The findings of an external investigation into a controversial deal to sell public open space in Lichfield for housing have been published.
The report comes after an examination of how the sale of land at Leyfields and Netherstowe to housing association Bromford was signed off without the correct consultation taking place.
A planning application for both sites has since been withdrawn, but the report from Stuart Evans, legal director at Anthony Collins LLP, acknowledged there had been issues in the processes around the disposal of land – but stopped short of identifying anyone who might have been responsible.
Outgoing chief executive Diane Tilley had previously said no-one involved in signing off on the deal – which was agreed without the knowledge of the council’s own leader – was still working at the local authority.
The report said that while some consultation did take place, it was not necessarily in line with the requirements of the Local Government Act 1972.
“It is evident from the officer’s report of 4th September 2018 that the requirement to publicly consult on the disposal of open space land pursuant to the Local Government Act 1972 was not set out and this process was not set out as a requirement in the recommendations to cabinet.
“The report simply indicated ‘the implications of the loss of public open space will be dealt with as part of the planning application process’.
“It would seem it is envisaged that the only public consultation for the disposal of public open space land would be supported through the planning application consultation process.
“As a consequence, any consultation that took place after the recommendation to dispose of the areas of open space land which was agreed by Cabinet on 4th September 2018 was meaningless.
“From our review of the proposed sale of the two areas of open space land, it is clear that consultation did take place – but consultation pursuant to the Government Act 1972 did not take place until after the contract to dispose of the land was signed.”External investigator’s report
The report said that while an agreement had been signed it had not been dated – but added that it would still be considered a “legally binding contract”.
“There is sufficient evidence to suggest that the decision made by cabinet on 4th September 2018 should be regarded as unsafe and should not be relied on to authorise the sale of the open space land.
“The report to cabinet failed to set out the requirements to cabinet members that it was necessary to place notices in the press and allow for public consultation for the disposal of the open space land.
“It is not sufficient although it is recognised that the council in subsequent cabinet reports and decisions recognised the failure to carry out an open space consultation, to remedy the lack of appropriate advice and information in the report of 4th September 2018 to ensure that the decision was lawful.
“It is our opinion that there is a legally binding contract between Bromford and the council. It is noted that it was signed but not dated and as a consequence completion was not agreed.”External investigator’s report
“Importance of public consultation”
A number of recommendations have been made to ensure similar mistakes are not made by the council in future:
- Ensure fresh valuation report is delivered for land sales which take a period of time to complete.
- To create a checklist for the disposal of land.
- To develop an audit trail of decision making.
- To create a document signing process to provide “evidential proof that contracts have been appropriately signed and sealed”.
- To review how the council reviews land deals when there is a change of cabinet.
- Ensure all cabinet reports are signed off by senior managers.
- To provide training for members and office about the “importance of public consultation” and the statutory obligations.
The report added that a review should take place if the any sale of either sale was still to go ahead.
“The decision of 4th September 2018 should not be relied upon to authorise the sale of the two areas of open space land to Bromford Housing Association.
“If the sale is now to take place it is recommended that a fresh process is commenced with district valuation reports and appropriate notices in the press and proper consultation prior to a decision being made by cabinet to sell the open space land if it is considered this is the appropriate way forward.”External investigator’s report
The results of the investigation will be discussed at a meeting of Lichfield District Council’s audit and member standards committee on 27th April.
“We obviously deeply regret that these errors occurred”
Diane Tilley, Lichfield District Council’s chief executive said:
“When concerns were raised both by elected members and by the public about the proposed sale and development of these sites late last year we looked in to what had been done and what processes had been followed and it became clear that mistakes in process had been made.
“We commissioned the independent external investigation to ensure that we fully understood what had gone wrong and make sure it cannot happen again by improving our processes and policies.
“We obviously deeply regret that these errors occurred which we know have caused unnecessary distress for some residents.”Diane Tilley, Lichfield District Council