Charity commission to investigate Hickling village hall project

The Charity Commission has been called in to probe a village hall project which has divided a Broadland community.

The involvement of the charity regulator has been triggered by auditor Eric Lindo, who was asked to conduct an inquiry into the �770,000 scheme in Hickling, near Stalham, after allegations of irregularities were made to North Norfolk District Council's monitoring officer.

His report, published last month, highlighted the conflict of interest prevailing up to the May elections, caused by 10 of the 11 parish councillors also being trustees of the Hickling Playing Field charity, which is steering the scheme.

It points out the potential breach of the council's code of conduct created by the 10 councillors failing to declare an interest and withdrawing from meetings when important financial decisions concerning the hall were taken, including the transfer of �144,000 to the charity and drawing down a �180,000 loan for it.

It also flags up the transfer of �10,000 from the council to the charity at a meeting on February 1, 2010 – a decision taken despite the item not appearing on the council agenda and the councillors not being given three days notice.

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Mr Lindo observes in his report that the Good Councillor Guide stipulates that it is 'unlawful' to make such decisions without these requirements being met.

The decision to involve the Charity Commission comes in the wake of four parish councillors – all past or present hall trustees – resigning over the storm in the village.

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And it also comes at a time when the row is escalating, with the hall trustees threatening to take legal action against the council over �25,000 they say it owes them. The council deducted the sum from its agreed second donation to the project, insisting it had been used to pay professional fees on the charity's behalf.

Mr Lindo said: 'The 2006 Charity Act imposes the duty on an auditor that where such a conflict of interests arises, there is a statutory obligation to bring it to the attention of the commissioners.'

In his report, he absolves the trustees of any dishonest intent and, in referring the issue to the commission, he speculates that the root cause of the problems may be what the trustees confess is their 'enthusiastic amateurism'.

He said the whole project had been shrouded in secrecy and villagers did not even know who the trustees were until the May elections; despite a protocol that trustees of such projects should be elected, they had been self-appointed.

'I am now calling for openness and for the trustees to put their financial position on the table so we all know where we are. They are not communicating and fulfilling their responsibility as trustees of a village charity,' he said.

A Charity Commission spokesman confirmed: 'Concerns have been raised with us about the charity Hickling Playing Field. We are currently looking into those concerns to establish what, if any, our regulatory role might be.'

Richard Cook, chairman of the charity, said: 'I am sure we have done nothing wrong; we have done everything in the best interests of the village.'

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