Tuesday 20 February 2024
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Council lost £500,000 over ‘felled trees’ decision

A district council has been criticised in a report which examined its reversal of a decision to fell four trees to make way for a car park in a saga which cost it £500,000.

Newark and Sherwood District Council (NSDC) entered an agreement with Datch Properties Limited (DPL) in 2019.

Datch Properties owned the green space where the car park extension was planned, in London Road in Newark.

The agreement committed the council to building the car park and to pay DPL £30,000 per year in rent for 25 years, after an initial two-year, rent-free period.

But a group of campaigners called Protect Newark’s Green Spaces (PNGS) camped under the trees and said they were prepared to chain themselves to the sycamores to stop them from being cut down.

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The council then U-turned on the decision in November 2021 and agreed to buy back the land for £450k and not to build the car park extension, ensuring the trees escaped being felled.

Campaigners now want the land to become a community garden.

A review by independent auditors Assurance Lincolnshire was published on June 29 and examined the ‘lessons learned’ from the events.

The report says the council “did not always conform to good governance principles expected in local government nor clearly demonstrate value for money”.

The Chief Executive of NSDC said he hoped that the “deeply troubling” events are never repeated.

The report found the sale of the municipal building and adjoining land, the lease back of the land and the subsequent buy back of the land has cost the council more than £500,000.

The report added that there was “no engagement plan in 2016/2017 over the sale of the Municipal Building or consultation on the proposal or need for additional parking within the London Road car park extension”.

It said that the environmental impacts of the plans were “not considered” by the authority.

It also states that reports for the sale of the building and later the car park extension were ‘exempt’ items at meetings, with only the planning applications being available in the public domain.

The report read: “Whilst we acknowledge the commercial sensitivity of the matters under consideration – key stakeholders had very little opportunity to effectively engage with the Council in the early stages of the process. In our view, the Council could have developed an effective consultation plan to support the process without compromising commercial sensitivities.

“The situation the Council found itself in at the end of the transaction for the London Road car park extension (2021) meant that it was in a position of moving forward with a ‘least worst’ option – which was not necessarily the best value option in financial terms.”

It added the leader of NSDC David Lloyd (Con) had “made the appropriate declarations of interest” due to his connections with a director of Datch Properties Limited (DPL).

PNGS said in a statement: “This report fully vindicates the case campaigners made against the scheme since its inception.

“We understand that the report will be presented and discussed at the next Audit and Governance Committee meeting on 27 July.

“We expect that NSDC officers and members will use the meeting as an opportunity to publicly and sincerely apologise to council tax payers across the district for their failures of governance and due diligence which have wasted so much of their money.

“We also hope that PNGS campaigners and all our ‘Stop the Chop’ supporters will receive a public apology at this meeting for the way they were treated by NSDC during the final two months of the campaign which caused a great deal of anxiety and distress across our community.

“PNGS are very proud of all our campaigners and supporters for the way they conducted themselves and came together as a peaceful, strong community, determined to stand firm and do the right thing while NSDC appeared to be ruthlessly trying to do the wrong thing.”

John Robinson, Chief Executive of Newark and Sherwood District Council, said: “The situation surrounding the proposed extension to London Road car park became extremely difficult and ultimately a choice between saving a number of trees and buying itself out of a contractual commitment to extend the car park.

“Quite rightly, questions were asked about how the Council found itself in this situation and this has been the focus of the independent review.

“The review highlights things that we got wrong and things we should have done better. We need to hold our hands up to these things and learn from them. The report also highlights that many of the proposed improvement actions have already been implemented.

“The circumstances surrounding the proposed car park extension brought us into conflict with members of our community in a way that was deeply troubling and out of keeping with our values and the generally good relationships that we have. I sincerely hope we never have a repeat of this situation.”

Councillor Sylvia Michael, Chairman of the Council’s Audit and Governance Committee, said: “I welcome the report from Assurance Lincolnshire.

“As a Council, we tend to get most things right but when we don’t, it’s important that we take stock, learn lessons and make improvements.

“Myself and Committee colleagues will give the report thorough consideration and it’s worth pointing out that the auditors have noted that many of their recommendations have already been actioned.”

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