A council which spent three times as much as it should on a bungalow has been called ‘undemocratic’ for not allowing councillors to read a report explaining why. Harborough District Council came under fire last year over a decision to buy a bungalow, in Granville Street, Market Harborough, for £920,000 when property website Zoopla had it valued at an estimated £303,000.
The council said at the time the purchase was to enable an affordable housing development in the area at nearby Naseby Square. An internal audit the Naseby Square scheme has now been completed but the council is refusing share the findings with the majority of its elected representatives.
Liberal Democrats councillor for Market Harborough Great Bowden and Arden, Phil Knowles, has slammed this decision as ‘undemocratic’. He took the matter before a full council meeting earlier this week in a bid to release the documents to any councillor who might wish to see it.
So far, the report has been seen by only the Audit and Standards Committee, as well as the Leader of the Conservative-run council, Phil King, and the deputy leader, James Hallam, claiming at the legal advice of the Queen’s Council (QC). The decision was taken at the last Audit and Standards Committee meeting to remove the three councillors who were not part of the committee, but who were watching in the public gallery, from the room.
Councillor Knowles said at the meeting: “I look around this room and I have 100% belief in the integrity of every councillor in this room. I was appalled to see our members removed from that meeting, told they had to leave.
“I find this matter deeply concerning, it is a matter of principal to me that every member of this council should be offered the opportunity to review these documents should they wish to do so. Somewhere along the line, we as a council are going to be asked to take on the task of deciding to adopt certain recommendations or proposals.
“We need to know as a body why. We need to know the background. You can’t just sit there and expect people to accept it and vote it through.”
However, a vote on allowing the remaining councillors access to the document resulted in 17 votes against and 11 before. The vote was split along party lines.
Chair of the Audit and Standards Committee, Paul Bremner, said the committee was following advice. He said: “This was the advice from the QC. The QC’s advice received by the council was clear and it was followed by the committee. I have complete confidence in internal and external audits.”
Also speaking at the meeting, Council Leader King said councillors outside the committee had ‘no right to the report’ under the Local Government Act or the ‘need to know basis’. He added: “There is nothing I’d love more than being able to give every member of this council a copy of the report the Audit and Standard committee considered, but I have been advised by QC that would be inappropriate to do.”
Talking to LeicestershireLive Following the meeting, Coun Knowles said he was not even allowed to say why he is not allowed to share the report. He said: “There are a lot of extremely angry councillors on the authority who want to know why they’re being blocked from receiving the information.
“I’m not even allowed to discuss that. It’s totally frustrating. I feel I want to explain to my fellow councillors what was in the report, I want to share it with them, I want to get their views and what their comments are on all this.
“We should not be running two levels of councillors within the authority between those who will be told and those who will not. It is not acceptable and I will be looking for other avenues to legitimately ensure this information is shared with other councillors should they wish to read it as it their democratic right.
“And those who elect us to the council will quite rightly expect we will be availed of all the information upon which we make our decisions. But, we don’t have that information.”
LeicestershireLive has submitted a Freedom of Information request to try to find out what was in the report, why it is being blocked and whether any fault has been found.