Portsmouth City Council’s “Armed Forces Day 2014” bid

The title could equally be “non-bid”, in all fairness.

There is probably nowhere in the country that has the depth of heritage with all three services that Portsmouth and its environs do.  Home of the Navy, a garrison for the Army and an embarkation point for centuries, the beginnings of the RAF happening over at Gosport.  It has always been an enthusiastic supporter of the reserve and Territorial forces.

That doesn’t give the city an automatic right to anything, ever, but it should give our leaders and council officers a head-start when it comes to putting together a bid for something as important as Armed Forces Day 2014.  It’s the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I; the gun which fired the first shot of the war from HMS Lance is in the National Museum of the Royal Navy in the Dockyard.  We have beautiful and moving memorials to the dead of that war on the Common, at the Guildhall, and elsewhere.  The commemoration next year is going to be a solemn event, a recognition that the World War I marked a turning-point in history in every sense.

Of course the city will commemorate the event anyway, rightly so.  But the national title has eluded us and been awarded to Stirling.  No sooner had that happened than Cllr Vernon-Jackson was in the paper blaming it on a move to appease Scots ahead of the independence referendum:

“It is a purely political decision. I’m sorry politics has taken the title away from us.”

That’s something of an insult to the intelligence of the people of Scotland as well as to the people of Portsmouth.  The initial prospects were talked up loudly by the Council.  David Evans, the Seafront Manager, was said by The News to be“masterminding the bid”:

“We reckon we’re going to be in with a good chance of getting it”.

The City Council doesn’t have a great record in bidding for things.  We know that the City Council put together a half-baked bid for the 2017 City of Culture award – the officer recruited to run it left early because he wanted to go back to Dorset/was frustrated with PCC (take your pick), the creative community were disappointed at the top-down nature of it, the people at large couldn’t understand why we were yoked together with Southampton.  The bid fell at the first hurdle, unsurprisingly.  The feedback from the Department of Culture, Media & Sport was, also unsurprisingly, very negative:

“…the cultural programme appears to lack distinctiveness and it is not immediately obvious aside from the Ports of Call idea that the proposals for UK CoC will generate significant levels of interest at a national and international level. The bid also provides less detail on the specifics of the programme, for example the artistic components and the roles of specific organisations. [T]here is a slight risk that involvement of two local authorities could lead to more complex delivery arrangements than elsewhere.”

A comment on the feedback in a PCC briefing paper was:

“[T]he lack of track record in joint cultural planning was an issue. The bid did not really set out what was the logic and added value of a joint bid. There needs to be more evidence of the two cities working together and a clearer description of the added value of a joint approach to give comfort that the management and governance arrangements can work.”

So in Portsmouth we can expect more of the same in future; it doesn’t sound to me as if PCC “got the message”.  But at least there was no great loss of money on it, as the bid only cost £12000, where competitors were putting up to £150000 behind their effort.  You generally get what you pay for in life.

After a disappointment like that, the expectation naturally was that PCC would get everything lined up and put a great case to the MoD and Philip Hammond, who were going to make the decision.  The News thundered their support.  But in fact the effort put into securing the title was derisory.

I put in a “freedom of information” request to the City Council to find out what had been done on their part.  After dragging on past the statutory 20 working-day limit to reply, I got a response.  The sequence of events was that in 2012 – last year – David Evans met the MoD official responsible for Armed Forces Day, who advised that a letter should be sent to the responsible minister, Andrew Robathan.  A letter to the minister was sent by Gerald Vernon-Jackson on 23rd April 2012.

It is the usual recitation of our history, with a mention of events we are holding in Portsmouth next year – the opening of new galleries in the naval museum, and the 70th anniversary commemoration of D-Day.  Beyond that, he mentions that 2014 will be the 350th anniversary of the establishment of what later became the Royal Marines.  Cllr Vernon-Jackson mentioned that we have signed  the Community Military Covenant.  And that was it!

A reply from the minister soon arrived.  The full text is here, but I’ll quote an outstanding example of “damning with faint praise”:

“I was pleased to learn that Portsmouth City Council has signed the Armed Forces Community Covenant.  I have been very impressed with the level of support, with more than 40 Councils now having signed Community Covenants.”

Ouch!  But the substance of the letter was that it was no good writing in April 2012, as the decision would actually be taken around that time in 2013.  PCC tell me that both the city’s MPs wrote in support of the bid, as did the Mayor of Caen and the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire.  PCC had no copies of these or further details of support from other bodies which was apparently forthcoming.

But unless PCC missed something out of the reply to my FoI request, that was the extent of our bid.  One meeting with an official in 2012, and a letter to the minister equally ahead of the critical point.  That just isn’t the way to go about securing a prestigious event.  Nothing more from GVJ, nothing from Cllr Hunt (whose portfolio the event would fall under), nothing from David Evans.

There was no follow-up nearer the decision time to mention the new WWI Remembrance Centre at Fort Widley, no mention of the work being led by Bob Beech to commemorate the “Pompey Pals“.  In fact there is a great deal of work being done to commemorate the city’s part in World War I, and the role of the forces generally, but the people making the decision in Whitehall wouldn’t know that because the council’s bid was a miserably poor effort.

All the stuff in The News about “masterminding a bid” or it being “purely a political decision” to award it to Stirling is a typical bit of PCC spin.  It seems there was no proper bid, no suggestion of a possible programme of activities, and very little beyond the usual potted history lesson to persuade the minister to award the title to Portsmouth.  It probably didn’t help that the decision was made after the traffic chaos on the M275 on this year’s Armed Forces Day.

This sort of thing is getting tiresome, and I’m almost at the point where I’d prefer it if the Lib Dems don’t embarrass us with an incompetent bid for these events.  They look good in the short term when The News trumpets them, and the paper doesn’t seem to have the resources (some would say “or the willingness, either”) these days to inquire into what goes wrong when they inevitably fail.  Win-win for GVJ & Co.

I am sure the events of 1914 and after will be well-commemorated in Pompey next year, but in all likelihood that will be in spite of our Lib Dem council and not because of it.

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