Green Councillors ask Audit Commission to investigate £170,000 unauthorised spending by Council Chiefs
Big news here. It's on Radio Norfolk and the EDP today.
What's happening is that Green Party councillors have asked the Audit Commission to investigate whether chief officers at Norfolk County Council acted legitimately in spending at least £170,000 of public money between 2008 and 2011 on planning preparation costs that benefitted a private company, without first obtaining formal authorisation from elected Councillors(1).
The work relates to a joint planning application between Norfolk County Council and Ifield Estates Ltd for a business park (Broadland Gate) and a County road scheme (the 'Postwick Hub', a key element of a Norwich Northern Distributor Road (NDR))(2) . On 17 August, Broadland District Council Planning Committee intends re-confirming the original planning permission given in December 2009(3).
A good friend of mine, County Councillor Andrew Boswell, Green Party spokesperson for Environment, Transport and Waste has said:
"Taxpayers expect their money to be spent in an accountable and transparent way, with large expenditures fully agreed by Councillors. I am very concerned that a sizeable sum of money has been spent by the Council with benefits to a private company and only authorised by an officer. Norfolk taxpayers will think this takes powers delegated to chief officers too far. With a District Auditor investigation pending, it would be inappropriate for Broadland District Council to reconfirm planning permission for Broadland Gate and Postwick Hub on 17 August."
Furthermore, Green Party City Councillor Denise Carlo has said:
"Norfolk County Council officers have used public money to carry out and pay for planning works for a property developer as part of their back door efforts to obtain planning permission for Postwick Hub, the first stage of a Norwich Northern Distributor Road (4). Ifield Estates Ltd stands to make substantial profits from outline planning permission on the back of public funds" (5). Norfolk should stop squandering millions of pounds of public money on Postwick Hub and a NDR whilst cutting vital public services.
Invoices of the project obtained by the Councillors also show that £100,000 of public money has already been spent on rerouting cables owned Virgin Media, Cable and Wireless, and BT even though the Government has not given the go ahead for the Postwick gyratory ('Hub') scheme(6).
1. A copy of the letter and appendices (20 pages) to the Audit Commission from Cllrs Boswell and Carlo accompanies this media release along with a spreadsheet with details of hundreds of invoices paid on the project.
The Head of Finance at Norfolk County Council acknowledges that a decision was taken by a chief officer, the Director of Environment, Transport and Waste, to fund the consultancy work that benefitted of Ifield Estates Ltd. (Appendix 2, page 9).
Norfolk County Council agreed in 2008 to make a joint planning application, but councillors did not agree to fund any of field Estates Ltd planning costs.
2. In early 2009, Norfolk County Council and Ifield Estates Ltd submitted a joint planning application to Broadland District Council comprising an outline application for a business park (Broadland Gate) and a detailed application for major road infrastructure (Postwick Hub). The business park sits within a complex gyratory ('hub') arrangement of link roads and junctions.
3. Broadland District Council gave planning consent to Broadland Gate/Postwick Hub in December 2009. It allowed up to ten years for submission of a full planning application for Broadland Gate. Lothbury Investment Management Ltd, developer of Broadland Business Park Phases 1 and 2 took legal action in 2010. Broadland DC has accepted that the process was flawed and in June 2011 announced that the High Court would quash planning permission, but that the district council would re-confirm planning permission at the earliest opportunity once the High Court had signed the paperwork.
4. According to the application, Postwick Hub is required to provide access capacity for Broadland Gate. However, Norfolk County Council's real purpose is to construct the first stage of a Norwich Northern Distributor Road (NDR) and open up land for major housing and employment growth to the north-east of Norwich, even though developers involved have stated that growth is not dependent on a NDR/Postwick Hub. By applying to a local planning authority for an access road serving a business park, the County has avoided a public inquiry into its County road scheme. In a letter dated 27 March 2009, the Department for Transport described Postwick Hub as 'significantly over-engineered' without the NDR in place.
5. The annual balance sheets for Ifield Estate Ltd for 2008 to 2011 show a company with a small turnover, negative assets and no track record. The company's annual average administration costs are less than £5,000. This is an exceedingly low figure for a multi million business park project and suggests that another party has been undertaking and paying for some of the company's work.
6. Two years ago, Norfolk County Council had clocked up at least £10 million on NDR work since 2001. There has been additional public spending on Postwick Hub. A list of invoices supplied by Norfolk County Council to Green Party councillors (attached) shows expenditure of £1,880,514 on consultants on the Postwick Hub growth point between 2007 and 2011. £100,000 has already been spent on rerouting fibre cables owned Virgin Media, Cable and Wireless and BT even though the Government has not given the go ahead for the Postwick gyratory scheme. These numbers do not included public money spent internally at County Hall on staff costs and project overheads.