Coun­cil should be far more open about Empty Homes Scan­dal

Rossendale Free Press - - The Rossendale Scribbler -

DRIP by drip, week by week, we seem to learn some­thing new about the Empty Homes Scan­dal which is blight­ing Rossendale coun­cil’s fi­nances.

A quick re-cap: The scan­dal cen­tres around the Empty Homes Scheme, a multi-mil­lion pound project which coun­cils across East Lan­cashire signed up to sev­eral years ago, and which Rossendale coun­cil agreed to co-or­di­nate.

Mil­lions of pounds in Gov­ern­ment grants were of­fered to the coun­cils to re­pair and re­fur­bish some of the area’s most ne­glected homes.

So far, so good – who would ob­ject to build­ings which can be a blight on their com­mu­ni­ties be­ing brought back into good use?

The prob­lems be­gan when the com­pany ap­pointed to run the scheme on be­half of the coun­cils went bust, and the project own­er­ship re­turned to Rossendale coun­cil.

Lots of money from the coun­cil’s reg­u­lar funds has now been spent on keep­ing the project go­ing.

Some sug­gest the cost to Rossendale coun­cil is as high as £5m.

It’s im­pos­si­ble to know for sure be­cause Rossendale coun­cil has yet to an­swer in sim­ple terms the ques­tion of how much money, which would have been spent on other coun­cil projects, has been spent keep­ing this project go­ing? More than two years on from the scan­dal emerg­ing, a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­leged wrong-do­ing is still on-go­ing, based on ev­i­dence col­lected from two in­quiries com­mis­sioned by the coun­cil in the months af­ter it emerged AAAW had gone to the wall. Where will it go? It’s im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict – but that po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion shouldn’t be used as a rea­son not to be more open about the im­pact the scan­dal is hav­ing.

New Con­ser­va­tive op­po­si­tion leader Brian Es­sex, writ­ing in the let­ters page of last week’s Free Press, pointed out that of the £5m the project is now thought to have cost, just £300,000 is be­ing of­fered by neigh­bour­ing au­thor­i­ties.

These are ar­eas ben­e­fit­ing from re­paired homes and, pre­sum­ably, coun­cil tax from those prop­er­ties too, yet they feel com­fort­able leav­ing the small­est bor­ough in­volved to cover most of the costs. Does that seem fair? No. Is it al­lowed? Who knows – but a big ques­tion for Rossendale coun­cil re­mains: How did they end up in this sit­u­a­tion in the first place?

As tax­pay­ers, we shouldn’t be find­ing out de­tails like this via the let­ters page of the lo­cal news­pa­per, the coun­cil should be far more open about what’s hap­pen­ing.

One of the fre­quent de­fences of­fered up by Labour’s lead­er­ship at Rossendale coun­cil over the Empty Homes Scan­dal is that they didn’t know what was go­ing on.

As this col­umn has said be­fore, it’s a re­mark­able state of af­fairs that coun­cil­lors were kept in the dark over the de­liv­ery of a project which was com­pa­ra­ble in size to the coun­cil’s an­nual bud­get.

But ig­no­rance per­haps isn’t the ex­cuse it ap­pears to be – surely coun­cil­lors should have been ask­ing ques­tions about it.

It’s like leav­ing your gar­den lawn un­cut for a year and claim­ing you didn’t know you had a gar­den be­cause the cur­tains have been shut all sum­mer.

Rossendale’s rul­ing cab­i­net, ac­cord­ing to the web­site of the coun­cil, hasn’t met since March. It’s now June. Be­tween the end of Novem­ber and the mid­dle of Fe­bru­ary it didn’t meet either.

Is there re­ally so lit­tle go­ing on at Rossendale coun­cil that the rul­ing coun­cil­lors feel the need to meet, in pub­lic, so in­fre­quently?

Maybe if they met more often, it would have cre­ated space for the Empty Homes project to be dis­cussed and up­dated upon, per­haps re­duc­ing the chances of it go­ing from scheme to scan­dal as it did.

The Con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship in Rossendale have vowed to keep ask­ing ques­tions about what’s gone on, and to keep de­mand­ing an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion into what’s hap­pened.

Per­haps also ask­ing for proof that some­thing like this could never hap­pen again would be a good idea too.

Quite why the Tories can’t get the an­swers they seek, or the in­quiry they be­lieve nec­es­sary, is pre­sum­ably only some­thing those run­ning the coun­cil can an­swer.

●● Con­ser­va­tive op­po­si­tion leader Brian Es­sex

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.