Mon, 17 Dec 2018
WEST Berkshire Council has rejected calls for an independent inquiry into its decision to enter into an unlawful agreement with a multi-billion pound developer.
Senior councillors claimed it would be a “waste of time” to investigate how it happened – despite the local authority spending £363,000 of taxpayers’ money on defending legal challenges.
In 2014, the district council signed a deal with St Modwen to carry out a major regeneration of the London Road Industrial Estate (LRIE) in Newbury.
However, last month the Court of Appeal ruled that the development agreement constituted a public works contract and as such should have been put out to tender first.
The court found that the local authority did not follow the correct procurement process and as a result was in breach of EU law.
The council has since said that it will not be appealing the ruling.
At a full meeting of West Berkshire Council last week, the Liberal Democrat opposition called for an independent review.
Jeff Brooks said: “I won’t talk about the appeal, I’m more concerned about what went wrong. Something went wrong. Maybe an oversight, human error, problems with process, but we have been seen in court to have got something wrong.
“We can call it a technicality, we can gloss over it, but something went wrong and we are now, it seems to me, having to start this procurement process again.
“I put this to the leader, I put this to the administration, I even put this to the chief executive that we need to know what went wrong.
“I have suggested – you are looking very puzzled or bored – that this be an independent review.
“Let us get this properly looked at so it doesn’t happen again.”
However, Conservative councillor Dominic Boeck said: “We have already had two independent impartial reviews of what went on in the form of the rulings from the actions that went through the High Court and later on the Court of Appeal.
“So I don’t see there’s any value to gain in spending money and wasting time on an extended – one more extended – review.”
Council leader Graham Jones added: “This whole issue has gone through a very significant amount of judicial scrutiny.
“What will any sort of inquiry add to that other than spend a lot of money and waste more time to actually deliver our primary objective?”
Conservative councillor Anthony Stansfeld, who is also police and crime commissioner for Thames Valley Police, said: “It went to an appeal court and at that two out of three things we got absolutely right and one on a technicality.
“Judges differ. I cannot see how it can be possible for us always as a council, when you have judges with different opinions, to get it right.
“So how on earth do we have another independent inquiry which will waste, as we said, far more time and far more money. I think that is absurd.”
The leader of the opposition, Lee Dillon, hit back, saying: “What our motion is asking is as a council to look at its internal processes and how we came about making the decision.
“It’s not about the legal arguments that the courts have ruled on, it’s actually why was the advice from the officers as it was?
“Why did the council make the decision it did based on that advice? What questions did it ask? Did it want to follow due process as well as it could do? And those are questions we are entitled to ask as councillors.
“We talk about wasting money. The council has just wasted £363,000 fighting a lawsuit that it’s now gone and lost and is now not going to appeal again. So the waste of money has already happened.
“In terms of the waste of time, I don’t think due process is a waste of time councillor Boeck.
“I think it’s actually our duty as elected members to be able to scrutinise those decisions and be able to see if there was any way we could have improved it going forward; and that’s what this motion is doing, and by voting it down, which it sounds like will happen, is just whitewashing over the whole event.”
The Lib Dems all voted in favour for an independent review. The Conservative majority voted against.