'Democratic failure': Council in secret talks over future of Barnham Broom Golf Club
PUBLISHED: 12:54 23 October 2018 | UPDATED: 15:06 24 October 2018
A council which spent millions of pounds on buying a golf club has now made a decision about its future in secret.
Breckland Council spent £8m in 2006 on Barnham Brooom Golf and County Club.
It rents it to a company called Barnham Broom Golf & Country Club Ltd which runs the business.
The investment attracted controversy at the time for putting taxpayers’ pounds into a commercial venture.
But the council said it would bring in £480,000 in rent a year.
However, on Tuesday last week, the council’s cabinet held a secret meeting about Breckland’s future involvement in the club.
In it, the council’s leading politicians approved a recommendation by Breckland’s property manager, Ralph Burton, described only as “Option 1”.
The council refused to publish any more details because it was about “financial or business affairs”.
Councils are allowed to keep the public in the dark about commercially confidential decisions, but the reason for making the decision in secret must outweigh the public interest.
Decisions can be opened to scrutiny if councillors decide to discuss it at the overview and scrutiny commission.
On Tuesday the council confirmed it had been referred to the scrutiny committee and would be discussed.
It was “called in” by deputy leader of the opposition Labour Group Harry Clarke.
He said: “I have thought very carefully about the issue, and made the request to have this decision “called in”, which is never done lightly, but which I believe is the right thing to do on this occasion.
“Any decision involving such large sums should in my personal view as a principle be endorsed by a full council, rather than a small group of councillors under the cabinet system.
“It’s important that a greater number of councillors are able to scrutinise the issue, given its size and potential impact on the council and the services it provides.
“I am pleased, for the moment, that this “call-in” has been accepted and there will now be further discussion.”
Timothy Birt, from Breckland Green Party, meanwhile, has complained to the council’s chief executive Anna Graves about keeping the public in the dark about a major council investment.
He accused the council of a “democratic failure” and challenged the decision to discuss it in secret.
“We operate in a representative democracy,” he wrote in his complaint to the council. “However this fails if Breckland citizens don’t know what is being discussed or have sufficient information to make representation.”
“The current situation is unsustainable. Either publish the hidden information or properly and rigorously justify why it is being hidden.”
A spokesman for Breckland Council said: “We are currently at a review point in our relationship and we are discussing the terms of the relationship for the future.
“This is a commercially confidential arrangement and no further information can be provided at this time.”
Barnham Broom Golf & Country Club Ltd has been contacted for comment.
It comes as councils put more taxpayers’ cash into commercial property investments to try to make up for government cuts.
Breckland said earlier this year it was now making more money from its property investments than from council tax.
With interest rates low, they can get better returns in property than by keeping reserves in the bank.
But the investments also come with risk and are often shrouded in secrecy.
Breckland Council bought a warehouse in King’s Lynn for more than £1m in 2013 which was rented to fashion chain Jaeger.
But it has been empty for months, with the council getting no return on its investment in that period, after Jaeger went bust in April 2017.
Breckland put the warehouse up for sale in the summer. The agent, Roche, said the council was hoping to find a new tenant rather than sell the building.
The agent refused to reveal the asking price but said there had been some interest in the building.
A council spokesman said: “The council owns and operates a diverse mix of commercial property assets. As a prudent landlord we regularly review our portfolio and dispose of or acquire assets as necessary to maximise the return on our investment of public money.
“Our investments now bring in as much income as we receive through local council tax, which means we can keep our share of local council tax low – the lowest in the country – while investing in frontline services.”