What checks are in place?

TPA supporter John Martin is worried about Norfolk County Council’s officers spending his - and other taxpayers' - money

We all have to accept that if every single decision taken on behalf of a local authority had to have the prior approval of the Cabinet, let alone the full Council, life in local government terms would come to a standstill (please restrain yourselves, those at the back of the room who believe that this might be no bad thing). Clearly, powers have to be delegated not just to sub-committees but also to officers.

The constitution that governs Norfolk County Council (NCC), for instance, contains some pretty detailed provisions on what officers are empowered – and not empowered – to do. But the problem that I have is this. What if an officer takes a decision that on the face of it is within his other delegated powers, but the motive for that decision is flawed. Are there procedures in place to spot the problem? Is there scrutiny machinery in constant operation?

Late in 2008, NCC applied to Broadland District Council, jointly with a company named Ifield Estates Ltd, for outline planning permission for the construction of a huge business park comprising some 64,000 square metres of built development over an area of about 30 hectares just outside Norwich, together with related works to provide a new junction on the A47 road. That intended junction has become known as the Postwick Hub (for the language purists among you, in this part of the world “Postwick” is pronounced “Possick”).

So far so good. But clearly, although the planning application was made in joint names, the Postwick Hub is very much a minor and ancillary part of the overall development scheme, and it is the only part in which NCC has any interest (see below). Furthermore, there is no evidence that either the full Council or the Cabinet at NCC agreed to fund any of the costs incurred by Ifield Estates Limited in seeking outline planning permission.

Green Party councillors have now discovered that the NCC Director of Environment Transport and Waste, relying on delegated powers, sanctioned payment over a period of time of invoices totalling £170k from Mott MacDonald for consultancy work in relation to the preparation of the necessary environmental statement – in its original form running to well over five hundred pages – to support the planning application.

NCC’s interest in seeing the Postwick Hub constructed is very much a discrete one. The Postwick Hub is a key element in an entirely separate and controversial road scheme known as the Northern Distributor Road (NDR), proposed some time ago by NCC. But in the eyes of many, the NDR is a pipe dream and it may never be constructed. The Department of Transport has yet to confirm financial support from the government for the NDR.

And even if an argument could be made, on the basis of that discrete interest, for NCC to meet a proportion of the cost of preparing the environmental statement, the fact remains that a private developer still stands to benefit hugely from the expenditure of a large sum of public money, all on the say so of a chief officer at NCC. The official response from NCC, unsurprisingly, has been to state that all expenditure associated with the development of the Postwick Hub has been properly authorised. But can that be so without any scrutiny by members of NCC having taken place?

The Green Party councillors have now called on the Audit Commission to carry out an independent investigation, leading to the publication of a public interest report. Cllr Andrew Boswell had this to say:

"Taxpayers expect their money to be spent in an accountable and transparent way, with large expenditure 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 that this takes powers delegated to chief officers too far."

I fear, however, that Cllr Boswell and his colleagues may not be successful. I understand that the initial reaction of the Audit Commission is that the NCC internal audit team might be well placed to conduct an investigation. If that is the Audit Commission’s final word, it is extremely regrettable. And it conflicts completely with the views that the Audit Commission stated in a document that it recently published entitled "The Future of Local Public Audit" in response to the March 2011 DCLG consultation. All does not bode well.

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