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'Outrage' over Manydown report refusal
A FORMER borough council leader blasted the ruling Conservative administration for not backing calls for an independent public law expert to analyse a controversial report into the Manydown land saga.
Councillor Brian Gurden, Liberal Democrat member for Brighton Hill North, said he was “outraged” that the Conservative members of the borough’s audit governance and accounts committee had refused to support the proposal.
His comments came amid growing anger that £100,000 released by Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council to investigate the decisions that prevented the 834-hectare plot of land west of Basingstoke from being built on, has failed to deliver answers.
Up to £94,000 has been earmarked for audit firm Ernst & Young, who investigated allegations that some Conservative councillors used high-ranking positions to block Manydown’s development.
The company has also reported on the decisions that led to the High Court action in which council chiefs defended their decision not to build on Manydown. They lost the case and the judge, Mr Justice Lindblom branded the council’s exclusion of Manydown from development plans as “irrational” and “unlawful”.
Last Wednesday, councillors and council officers were involved in six hours of debate, scrutiny and questioning relating to the Ernst & Young report. The meeting was adjourned and reconvened on Monday.
Aspects of the report, where legal issues were called into question, were referred to barrister William Webster for comment. But some councillors claimed that his work failed to answer all the questions, and this has fuelled calls for an independent public law expert to be bought in – a move which on Monday was unanimously rejected by the committee’s Conservative councillors.
Cllr Karen Cherrett, chairman of the committee used her casting vote to block the calls, saying that she could not justify spending more money on hiring another lawyer.
Addressing the committee, Cllr Gurden said: “There are many councillors who are incandescent with outrage. It is a dangerous thing not to finish the job we are engaged to do.
“There is not a single councillor who is keen to spend more than a penny of the amount earmarked. However, we have spent £100,000 on this exercise to date and not got the full outcome this committee decided to investigate.
“The committee had the capacity to see it through. If this goes forward as it is going, it will be seen as a whitewash. I don’t want a witch-hunt or a whitewash. If the roles were reversed, the people would face the music – why don’t you?”
Despite losing the motion, Labour councillor Paul Harvey invoked the little-used two-fifths rule which means the opposition motion will be debated at December’s Full Council meeting as a committee recommendation, and then put to the vote of the 60-strong council.