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'Politically sensitive' inquiry may not be held until after elections

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Councillor says it could be advantageous to hold review into unlawful development agreement after May

AN internal inquiry into West Berkshire Council’s decision to enter into an unlawful agreement to redevelop Newbury’s London Road Industrial Estate (LRIE) may not be heard until after this year’s elections.

The council has already ruled out an independent public inquiry into how it selected St Modwen as its preferred development partner in 2014.

However, the local authority has asked its own overview and scrutiny management commission to investigate the debacle internally.

But at a meeting last Tuesday, the chairman of the commission, Alan Law (Con, Basildon), said that the “politically sensitive issue” might be best left until after May’s local elections.

In 2016, rival developer Faraday Developments Limited [FDL] took the council to the High Court, claiming the local authority had failed to follow due process when it appointed St Modwen.

The High Court ruled in favour of the council, but FDL appealed the decision – and won.

The Court of Appeal ruled that the council had not followed the correct procurement process when it signed the deal and that the development agreement constituted a ‘public works contract’ and should have been put out to tender.​

As a result, the agreement was declared unlawful and ineffective, taking the council back to square one.​

Wanting to delve into what led the council to enter the agreement, the leader of the council’s Liberal Democrat opposition, Lee Dillon (Thatcham North) asked for the commission to review the LRIE process.

He said: “I appreciate that the legal side has been looked at, but what I would like us to look at and scrutinise is the advice that was given to members to make the decisions they did that took us into that legal position.”

And with council leader Graham Jones (Con, Lambourn) announcing he will be retiring from civic life in May, Mr Dillon said that time was of the essence.

“The current leader of the council has announced that he is retiring and if we want to question councillors while they are councillors it’s a lot easier to question them than when they become private citizens,” he said.

Looking across the room to Gordon Lundie (Con, Lambourn), who was council leader when the agreement with St Modwen was signed, Mr Dillon added: “There are two of the councillors I would particularly like to ask questions to, who I both believe are retiring in May.”

“Well there’s some I’d like to ask questions to who have actually retired already,” Mr Law added.

Mr Dillon continued: “I just wonder in terms of expediting that part to gather that initial evidence from maybe some members who might not be with us in May.”

But with only two commission meetings scheduled ahead of this year’s elections on May 2, Mr Law said: “I’m not going to guarantee that, but let’s have a look at it.

“And in some respects, because it’s a little bit of a sensitive political issue, it’s perhaps even advantageous that the in-depth review of this takes place after the election.

“It takes the heat out of it a little and gets us into the stage whereby we are really trying to say ‘is there any lesson we can have learned from this process as a council to make sure we don’t do it again?’”

In response, Mr Dillon said: “If we don’t start the process now we lose the ability to gather evidence while they are councillors.

“That’s different from publishing the findings. You can do that after the election, but I want to get started with it.”

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