Conservatives Want to Forgive and Forget Lyme Green
Labour councillors have reacted with incredulity to the appointment of Cllr Rod Menlove as chairman of the Council-owned transport company Transport Service Solutions Ltd. Cllr Menlove, who was the Councillor in charge of waste services at the time of the Lyme Green fiasco, will be entitled to £10,000 a year remuneration as part of his new role.
Cllr Menlove stepped down from the Cheshire East Council Cabinet over Lyme Green, but has consistently denied any wrongdoing. The Conservatives have vigorously refused to release an unredacted version of the independent report commissioned at a cost of £225,000, so it is not possible to know which Councillors were culpable for the fiasco. The Labour Group understands and accepts that some elements of the report naming individual employees of Cheshire East Council should remain confidential. However, it is harder to explain and justify why so many sections relating to the conduct of Councillors are being kept secret.
One section of the report that has been released paints a picture of a council breaking the rules and not recording decisions, with the knowledge and acquiescence of senior Conservative Councillors. Sadly the name of the Councillor responsible is redacted.
“I am persuaded however that this was reported to BLANKED OUT and I assume he reported the matter in due course to his colleagues in Cabinet or elsewhere within the Council. Although I consider there was probably a breach of EU Procurement law and the Council’s Finance and Contract Procedure Rules (FCPRs) in taking this decision and in not recording the decision, I regard the circumstances relating to this matter as a genuine emergency…”
At Lyme Green the Council spent £800,000 digging the foundations for a waste transfer site, without getting planning permission (from itself). It then had to stop construction work and for the past 2 years the Council has been paying through the nose to a private company to deal with waste transfer in the north of the borough. An independent report into the affair found that Council procedures and EU Procurement Law had been breached. The report also found a culture of mistrust at the Council. Since the Lyme Green affair, the chief executive, deputy chief executive, head of legal and head of finance have all left the Council (with payoffs and confidentiality agreements). This is in marked contrast to the fortunes of the political leadership. The Conservative Leader of the Council at the time is now the Mayor. The Councillor in charge of finance and procedures at the time is now the Leader of the Council and the Councillor responsible for waste services is now named as chairman of a wholly owned Council company.
Cllr Ken Edwards, Labour Councillor for Macclesfield Central, said, “The Lyme Green affair dealt a terrible blow to the credibility of Cheshire East Council. Large sums of money were wasted and irregular and illegal practices were followed. Senior and experienced officers lost their jobs. The then Leader of the Council found it necessary to issue a public apology to the residents of Cheshire East. In my view those with most direct political responsibility for the disastrous decision to go ahead with the costly development without first receiving planning permission should at least wait until they have been re-endorsed by the electorate in 2015 before taking responsible posts within the Council. The fact that the newly appointed Chairman of a Wholly Owned Company, responsible for the very sensitive area of local authority transport provision, had direct political responsibility for the Lyme Green fiasco sets a dangerous precedent in my view. A regulatory or scrutiny role might have been more appropriate than executive authority or perhaps just quiet reflection on the back benches and earnest ward work would be even more appropriate.”
Councillor Sam Corcoran, Labour Councillor for Sandbach Heath & East said, “The Conservatives on the Audit & Governance Committee blocked proper follow up of the Lyme Green enquiry. In particular, questions over the planning department have not been answered. Page 8 of the independent report says, ‘There is clearly some evidence in connection with Lyme Green, that at times the planning advice lost its focus in terms of being robustly reported, and indeed on occasions was not properly heard. As I say above, this issue may be under review and if it is that is commendable, but if not, it should be addressed, and the independence of the planning function and the advice which needs to flow from it, should be again reinforced, so that the public can have continuing confidence in that regard.’ If such review has been carried out then it has certainly not been reported to the Audit & Governance Committee. Public confidence in the Council’s planning department is very low. Public confidence was not helped by a subsequent Ombudsman’s conclusion that the planning department knowingly and persistently misled the public.”