A behind closed doors debate of an investigation into a controversial land deal in Lichfield was shelved after it emerged no report was actually ready to be discussed.
The audit and member standards committee at Lichfield District Council had been due to hear an update surrounding how an agreement was reached to sell open space at Netherstowe and Leyfields for housing.
The external investigation was launched after it emerged the sale had been agreed without the knowledge of the local authority’s leader and cabinet.
An agenda for the meeting last night (25th March) had said the public and media would be barred from that section of the meeting.
The council had cited the Local Government Act 1972 as a reason for originally adding the item to a confidential section of the meeting, but monitoring officer Christie Tims revealed that there was actually nothing to be discussed, either in public or behind closed doors.
“This time last night I had an update from the external independent investigators that they aren’t able to provide us with the report yet, but they are confident that they can provide that to us early in April.
“I’m confident that we can make sure that anything that can be discussed – certainly the substantive part of the report – will be in public.
“If there are any elements that require a confidential discussion amongst members before we make that public then we will take those out separately and deal with those in a different way.
“There are some contractual issues still outstanding and there are potentially issues that may relate to personal information and GDPR that we might need to deal with.”Christie Tims, Lichfield District Council
But Cllr Joanne Grange, independent member for Chadsmead, said the local authority should not assume elements of a report were private until it had been received.
“Having publicised that it would be a closed section of the meeting, we potentially have a number of people who would have been interested who would not necessarily now be watching.
“I fully understand the rationale of it being easier to bring it out of confidential than put it in, but where there is significant public interest in a particular item the presumption should be the other way round.
“We’ve had this discussion previously that we could do an awful lot of discussion about a particular topic in public and then take any minor points into a private session.
“I think it would have been better for us to decide before 6.53pm that this was not going to be a private session.”Cllr Joanne Grange, Lichfield District Council
Cllr Alan White, Conservative member for Whittington and Streethay, said that while openness was important, there would always be a need for some reports to be heard behind closed doors.
“I do understand Cllr Grange’s desire to get as much as possible into the public domain – but at the same time there are sometimes requirements to discuss stuff in private because if we didn’t do that sometimes we wouldn’t get best value for money for the public and we wouldn’t get to the bottom of the issues that we need to get to the bottom of.
“There are times when confidential items are appropriate.
“A slightly more fulsome explanation would help the public to understand why we are taking something into a confidential session.”Cllr Alan White, Lichfield District Council
“We need to be mindful of the public interest”
Cllr Grange said that councillors also needed to be aware of the sensitivity around the issue.
“While agreeing with Cllr White that there are occasions where things may need to be heard confidentially, we need to be mindful of the public interest.
“Because there is such an interest in these pieces of land, if we are going to take something into private it needs to be considered and explained in more detail than we might normally.
“We can refer back to a 1,000 signature petition and hundreds of objections – there is an awful lot of noise about it in north Lichfield and a significant level of public interest that we shouldn’t disregard.”Cllr Joanne Grange, Lichfield District Council
Committee chairman, Cllr Colin Greatorex, confirmed the report would be heard in public when it does come before the group next month.
“In this case the reason it was put into confidential was because it was uncertain what the matter was going to be.
“As it’s transpired there’s nothing that needs to be discussed in condfidential because the report is that there is no report.
“We’ve concluded that we will put the next report in April into the pubic domain.”Cllr Colin Greatorex, Lichfield District Council