A council has refused to reveal where £8 million of taxpayers money has gone, even when instructed to do so by a government watchdog.
Breckland District Council in Norfolk controversially bought Barnham Broom Golf Club in 2006 for £8 million, then spent a further £2 million on the property. At the time the Tory-run council were proud of the investment and boasted of it in their election literature.
But last year it emerged that the property was on the market for the hugely reduced sum of £2 million. When pressed by opposition councillors and journalists, at first the council seemed to deny that the club was for sale. They refused to discuss the matter further.
In March, in EAB’s Mr Pecksniff’s Diary we revealed how one frustrated constituent and taxpayer had called the matter a scandal, and had written to the chair of the council, Councillor Roy Brame, requesting an explanation as to where the apparently missing money had gone. An exchange of correspondence led nowhere, with the council refusing to give any information on what was afoot: “You will appreciate that it is not appropriate for me to comment on any matter connected with our commercial asset”.
Official watchdog orders council to reveal all: council refuses
Finally the council made it clear the matter was closed by writing: “Unfortunately we are unable to discuss this further as it is confidential and we have said all that we can on the subject.”
Discussions in the council on Barnham Broom have taken place behind closed doors, with public and press excluded on grounds of “commercial confidentiality”.
However, opposition councillors have taken the matter further. Green councillor Timothy Birt lodged a freedom of information request with the council, with which it refused to comply. So Councillor Birt referred the matter to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
The ICO reviewed the case and instructed the council that they must release previously confidential details of the ownership of the property. They reported that the council had “failed to demonstrate” why the relevant information needed to be withheld, and instructed that it be published by 9 August.
But the council have appealed against the judgment and will take the case to a tribunal. A council spokesperson said the information “has not been made public because we firmly believe that releasing commercially-sensitive information is likely to damage the business of the tenant, could negatively impact the local job market, and may be detrimental to the council’s own commercial interests which in turn will adversely affect the public purse”.
What secret lies behind the council’s refusal to reveal all?
Councillor Birt has called Breckland’s decision to appeal “most disappointing”.
It is understood that the subject of Councillor Birt’s freedom of information request was the council’s rental income from the property over the years, and whatever was discussed in the council’s secret meetings.
It is not yet known when the council’s appeal against the ICO’s decision will be heard. But on what is known so far the council already appears to be in breach of the Nolan Principle, which requires transparency in making decisions involving public interest. It is difficult to see what extenuating circumstances might apply to excuse an elected local authority from informing its taxpayers of where a sum like £8 million has been lost. Severe embarrassment does not qualify as one of those circumstances.
If the appeal goes against the council, they would appear to have no other recourse but to obey the ruling. There is already, and inevitably, conjecture as to what secret the council is so determined to keep, and what may be the consequences of its being revealed.