We had a Commercial & Investment Com meeting this week. It was fairly typical with most, yes most, of the meeting conducted in confidential session. In my humble opinion much of this was unwarranted but that’s not the point of this post.
Item 12 on the agenda related to a commercial acquisition in Cambridge. This item I would agree was appropriate to be taken confidentially. The commercial world is competitive and it doesn’t make sense to show your hand if your ambitious to play in it. And so because it was a confidential item I can’t identify the specific opportunity, I can’t tell you about the debate and I can’t tell you whether or not there was a recorded vote which might in future reveal who voted for and against the opportunity. I can however tell you that the Committee approved going ahead and pursuing the acquisition.
My beef is not with the confidentiality of this itema but more about whether it should have been on the agenda in the first place.
I spent much of my working life working for a big (I mean big) US chemical company and for a time worked in an investment appraisal function. The company was generally profitable and cash rich and had access to good lines of credit. I can’t remember it ever thinking ‘we’ve got some spare cash let’s buy an office block’. Quite rightly it would husband its resources until it wanted to build another polystyrene plant (or similar). It certainly wouldn’t say ‘there’s an shopping precinct for sale lets borrow some money so that we can buy it’. It stuck to its knitting and conserved its financial resources so that it could invest them in what it was good at and what it’s shareholders wanted it do.
That’s why I think it’s wrong for Cambridgeshire County Council to pursue commercial acquisitions. We are a Council and our knitting is roads and schools and energy, libraries and public health and social care. If we’re investing in commercial acquisitions we are diverting financial resources and officer time which is best spent on our ‘core business’. Heaven knows we’ve got enough demand on our resources already without looking for more outside our ‘core business’.
At a stretch you could say that our voters are our shareholders. What would they say? Pursue a commercial acquisition or repair our roads?