Sat, 24 Oct 2020
THE leaders of West Berkshire Council have refused to apologise for a blunder which has cost the taxpayer almost £1m.
There were calls for senior Tory councillors to apologise for the mismanagement of the project to redevelop the London Road Industrial Estate (LRIE), in Newbury, during a meeting on Thursday.
The redevelopment suffered a major setback in 2018, when the Court of Appeal ruled the council had breached EU law by failing to follow the correct procurement process when it appointed St Modwen as the developer.
The council spent more than £945,000 on the botched redevelopment project and legal fees.
All of the decisions which were made before the council ended up in court have been analysed and scrutinised by a task group made up of five councillors.
They have criticised the council for taking “a piecemeal approach”, failing to use “proper project management methodology”, not keeping adequate records and failing to draw up a detailed business case for the project.
But they have also said there is no evidence to suggest the Conservative-run council intended to act unlawfully and it “acted reasonably having taken expert advice” from advisers.
At Thursday’s meeting, Lee Dillon (Lib Dem, Thatcham North East), who was on the task group, asked why the council’s executive has not apologised for “the poor project management” and admitted that it “did get it wrong”.
“There clearly were failings and I think the public deserve an apology for that,” he said.
Jeff Brooks (Lib Dem, Thatcham West) said: “It’s interesting that there’s no apology for £946,000 of taxpayers’ money that was spent as a result of this project going wrong.”
Owen Jeffery (Lib Dem, Thatcham Central) said: “I find it incredible that a project of this magnitude and importance never, as far as I understand, got a proper project management style.”
He added: “The result is public money has gone to waste.
“That could conceivably be millions of pounds of public money, because there were opportunities for developers to do some of the work that we as taxpayers have locally paid for.”
But Ross Mackinnon (Con, Bradfield), executive member for economic development, said: “I don’t think an apology is appropriate.
“The council will always seek to improve methodology whenever we can and our response to these recommendations shows that.”
The Tory councillor said the council’s project management methodologies and processes “have improved a great deal” since 2018.
He also said most of the 15 recommendations made by the task group “require no action because the council has developed as an organisation since these key decisions were taken.”
A draft development brief has been prepared by consultants from Avison Young as the council pushes ahead with its plans to redevelop the area.
The brief says up to 544 homes, 6,023 sq m of office space and 6,690 sq m of space for other businesses could be built on the site as part of one comprehensive development.
While a phased development could provide up to 280 homes, 3,473 sq m of office space and 5,400 sq m of space for other businesses.
According to the brief, the council is aiming to transform the LRIE into a “vibrant, successful and diverse neighbourhood where people will want to live, work and visit” by 2030.
People can now have their say on the development brief by taking part in a public consultation.