"We've acted responsibly throughout over LRIE"
Council's deputy leader defiant over industrial estate redevelopment saga
WEST Berkshire Council’s defiant deputy leader has insisted that the local authority has acted in a responsible manner throughout the London Road Industrial Estate (LRIE) redevelopment saga.
At an executive meeting on January 17, Hilary Cole (Con, Chieveley) was asked if she was sorry that the authority had “wasted” £5.6m of public money on the scheme at a time it was proposing to cut vital public services.
The controversial plans to redevelop the LRIE were first discussed 14 years ago, but have been hit by a series of setbacks and subject to a number of costly legal challenges.
So far, more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money has been spent on the council’s aim of regenerating the area, but that has mostly gone on legal fees and no work has actually started.
But Mrs Cole didn’t apologise – and said she believed the council had acted responsibly throughout the whole process.
In November, the Court of Appeal ruled that the council had entered into an unlawful agreement with St Modwen, the developer it appointed to carry out the major project.
The judgment said that the council had breached EU procurement law by signing the contract without following the correct process.
As a result, the agreement has been declared ineffective and the council now has to go back to square one and start the whole process again.
It was later revealed that the council had spent £109,000 of taxpayers’ money on securing St Modwen as a partner and signing the unlawful deal and a further £363,000 on legal fees defending itself in court.
However, at the executive meeting Mrs Cole said the Court of Appeal was “very clear in its judgement that the council did not deliberately avoid procurement laws”.
Responding to a question from Dr Julie Wintrup, Mrs Cole stressed that the development agreement did not give rise to public works when it was signed.
Mrs Cole added: “However, the court interpreted the development agreement did give rise to public works in the future.
“The judgement has provided a lot of clarity for similar deals being done up and down the country.
“The law on this point has not been clear. This is recognised industry-wide.”
Newbury-based Faraday Developments took the council to the High Court in 2016, claiming that the local authority’s deal with St Modwen was unlawful.
The High Court ruled in favour of the council, but FDL appealed it – and won.
Mrs Cole said that the council had “acted on internal and external advice” before deciding whether to fight the two legal challenges brought forward by FDL.
She also reminded the meeting that the Court of Appeal found in favour of FDL “on one ground only”.
This, Mrs Cole said, was that the council should have procured a development partner by running a competitive tender, due to the future works element.
She added: “I believe that West Berkshire Council has acted in a responsible manner throughout the whole process.
“Indeed, the leading judgement in the Court of Appeal made it clear that the council had acted in good faith which as we said previously was reflected in the penalty of £1.
“Neither has it acted unlawfully, rather the contract was declared ineffective for reasons already in the public domain, which I don’t intend to reiterate.
“The savings on public health services were consulted upon as part of the budget proposals and we are currently evaluating the consultation responses.”
Dr Wintrup replied: “I don’t know if you have answered my question.
“Are you sorry that you have wasted this money and you are simultaneously having to make cuts to vital services?”
Mrs Cole replied: “I have just said, you were obviously not listening, that I think West Berkshire Council has acted in a responsible manner throughout the whole process.”
Dr Wintrup, leaving the stand to a round of applause from the public gallery, said: “I’ll take that as a no. Thank you.”