Why councillors voted to keep ‘secret’ report into controversial Harborough housing scheme confidential

Cllr Phil Knowles asked for the details of the highly-sensitive investigation into the multi-million pound Naseby Square initiative should be shown to the full council – but he was voted down

By Red Williams
Tuesday, 21st June 2022, 12:51 pm
The council paid out £920,000for a three-bedroom bungalow and its land to help seal the new Naseby Square housing complex on the town’s Southern estate.
The council paid out £920,000for a three-bedroom bungalow and its land to help seal the new Naseby Square housing complex on the town’s Southern estate.

A top councillor’s bold bid to make a ‘secret’ report into a controversial housing scheme in Market Harborough available to all district councillors was thrown out last night (Monday).

Cllr Phil Knowles told a tense full meeting of Harborough District Council that details of the highly-sensitive investigation into the multi-million pound Naseby Square initiative should be shown to the full 34-strong authority.

But the veteran councillor’s motion to the packed meeting demanding total transparency over the issue was rejected by 17 votes to 11 as voting split along party lines.

Cllr Phil Knowles asked for the details of the highly-sensitive investigation into the multi-million pound Naseby Square initiative should be shown to the full council – but he was voted down

Cllr Knowles acted after the council paid out £920,000 of taxpayers’ cash for a three-bedroom bungalow and its land to help seal the new Naseby Square housing complex on the town’s Southern estate.

The bungalow was valued at just £303,000, less than a third of the huge sum paid, on property website Zoopla, the Harborough Mail revealed in April 2021.

The in-depth internal report emerged at a meeting of the council’s powerful seven-strong Audit and Standards Committee on Wednesday March 2.

The study into the council’s handling of the Naseby Square project alongside Platform Housing was initially seen by only four councillors after the council asked a Queen’s Counsel (QC) barrister for advice.

They were the council leader Cllr Phil King, deputy leader Cllr James Hallam, Audit and Standards Committee chairman Cllr Paul Bremner and his vice-chairman Cllr Amanda Nunn.

Councillors and any members of the public sitting in the public gallery were “kicked out” when the report came up.

It was later also shared with the rest of the Audit and Standards Committee.

Cllr Knowles, who leads the Liberal Democrats on the council, told councillors last night: “I have 100 per cent belief in the utter integrity of all of our councillors.

“I was appalled when our members watching were told that they had to leave that committee meeting,” said Cllr Knowles, who sits on the Audit and Standards Committee himself.

“I have not been able to discuss this report in any way, shape or form with other councillors or even get my own independent legal advice on it.

“I find this matter deeply concerning.

“Every councillor should be given the chance to see these documents if they want to view them.”

Cllr Mark Graves said he was made to feel very “uncomfortable” as he was ordered to leave the viewing gallery before the potential bombshell enquiry was discussed at the Audit and Standards Committee.

The Liberal Democrat also told councillors that the order to go broke the rules of the local authority’s own constitution.

“This is the most egregious breach of the rules of this council’s constitution I have ever seen.

“I sat outside for an hour and a half,” declared Cllr Graves.

“I was deeply offended at being thrown out.”

Cllr Paul Bremner, chairman of the Audit and Standards Committee, hit back as he insisted: “We took advice from a QC, a Queen’s Counsel.

“The advice that we received was clear and it was followed by the committee.

“I have complete confidence in our internal and external audits,” said Cllr Bremner, a Conservative.

Cllr Phil King, the council’s leader, admitted: “This is a very difficult subject.”

But he said the QC advised that it would be “inappropriate” to show the Naseby Square investigation’s findings to all councillors.

Cllr King said the bigger picture was that 38 “affordable” homes will be built at Naseby Square thanks to the council working with Platform Housing.

But Cllr Martin Sarfas retorted that the whole arcane saga indicated that the council had “something to hide”.

Fellow Liberal Democrat Cllr Peter James told members: “I was one of the councillors evicted from the committee’s meeting that night.

“Over the last 18 months I have had representations from residents (of Naseby Square) that they have been bullied and ill-treated.

“We all know about the purchase of the bungalow on Granville Street.

“There were even accusations that councillors are corrupt,” said Cllr James.

“I was hurt at being kicked out that night, it was a personal insult and I’ll never forget it.

“If the residents of Naseby Square have been badly treated we should be doing something about it.

“We should apologise to them.

“This is not going to go away – and it should never happen again,” said Cllr James.

Cllr Knowles capped off the hot-tempered debate by insisting that the QC’s advice was “advice and not a rule”.

And he called on the council’s officers to tell him if their own constitution had been broken when fellow councillors were ejected from the public gallery.

Speaking after Cllr Knowles’s motion had been defeated, interim chief executive Liz Elliott told him she believes the constitution’s rules had been followed correctly.

But she promised to double check and get back to him.

Harborough council wrapped up the contentious deal to sell its land at Naseby Square, off Stuart Road, to Platform Housing Group for £1.4 million earlier this year.

The major housing set-up, which already owned adjoining land at the site on the Southern estate, now aims to plough millions of pounds into building 38 “affordable homes”.

The tenants of 13 bungalows set to be demolished at Naseby Square have already been moved out and found new homes.

The scheme to radically rework the traditional community hub – which dates back to the 1950s – has sparked fury and angry protests in Market Harborough since it blew up in 2018.