Wed, 12 Aug 2020
THE scope of a West Berkshire Council-led inquiry into the signing of an unlawful agreement to regenerate the London Road Industrial Estate (LRIE) has been questioned.
An independent cross-party task group was established to “better understand the advice and guidance” the council received, which led to the Court of Appeal ruling.
Duncan Crook, of Faraday Development Ltd, challenged the council entering a development agreement with St Modwen.
The Court of Appeal ruled that the council had breached EU procurement law by signing the contract without following the correct process.
The task group’s terms of reference covered reviewing governance arrangements, reviewing the advice and guidance resulting in commissioning rules not being followed, understanding the costs of the advice and defending the court cases, and reviewing the lessons learned.
But councillors said that the scope of the inquiry left unanswered questions.
Speaking at a meeting of the council’s overview and scrutiny management commission last week, task group chairman James Cole (Con, Hungerford and Kintbury) said: “There was one party who felt the terms of reference were too tight, but those were the terms we had to work to.
“We did our best not to stray outside them, no matter how tempting that may have been at times.
“If we had done so we would have been wasting public money and officer time.
“I expect the press are disappointed that we didn’t find the council guilty of some sort of serious misdemeanour – we did not.”
Mr Cole said that the council had relied “perfectly reasonably on professional advice from reputable sources” and, with hindsight, would have acted the same way and resulted in the same court cases.
Questioning the scope, Tony Vickers (Lib Dem, Wash Common) said: “It does show by the very fact that the terms of reference were narrow that scrutiny should really be led by the opposition.
“It is too much to expect the party that is running a council to draw up terms of reference that are going to allow things to be looked into which they really don’t want to be looked into.”
Steve Masters (Green, Speen) said that public perception needed to be factored in as there had been errors that had “cost the public purse quite dearly and we are still no further on 10-12 years on from the process”.
He said: “I think there will be much debate… in the press and people in the wider community, that the terms of reference were too narrow and a lot of the questions that the public and the press wanted answering are likely to go unanswered.”
But when asked about the scope of the inquiry, Mr Cole replied: “I wouldn’t have expanded the terms of reference.
“Why should I have?
“I did not feel the need to expand the terms of reference.
“I do not recollect arguing against the terms of reference at that meeting where they were agreed.”
Mr Cole said there had been challenges, including finding records and witnesses having to recall “long forgotten details”, but the group felt the end result was a true report.
He added: “Some may find our conclusions disappointing.
“I imagine some in the council will be unhappy that we found some things to criticise, they shouldn’t be.”
He said much of the criticism surrounding project management had been fixed, as the council had introduced new measures since the project began.
But councillors heard that evidence from two key witnesses had not been included.
The original project manager Les Gaulton was “not findable”, while most of the evidence from Mr Crook fell outside the scope of the inquiry.
The task group found that there had been a piecemeal approach to the project and found no evidence of a clear business case for redeveloping the LRIE.
The task group said it was clear that the council did not intend to act unlawfully and tested the advice it had been given.
The total cost of the project and litigation came to £946,000.
The task group’s findings will go before the council’s ruling executive at a later date.