More scrutiny required

It’s been brought to my attention that Mr Bluh’s been defending and promoting the efficacy of his not-so-little wifi deal. At a meeting of Swindon Borough Council’s Scrutiny Committee he almost showed a little humility. Almost.

He acknowledged the significant level of debate on the subject of the proposal to deliver a Wi-Fi network across the borough, particularly in relation to the decision-making process in reaching an agreement with Digital City (UK) Ltd

It would be rather shocking if he’d not noticed the very extensive debate.

He welcomed debate on how best to resolve issues of process that will allow the Council to take advantage of similar commercial opportunities that might arise in the future

As the evidence that this will be an opportunity rather than a liability has not been made public, I’d rather processes were in place to ensure secretive deals like this weren’t done in future.

[He] stated his certainty that the Wi-Fi network would prove to be a great success, one that would not only produce a financial return that would underpin service delivery for the benefit of residents, but one which presented an exciting commercial opportunity for private and public sector businesses and organisations in Swindon.

And why should I or anyone else in Swindon trust the business judgement of a politician and has-been lawyer? As it seems this decision was made in secret by no more than five people there’s clearly not a lot of trust around.

It was therefore essential, he felt, that the Council was prepared and able to pursue viable commercial opportunities, such as the Wi-Fi network, as they presented themselves.

A new internet provider in one of the best connected towns in the country doesn’t sound like the most sure-fire winner to me.

[H]e agreed that more openness generally was to be welcomed but he maintained that, if the proposal had been debated in an open forum, the “deal would not have happened”.

One of the purposes of open debate is to ensure that certain deals don’t happen. Nobody beyond a select few has been allowed to scrutinise the information that would allow them to form their own view as to whether this was a deal that should have happened.

He was aware of concerns about the decision making process and assured the Committee that the process would be reviewed.

And what happens if the review shows the process was flawed? Will Mr Bluh personally stump-up the almost £½M that has been gambled on the three start-up companies providing the wifi service?

However, he remained convinced that the proposal, which he was sure would be to the benefit of the council and its residents, could not have been successfully concluded if it had been made public any sooner than it was.

But it’s not really public even now. We have no detail of the basis on which Mr Bluh and associates made this decision — it remains a secret deal.

Councillor Bluh assured the meeting that the Council would not be required to make any further financial commitment to the Wi-Fi scheme beyond the initial £450k loan.

The council had no commitment to make the initial £450k loan, but a select band decided that it should. Why should we believe that if the company came back begging for more money, Mr Bluh wouldn’t choose — in secret — to stump-up yet more of our money?

Many questions have been asked so far about this deal. Some questions about the process by which this decision was made raise serious issues. Mr Bluh’s answer to almost all of them seems to be ‘Trust me, I know best.’ Until he provides more informative answers the scrutiny should continue.