December 10 2013 Latest news:
By stephen pullinger
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Amid news that police have become drawn into a bitter wrangle surrounding Hickling village hall, North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb has renewed his bid to become “an honest broker” between the warring parties.
He made his offer ahead of an extraordinary parish council meeting tomorrow night when the precept is likely to be increased by at least 300pc – a rise from £12.46 to £47.15 for a band A home – to cover the escalating legal costs being incurred in a dispute between the parish council and hall charity trustees.
The charity is suing the parish council for about £111,000, which it says it agreed to pay towards the hall project before the last parish election when most of the councillors were also trustees.
The council has counter-sued for the return of a sum of about £200,000 already paid to the hall, Hickling Barn, which opened in January last year.
Both sides have agreed to mediation, but council chairman Sandra Clarke says this has been delayed by the charity’s failure to provide “full disclosure of financial information surrounding the hall”, a claim hotly denied by the trustees.
A fresh escalation of the dispute was signalled at last week’s parish council meeting when Mrs Clarke disclosed that she had reported to police an apparent irregularity in the accounts of the council dating to the time when the trustees were effectively running it.
The alleged anomaly, which came to light from a villager’s Freedom of Information request to North Norfolk District Council, concerns the sale of parish-owned playing field land for building plots.
Mrs Clarke told the meeting: “The FOI request was for confirmation that the £233,000 from the sale of the plots had been paid by the parish council to the Hickling Playing Field Charity.
“As a result of this FOI request we were contacted by the district council’s planning legal officer but could not give such an assurance as the money had not been paid into the parish council’s bank account.
“We were advised by the external auditors to the council that we should report this matter to the police and this has been done.”
She said it was not a development which the council welcomed and she hoped that the matter could be cleared up to everybody’s satisfaction with the minimum of delay.
Ahead of tomorrow’s precept-setting meeting she said the level would need to cover the possible expenditure of a further £15,000 in legal costs – the dispute had already cost the council about £12,000.
Trustees’ spokesman Chris Watkins described the parish council’s statement as “completely misleading”.
He said: “The police have not contacted us and as far as we are aware they are not investigating this allegation.
“All our accounts have been thoroughly audited and have been submitted to, and approved by, the Charity Commission.”
The whole affair was just a “legal technicality” and there was no question of money going missing, he added.
Mr Watkins insisted the charity had disclosed all necessary information ahead of mediation and said the likely precept rise was “entirely a problem of the parish council’s making”.
Offering to mediate, Mr Lamb said: “It is desperately sad what is happening in Hickling at the moment. The rising legal costs reinforce the need to get this concluded through a process both sides can sign up to.”
A Norfolk police spokesman said: “We have received documentation and are currently looking at this to establish if any offences have been committed.”