West Norfolk councillors back call for independent inquiry into King's Lynn business hub affair
An independent inquiry is to be set up to examine West Norfolk Council’s handling of its dealings relating to a Lynn business hub.
Councillors voted overwhelmingly in favour of the move to seek an external review of the issues surrounding the King’s Lynn Innovation Centre during a special meeting last night.
The decision follows last week’s publication of a redacted version of an internal review into the council’s relationship with the centre’s operator, Norfolk and Waveney Enterprise Services (NWES).
The link has come under increasing scrutiny since NWES failed to repay £2.75 million of loans to the authority when they were due to last November.
And independent councillor Sandra Squire, who was one of five councillors to support the bid made by opposition leader Jim Moriarty to secure the meeting, said the report showed the authority had not done enough to protect the public purse in the affair.
She said: “The fact this council did no due diligence at any point is absolutely horrifying.
“We have played fast and loose with public money and we need to say sorry.”
Cabinet member Alistair Beales said he took on board many of the criticisms contained in the report and welcomed what he described as a “measured and sensible” motion.
But he also insisted the building’s successes should be highlighted as well.
He pointed out there had been cross-party support for the project when the council approved it six years ago.
He went on: “Twenty-nine new businesses have come into existence which wouldn’t be there without the KLIC.
“The real impact is in policy and regeneration objectives which have mostly been met. This council should continue to pursue those objectives, while learning lessons.”
But Mr Beales’ former cabinet colleague David Pope, who is now also sitting as an independent, said he had raised concerns about NWES on three separate occasions and alarm bells should have rung about the operator much earlier.
He claimed there had been “financial incompetence to the cost of the council tax payer.”
Meanwhile, Labour’s Charles Joyce, who led calls for an independent inquiry, called for a deadline to be set on its work and said the internal review still left many questions unanswered.
He said: “We don’t know how this council got involved with NWES. There has been £5 million and more put into this from public funds.”
But Conservative backbencher Stuart Dark urged colleagues to reserve comments until after the investigation had been completed.
Council leader Brian Long, who announced he would second Mr Moriarty’s motion at an earlier cabinet meeting, also insisted his administration had never opposed the possibility of seeking an external inquiry, even though his proposal to refer an earlier bid to force such an investigation to cabinet was passed in January.
He argued it was only appropriate to seek an external investigation now that the council's own procedures had been completed.
He said: “Building the centre was the right thing to do. Now, the right thing to do is have the inquiry and look at what lessons can be learned.”
Officials are now expected to contact an external body, likely to be the Local Government Association, to begin the process of establishing the review.
However, the inquiry itself will not begin until after the local elections on May 2.