Search

Store deal secrecy slammed

PUBLISHED: 11:44 21 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:03 22 October 2010

STEVE DOWNES

Too much secrecy shrouded controversial land deals at the heart of a store wars supermarket saga at Sheringham says a new hard hitting report.

It results from anger that planning councillors dealing with a Tesco scheme on the Cromer Road were unaware of a three-year-old property deal which stopped the council promoting development of a rival store on its car park land at Station Road.

Too much secrecy shrouded controversial land deals at the heart of a store wars supermarket saga at Sheringham says a new hard hitting report.

It results from anger that planning councillors dealing with a Tesco scheme on the Cromer Road were unaware of a three-year-old property deal which stopped the council promoting development of a rival store on its car park land at Station Road.

An internal investigation has attacked North Norfolk District Council for a lack of openness which failed to keep councillors informed of negotiations with store giants Tesco.

It reveals that discussions between the council and company were kept “within a small circle of members and officers.”

A 40-page report released today is the result of a delve into the council's files and interviews with officers and members - but it adds that no papers were received from Tesco.

Its main findings are that:

t the council at the time had “weak political leadership” - just before it was taken under control by the Liberal Democrats in a landslide 2003 election win

t property negotiations were led by officers, headed by then chief executive Bruce Barrell, with little member involvement until the situation was well advanced

t former corporate director Graham Bull failed to alert members to the implication of a deal with Tesco, which prevented the council promoting development of a rival store on any of its own land

t officers also gave too much weight to a routine confidentially clause - which added to the secrecy

t councillors felt the deals were officer led and that councillors were informed of, rather than engaged in, the process.

t but there was no sign of officers or members receiving “backhanders” from the Tesco talks.

The report says that when the district council elections took place on May 1 2003 Tesco “were very keen to ensure contracts were exchanged before any new administration took office.” - resulting in Mr Barrell and Mr Bull signing land contracts seven days later.

It says the “involvement of the chief executive and the confidentiality which surrounded the negotiations made it difficult for the council to avoid a perception of collusion or undue influence.”

Investigating officers were aware of “rumours and supposition” of “inducements or benefits” but there was no evidence of “any tangible impropriety relating to any individual.”

A “number of shortcomings” in the process were due to the organisational culture at the time - but significant changes have been introduced says the report, which will be discussed by the full council next Wednesday at 6pm.

Recommendations for further action include calls for improvements on asset and project management, including more member involvement and greater “openness and transparency.”

Anti Tesco campaigners Scamrod were yesterday looking at the detail of the report, and sending it to their barrister, to see if it contained any “substance, not just fluff” said spokeswoman Eroica Mildmay.

t Read the full report and appendices on the website www.northnorfolk.org.uk

TESCO TIMELINE

t February 1, 1996 - Tesco submits plans for a supermarket on the old Hilbre School site at Holway Road in Sheringham

t June 17, 1998 - chief executive Bruce Barrell and chief planning officer David Evans meet with Tesco land agent Mark Liell and Son

t July 16, 1998 - Tesco withdraws its Holway Road application

t May 25, 1999 - Tesco makes proposal in relation to a supermarket at Cromer Road, and begins pre-application discussions with the council

t May 24, 2001 - Mark Liell contacts Mr Barrell with a proposal for 11 flats to be built at Holway Road to replace 11 council-owned flats at Lockerbie on Cromer Road

t January 22, 2002 - following a host of offers and counter-offers, Mr Liell makes a new offer of the 11 replacement flats and £200,000

t February 28, 2002 - Mr Barrell meets with Tesco and agrees that the offer will be pursued

t July 15, 2002 - the council's executive committee accepts Tesco's offer of 11 dwellings on Weston Terrace - off Beeston Common - and £150,000 in return for transfer of the council's interest in Lockerbie, Lockerbie flats, the lifting of a restrictive covenant on the Manse and transfer of land in front of the youth and community centre

t March 17, 2003 - the land agreement was passed by the council's executive, even though the members did not see the contract

t April 30, 2003 - Tesco pressed for the contract to be signed that afternoon

t May 1, 2003 - district council elections took place

t May 8, 2003 - the contracts are signed by Mr Barrell and Graham Bull, the council's director of health and corporate services

t June 16, 2003 - Tesco submits plans for a supermarket on Cromer Road

t August 31, 2003 - Mr Barrell retires

t August 31, 2004 - corporate director Graham Bull becomes lead officer for the Tesco development and receives the files

t September 14, 2005 - joint development control committee rejects Tesco's Cromer Road application

t November 7, 2005 - cabinet decides to prepare a development brief for the Station Road car park

t February 14, 2006 - Tesco lodges appeal against council's non-determination of its application

t March 31, 2006 - Mr Bull retires

t April 3, 2006 - as cabinet meets, officers unearth the land agreement that was signed three years earlier. They inform cabinet of a clause, which prevents them from considering Station Road car park for a supermarket development

t April 13, 2006 - joint development control committee - following private legal advice about the clause - resolves that there are no grounds to refuse the Cromer Road application.


If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Eastern Daily Press. Click the link in the orange box above for details.

Become a supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Latest from the Eastern Daily Press