Fri, 09 Aug 2019
West Berkshire Council’s commercial property investment strategy needs to be more transparent, an auditor has warned.
The council has borrowed £100m to buy offices, shops and warehouses and has purchased property in Newbury and as far away as Yorkshire.
It will use the rent from those properties to make up for some of the cuts to funding public services by central government.
However, the council’s external auditor, Grant Thornton, said there should be more transparency in how the council decides which properties to buy.
Grant Thornton director Barrie Morris told a governance and ethics committee on Monday, July 29, that the processes could be clearer.
He said: “This is coming under a lot of scrutiny from the Government and the regulators. Is it appropriate that councils are going out there and making a lot of investments?
“There needs to be more transparency around those decisions.
“It’s not clear how much information is coming to [councillors].
“Is it delivering the level of income you were expecting it to?
“It looks like transparency could be improved.”
The council’s head of legal, Sarah Clarke, defended the commercial property investment, saying: “The process was approved by the full council to delegate to officers in consultation with [councillors].
“Members of the opposition have been in those meetings. The conclusion of Grant Thornton is incorrect.”
Jeff Beck (Con, Clay Hill) said: “We are dealing with commercially-sensitive information, which we wouldn’t want to make available to the general public.”
A recent Freedom of Information request revealed that the council has spent £502,150.29 since 2017 on consultant advice on which properties to buy.