Inquiry finds ‘confusion’ and missing records led to taxpayer losing £2.6m over Featherstone land sale
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Details of the mistakes which almost led to the closure of a high school, a public swimming pool and a sports centre in Featherstone have finally been revealed.
The long-awaited report comes almost a year after an inquiry was ordered by the council’s leader Denise Jeffery.
In January, senior councillors were forced to approve funds to allow a developer to carry out work to ensure Featherstone Sports Complex and Featherstone Academy remained open.It came after Orion Homes bought land next to the facilities from the local authority to build houses.
During construction work at the site, tanks and a drainage area which serve the leisure centre and swimming pool were discovered underground.
A full survey revealed that the site also contained gas and water mains pipes.The company then informed the council that they intended to remove them.
The council spent more than £500,000 on a “temporary drainage solution” before agreeing to give Orion £1.2m to carry out “rectification works”.
The costs are to be funded by borrowing, with estimated interest charges of £57,000 a year.
Over 25 years, the total additional costs to the council is expected to be around £2.6m.
Opposition leaders demanded answers when the full cost of the errors were revealed.
Tom Gordon, then the Lib Dem group leader, said: “The council must issue an unreserved apology and explain to residents what services and projects will now fall by the wayside because of a blunder.”
Former Conservative group leader Tony Hames referred to it as “money being poured literally down the drain in Featherstone.”
The report, which was carried out by law firm Bevan Britton, will be scrutinised by councillors later this month.
It sets out the history of the land and how the council had previously disposed of it in 1978.
The site adjoins further land owned by the local authority.
Between 2004 and 2006 the council built the sports complex and a new high school.
The report says that infrastructure must have been installed under the site around that time, but adds: “However, there are no records of this.”
The council re-acquired the site in 2011 before putting it up for sale in 2017.
The tanks and drainage area were discovered shortly after the sale of the land in April 2022
The ‘lessons learned’ document says the report was delayed as a senior council officer and staff from consultants Arcadis have “moved on” since the sale.
The council’s legal managers, leisure complex managers, current and former councillors and an Arcadis director were interviewed as part of the probe.
The report says: “The interviews and documentation demonstrated a notable lack of clarity as to who would give what instructions in relation to the disposal of the site.”
It adds: “It is apparent from the interviews that the council and Arcadis had very different beliefs as to who would take instructions from such stakeholders, and who would inspect or survey the site.
“In the absence of such confusion, it would be hoped that the relevant person with agreed responsibility would have taken steps to inspect or survey the site, and take instructions from stakeholders.”
The leisure centre managers told investigators that no one consulted them before the land was put up for sale.
The report continues: “They learned of the sale only when they saw ‘for sale’ signs being erected.”
“In essence, they may not have directly known about the relevant services under the site, but certainly knew of some, and would have taken further steps that would have gone some way to identifying the relevant services.”
Arcadis described the lack of records as “truly exceptional.”
They also said any surveys carried out before the sale may not have identified the underground infrastructure.
The report says: “Such intrusive investigations are absolutely not routine for such a sale and even metal detectors might not have revealed anything.”
Lawyers made a number of recommendations to prevent similar issues in the future.
They include providing “greater clarity” to council staff dealing with land disposals and improving data systems to reduce the risk of “records being lost irrevocably.”
Members of the council’s audit and governance committee will consider the report at a meeting on November 27.