Council officers criticised after Holt Hall sell off bypasses scrutiny

Holt Hall

Holt Hall is to be sold to a mystery buyer. - Credit: Colin Finch

Senior County Hall officers have been panned for refusing to allow councillors to scrutinise the sell-off of an education centre.

Officers at Norfolk County Council denied requests to allow the controversial sale of Holt Hall to be debated by the scrutiny committee.

The council agreed to sell its former outdoor learning centre earlier this month, with a mystery buyer set to turn it into housing.

Liberal Democrat Steffan Aquarone, said he was "extremely disappointed" the call-in was refused, arguing it left the public with questions.

Steffan Aquarone

Liberal Democrat county councillor Steffan Aquarone. - Credit: Alex Broadway

The Melton Constable councillor said: "This is a public asset and it is in the public interest to have a clear explanation of the reasons behind the decision without disclosing confidential information.

"If this council was open and transparent then it would be straightforward for them to engage with the public, and account for how they have reached this decision. 

"But we know the current administration at the county council is anything but: they have been found at fault more than once in the High Court for making improper decisions in the past two years alone."

Losses in the Hight Court include a judgement last year that found the authority had discriminated against disabled people. 

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Mr Aquarone said the latest episode leaves the public "angry and in the dark", with unanswered questions, including:

  • Why was a bid received that was so much more than the guide price?
  • How was the council allowed to put the property on the market without buyers being bound to continue outdoor education at the site?
  • And how can it be possible to deny councillors the right to scrutinise the decision?

The county council has said the decision to deny scrutiny was carefully considered but it was now too late to call in because a buyer started being sought in 2020.

The authority insists the council followed all legally required checks and each bidder was required to describe how they would use the site and add social value.

However, the difference between the highest bid and the next bid meant the council was legally obliged to accept the higher bid.

Greg Peck, Conservative candidate for Reepham. Pic: Norfolk Conservatives.

Greg Peck, Norfolk County Council member for asset management - Credit: Norfolk Conservatives

Greg Peck, cabinet member for commercial services and asset management, said: “The decision to sell Holt Hall secures a significant return for Norfolk taxpayers on a building that was losing money every year.

"We will also see an extra £1m from the bidder used to improve the support we offer for children who cannot attend school, due to ill health, exclusion or for any other reason.”