WEST Berkshire Council has come under fire for taking a decision to spend almost £250,000 of taxpayer’s cash on a High Court battle behind closed doors.
The council forked out the sum to successfully defend a legal challenge over its contract with developer St Modwen to regenerate the London Road Industrial Estate.
However the process, which led to £246,000 being spent on a judicial review, has been criticised for being carried out in secret.
Despite the council’s legal victory, the leader of the opposition on West Berkshire Council Alan Macro (Lib Dem, Theale) believes the decision-making process when dealing with such large sums of public money should be more transparent.
“I’m concerned because the system is a bit opaque,” he said.
“You compare what they spent to some of the savings that the council has had to make.
“That would have paid to keep some of the libraries open or for respite care – we are talking about quite a significant sum.
“And what if they had lost the case?
“We would have had to pay those costs and we would have had to pay the other side’s costs as well, which would have been comparable – you’re looking at about almost £500,000.”
The figure dwarfs the costs of other recent High Court battles, with all five of the council’s previous legal wrangles in 2015/16 amounting to a total of £150,880.
The cash-strapped local authority was taken to the High Court when the legality of the St Modwen deal, which the council announced last year, was called into question by rival developer Faraday Development Ltd (FDL).
FDL said the council had failed to achieve best value for money or follow the correct procurement processes by signing the agreement.
But, after a two-day judicial review hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in July, the case was thrown out, with a High Court judge ruling that the council had “self-evidently sought best value”.
After being asked at a recent meeting of West Berkshire Council’s executive exactly what process was used to decide whether the money should be risked in defending the judicial review, the portfolio holder for corporate services and external affairs, James Fredrickson, said: “There was an assessment of the viability of the claim brought against us.
“This sum wasn’t on one element– it progressed.
“However, once it became evident we were in a strong position, we became very confident.
“Whenever you’re looking at something of this size, there’s always a decision whether you do stand by it and we have been entirely vindicated in a court of law.”
Mr Fredrickson added: “A time frame has already been agreed for the repayment of the legal fees and £70,000 was delivered last week.
“We will pursue every single penny to make sure the taxpayer is not susceptible to such spurious claims.”
Mr Fredrickson also revealed the council had spent a total of £626,000 in legal and professional fees on the London Road redevelopment project (including this year’s judicial review) since the regeneration was first mooted in 2003.
Currently, only sums of more than £500,000 are automatically referred to the council’s executive and thus brought to the public’s attention.
However Mr Macro is hoping to see that threshold reduced.
“What I’m worried about is that it doesn’t ever see the light of day,” he said.
“If you spend over £500,000, that goes to the executive then at least it’s on the agenda.
“I would like to see it where the key decisions have to be included the forward plan (published monthly).”