DEEP rifts have been laid bare between the ruling Conservative administration and opposition members on Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council over the handling of the Manydown land saga.

During a six-hour meeting of the borough’s audit governance and accounts committee, councillors were tasked with deciding what the next course of action should be in the wake of a report by independent auditors Ernst & Young.

Earlier this year, the company was commissioned to investigate decisions taken by the Conservative-led administration, and Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council officers, that resulted in the Manydown land to the east of Basingstoke being removed as a potential site for new housing.

It was back in 1996 that The Manydown Company sold a 999-year lease on 834 hectares to the borough and Hampshire County Council on the basis that they would be the “best stewards” of the plot when the land is developed.

Challenge But last year Manydown was left out of the council’s Local Development Framework – a plan which states where homes will be built until 2029.

This prompted The Manydown Company to challenge the decision, and in April, High Court judge Mr Justice Lindblom ruled in its favour, saying the council was “unlawful” and “irrational” to exclude the land from potential housing.

The council has now had to scrap its original LDF and is again reviewing where new homes will be built up to 2029, with Manydown now one of the possible sites.

The 80-page report by Ernst & Young focuses on allegations that some Conservative councillors used their high-ranking positions in the council to block Manydown’s development, and the report also looks at why the council opted to defend the decision that Manydown should not be built on.

Some residents speaking at last Wednesday’s meeting demanded that someone should be held accountable for the Manydown saga, and opposition councillors called for a public law expert to be brought in to comment on where the blame lies.

Conservative members on the committee argued that hiring a public law expert would add to the £100,000 already spent on the Ernst & Young report.

But opposition councillors made up of Labour, Liberal Democrat, and independent members, as well as public speakers, said the independent report “raised serious legal issues” and an expert legal opinion is required.

Addressing the 10-strong committee, Bramley and Sherfield ward councillor Chris Tomblin said: “With this report we have an analogy. It seems we have paid to have a novel written, a whodunit. Those in the community, who are aware, have read it only to find a clear description of the murder with no conclusion as to who the culprit was.”

After hours of debate and discussion, the committee adjourned the meeting until today, when Conservative councillor John Leek will put forward a motion that the report’s eight recommendations on improving the council’s future decision-making process are discussed by the 60-strong full council. But opposition members are expected to demand that new legal advice is sought on the report’s findings.

“Saying sorry is not enough,” said Labour deputy leader Cllr Paul Harvey. “If you are a public servant and make an unlawful decision, you have to take responsibility for it. There are still questions that have not been answered.”