OPPOSITION Tories on Warrington Borough Council say a Scrutiny Report they prepared into a proposed £63.5 million investment into a solar farm is being “kept secret”.
On Monday 18 July 2022 Conservative Councillors Nigel Balding, Carol Benson, Ken Critchley and Mark Jervis “called-in” WBC’s Labour Cabinet decision to spend £63.5 million on batteries and solar panels in Doncaster.
The call-in means that the decision has to be scrutinised to see if it was made properly with all the relevant information available.
They say the Cabinet papers were delayed by a week before arriving with their call-in team but, once received, the team worked 7 days a week in order to be ready for the submission deadline of midday on Thursday 4 August. Members of the Scrutiny Committee have a week to read the reports and ask any preliminary questions before their meeting on Friday 12 August.
Reports to WBC committees are often in two parts; Part 1 must be published on WBC’s website and, if necessary, there is a Part 2 which is exempt due to confidentiality.
Tory leader Cllr Balding says that he was “very surprised” to be informed that Part 1 of his report would not be made available to the public, even though it could be checked to ensure it contained no confidential information.
He believes the reason given for not publishing the report from the Conservative Councillors is that it seems likely that the Scrutiny Committee will want to discuss this report in private.
Cllr. Balding said: “I understand why Labour might not want to discuss our report openly because it highlights an embarrassing lack of scrutiny by members of Cabinet who are supposed to check proposals before spending our money.”
“But I disagree with their approach, there is no excuse for blocking the publication of non-confidential council reports, particularly where it is in the public interest.”
Cllr Balding added: “Our report exposes Cabinet for failing to see fundamental flaws in its financial model and investment strategy, or to even see basic problems with completeness and accuracy. It demonstrates that this £63.5 million investment is highly risky and there is every chance that it could become another failure like Together Energy.”
“This gamble equates to £600 per household in Warrington, or approximately 58% of the council tax raised in any one year. Anything like this can have a massive and long-lasting impact on Warrington residents. It should not be nodded-through as one item of a full agenda for a Cabinet meeting where, on this occasion, members struggled to make themselves heard in a particularly noisy environment.”
Cllr. Balding was referring to the decision being made at a committee meeting being held at the new Warrington Youth Zone to give members a chance to see inside the new building, while a band was rehearsing in a nearby room.
Warrington Borough Council, Council Leader Cllr. Russ Bowden and his deputy Cllr. Cathy Mitchell, were all presented with the above information and given the opportunity to comment.
Due to the political nature of the information, the communications team gave Cllr Bowden and Mitchell the opportunity to comment – and both declined.
Meanwhile, Warrington South MP Andy Carter has voiced his concerns saying: “The decision by Labour Councillors not to publish the Opposition Group report into Labour’s plans to use £63.5m of public money to purchase a solar farm in Doncaster and only discuss the findings in private is really concerning.
Openness and transparency are core principles of good governance in the public sector and decisions on designating an item as confidential should not be taken lightly. Declaring an item confidential should not be used merely as an excuse to avoid potentially embarrassing matters coming into the public domain.
Having discussed the findings at length with the Conservative Councillors who wrote the report (who have senior expertise as accountants, in the energy market and in running large businesses) there are genuine concerns that the lessons of Together Energy are not being learned.
“Most worryingly, despite clear indication from Government Ministers that Warrington should reduce its indebtedness, Labour Councillors are pushing ahead with a scheme costing around ½ of the value of the Borough’s income annually from Council Tax. This is exposing local residents to a level of risk which is totally unnecessary and must stop.