope the “weak processes” identified by the report may well be a thing of the past.

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The Leeds projects that will be impacted by Carillion collapse (plus parents told school running normally)

A quick look at the major contracts in Leeds that are going to be affected by the collapse of Carillion.

 

New dual carriageway

road

It was made public just before Christmas that Carillion had won the contract to carry out the first phase of work on the £80m road scheme that’s been dubbed the East Leeds Orbital Road (ELOR).

Leeds City Council will now need to find a new contractor, which will inevitably mean further delay to the project. Rival shortlisted bidder Balfour Beatty could be appointed in Carillion’s place, should they still want the work. If it has to go back out to tender, expect the delay to be much longer.

Questions are bound to be asked, however, about why the council’s Director of City Development Martin Farrington was on 20th December appointing as contractor a company whose financial future was known to be desperately insecure.

Tower Works

Creative-Community

Carillion was appointed by the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) to be its development partner at the £70m Tower Works development on the south bank of the River Aire back in 2015, with work due to start two years ago.

Since the announcement, it’s been nothing but delays, the latest of which (in spring last year) involved modifications to the original plans, specifying that to make the scheme viable, the new homes in the scheme would now be for rent, rather than for sale.

So, the HCA is going to have to find a new partner and put in a fresh planning application. If I were a betting man my money would be on one of Leeds’s two current development sweethearts, L&G (who are funding a build-to-rent scheme at nearby Mustard Wharf) or CEG (who have major plans underway further south, in and around Temple Works).


Cycle Superhighway

cyclingCarillion were appointed in October last year to build the latest £4m phase of the “cycle superhighway” project linking Bradford and Leeds.

A new contractor will now need to be found to complete this latest phase of the works being carried out in Leeds city centre.

Schools

Back in 2005 Carillion were awarded a £42m PFI project by the council to finance, design, build and maintain two secondary schools and five primaries in Leeds. While it’s not clear (to me at least) whether the company is still managing the facilities at all seven, at one of the secondaries, Roundhay High School, a note to parents/carers sent out by the headteacher today said the school was currently unaffected by the company’s collapse.

It said:

We have been in discussions during the course of this morning and can assure you that the day-to-day running of all our school contracts (cleaning, catering, etc) will continue as normal due to the contingency plans in place. The normal running of the school is therefore unaffected.

 

General 

Over the past year the council has made payments of over £5m to Carillion’s civil engineering arm.

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News in brief: Top West Yorks devolution official steps down; culture cash for Leeds; Labour row over new free school

West Yorkshire’s top devolution official stepping down

norreysThe West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s head of policy, strategy and communications, Rob Norreys, is leaving the organisation at the end of the month. Given the fact that Mr Norreys (effectively the organisation’s number two) has been leading the region’s efforts to secure funding and powers from central government, it’s a blow for the organisation.

Mr Norreys was appointed to the post 18 months ago. An interim internal replacement will be announced at a meeting of the WYCA’s leaders this Thursday (14th December).


 

Leeds council sets aside £400k for “cultural legacy” following Capital of Culture setback

Following the “shock” announcement from the European Commission that the UK isn’t eligible after all to host the European Capital of Culture in 2023, Leeds City Council is setting aside £380,000 towards a “cultural legacy” for the city.

The investment is one of the council’s proposals for next year’s budget, which are going to be debated by council bosses tomorrow (13th December). It will be held in an “earmarked reserve pending further updates”. No details yet on what it might be spent on.


 

East Leeds MP at loggerheads with council’s Labour administration over new free school

burgonLabour’s East Leeds MP Richard Burgon has called on council leaders in Leeds to postpone a decision to go ahead with building a new free school on the Fearnville playing fields off Oakwood Lane. Senior councillors in the Labour-run administration are scheduled to kick-start the lengthy process of setting up the school tomorrow (13th December).

Mr Burgon says that he and local Labour councillors (backed by an online petition signed by 1,500) are all against the plan, and has called on council leader Judith Blake to hold talks with him and campaigners in the New Year.

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Risk? What risk? Council leaders to brief watchdog committee on Leeds Capital of Culture bid

BoxRectPress1_Press_Leeds2023

Leeds City Council’s top two leaders are going to update one of the council’s watchdog committees about latest developments over the city’s bid to host the European Capital of Culture in 2023.

Chief Executive Tom Riordan and council leader Judith Blake have been asked to give a verbal update to councillors at a meeting of one of the council’s scrutiny boards next Wednesday morning (13th December).

Given that talks may still be going on between the UK government and the European Commission on the question of the UK’s eligibility to participate in the competition, it’s unlikely that we’ll get to hear much new at this stage.

The two leaders will say their bit and the board will decide “what, if any, further Scrutiny action it may wish to undertake” on the matter, says the agenda for the meeting.

It’s a bit premature for a full-blown inquiry, but it seems inevitable that councillors will want at some stage to establish how Brexit was factored into the risk assessments carried out by the Leeds bid team.

I imagine they will want to look at three sets of paperwork:

  1. The routine risk assessments carried out by council officers recommending spending on the bid –  from the Tory general election victory of 2015 (when it was clear that there would be a Brexit referendum) through to last month’s “shock” announcement by the European Commission of the UK’s ineligibility.
  2. The risk register maintained by the Leeds bid’s steering group since it was set up (the register, along with the rest of the steering group paperwork, hasn’t been made public).
  3. Any written reassurance about eligibility from the organisers, Creative Europe, to the Leeds bid team over the same period.

We will, of course, be told that everything was done by the book, that the team sought advice – especially post Brexit – about continuing with its preparations. The councillors will want to know who gave what advice when and who in Leeds decided that the advice was reliable and why.

In terms of the first set of paperwork – the publicly-available routine risk assessments prepared for the council’s executive board – I’ve been looking back at the many meetings held to authorise pursuing the bid (and spending on it), and have found no mention yet of Brexit as a specific risk.

There’s plenty about the risk of bidding and not being shortlisted/winning, but Brexit doesn’t seem to figure.

I tell a lie. It does. Once. When council bosses met to rubber stamp the “bid book” as recently as October, the risk assessment included the following unfortunate mention:

“The risk of a public misconception that the city will not be allowed to submit a bid because of Brexit is being addressed through all our communications …”

Hmmm.

Still. That’s all for the future.

It’s unlikely that any of these issues will be raised in depth next week. What we’ll likely get is some finger-pointing at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and maybe a clarification of the actual amount that has been spent on the bid so far.

The latest I’ve seen is £150,000 by the council and a further £600,000 by local businesses and universities (who’ll now be looking at their own risk assessments too presumably).

But hang on, I hear you ask: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Or in English: why did nobody on the watchdog scrutiny committee raise Brexit as an issue for the bid over the last couple of years?

I don’t know.

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