By Richard Fleury
Following last issue’s investigation into Faversham’s controversial war memorial garden, new information has emerged about the project’s funding and costs.
And following an official complaint by The Faversham Eye, the Information Commissioner is now investigating Swale Borough Council's secrecy.
Built in the face of strong opposition in the town, the new memorial was the work of Swale councillor Mike Cosgrove and a committee dominated by Swale officers and councillors.
The Faversham Eye’s report showed how important information about the deeply unpopular project, part-funded with taxpayers' cash, is still being withheld from the public.
Since then, councillor Cosgrove has continued to duck our questions. And Swale Borough Council is still hiding behind its claim that the memorial garden was ‘a community project’ and therefore exempt from government transparency laws.
We disagree and have made an official complaint to the Information Commissioner. Concealing the activities of a committee of Swale Councillors and Swale officers spending Swale taxpayers' money on Swale-owned public spaces by describing it as 'informal' makes a mockery of any claim to government openness.
Meanwhile, the Charity Commission has received complaints about the donation of £5,000 to the war memorial garden by Friends of the Faversham Cottage Hospital, a charity chaired by the War Memorial Project Group’s vice chairman and local Tory councillor David Simmons. The £5,000 was more than the Friends’ entire year’s fundraising and, after X-ray costs, was the year’s single biggest expenditure.
So who signed it off? The Friends’ accounts were ‘independently examined’ by none other than Faversham town councillor Nigel Kay. An accountant by trade, Kay masterminded another expensive and controversial project: the council’s purchase of the former shoe shop at 12 Market Place which has saddled Faversham with a £2.6 million, 50-year debt.
Despite Swale and Cosgrove's secrecy, more details have emerged about the memorial's funding.
For instance, £7,500 came from the bank account of the The Queenborough Fishery Trust, a charity dedicated to helping poor, sick and disabled people in Swale, with particular reference to Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey.
Like Bensted’s, the Trust is another local charity seemingly controlled by conservative Councillors.
Based in Faversham’s Alexander Centre, trustees include Conservative town councillor Ted Wilcox, Swale Borough Council deputy leader, councillor Gerry Lewin and Mick Gates, former town councillor and son of Tom Gates.
Tom Gates was of course a key member of the War Memorial group. A man with fingers in many pies, he’s also is a town councillor, a freemason, president of the Faversham Royal British Legion and a trustee of Faversham’s Bensted’s Charity.
Again, Bensted’s trustees are all past or present Conservative councillors and several, such as Gates, Mike Cosgrove and Anita Walker, were on the War Memorial Project Committee. They took £32,700 from Bensted’s coffers for the project and used the charity as a bank account for donations and payments.
Another £10,000 of funding came from the John Swire 1989 Charitable Trust, part of the Swire Group, a global conglomerate whose chairman Barnaby Swire lives in Selling.
So far, we can account for £106,350 of the projects supposed £150,000 budget:
Kent County Council £9,000
Faversham Town Council £8,500
Swale Borough Council £7,000
Bensted’s Charity £33,000
The Friends of the Cottage Hospital £5,000
Shepherd Neame £5,000
Faversham freemasons £1,250
Swire Trust £10,000
Queenborough Fishery Trust £7,500
But where did the rest of come from, let alone the £25,000 squirreled away for a planned future attempt to move the listed memorial cross?
We know the Wheler Foundation, a charity with links to Gladman Developments, was asked for money. Gladman is the developer behind plans to build 5,000-plus houses on land between Sheldwich and the M2. Chairman of the Wheler Foundation's trustees Mark Granger is chief executive of Gladmans' property consultants Carter Jonas.
We asked The Wheler Foundation if they contributed and, if so, how much and are awaiting a reply.
That's what we know about the budget. But what about the costs? Who made money from councillor Cosgrove's memorial garden project?
Faversham-based FDA Architects did the job for free. But what about Peter Binnie, the project manager appointed by coun Cosgrove? Was he paid? If so how much? Swale Borough Council’s single highest paid consultant by quite a margin, P Binnie Consultancy Ltd has received £200,000 of taxpayers' money over the last five years. Advising on Sittingbourne's controversial £57 million town centre regeneration scheme, he works closely with Swale's Cabinet Member for Regeneration, a certain councillor Mike Cosgrove.
And what about Gransdens Construction Ltd, the family building company hired by Peter Binnie, or stonemasons Cleaverly and Spencer? What tendering process, if any, was followed? Who else was in the payroll?
It's time we all had some answers. Mr Cosgrove and Swale Borough Council have refused so far. But the Information Commissioner's Office can legally force them to be transparent and open, however reluctantly. We await its decision with interest.
Read our previous story on the war memorial here.