Council should be far more open about Empty Homes Scandal
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