Council criticised over planned sales
A DISTRICT council has been severely criticised for the way it has handled the sale of two caravan and camping sites in north Suffolk.Waveney District Council has been accused of being too secretive over its plans to sell the Southwold Harbour caravan and camping site and a site at North Denes in Lowestoft, which were first announced in 2002.
By David Lennard
A DISTRICT council has been severely criticised for the way it has handled the sale of two caravan and camping sites in north Suffolk.
Waveney District Council has been accused of being too secretive over its plans to sell the Southwold Harbour caravan and camping site and a site at North Denes in Lowestoft, which were first announced in 2002.
A report into the proposed sales has been made public after the district council set up its own internal inquiry.
It criticised the actions of council officers and members throughout the process and said the bid to dispose of the sites had been "very poorly managed".
Local residents and caravan owners united in their opposition to the proposed sales and controversy has raged over the plans to dispose of the two sites for the past three years.
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Public meetings have been held in both Southwold and Lowestoft and opposition groups formed in both towns to oppose the plans.
The working party's report said that "fundamental requirements" to start the process of the sales were inadequate or missed completely.
"Both failures by individuals and deliberate release of sensitive information have fuelled the problems and in turn made the issue more difficult to deal with," it added.
"The process has been further distorted by a failure of all members of the council to act together to reach a solution."
The working party said it was a mistake to handle the sale of the two sites together and they should have been dealt with separately.
The council is also criticised for holding many meetings about the sale of the sites in confidential sessions that led to public mistrust.
"The confidentiality surrounding the future of the camping and caravan sites has been excessive, and in particular dealing with the initial reports in confidential session," the report said.
"The culture of excessive use of confidentiality must move to one of openness."
The working party recognised the sale of the sites was undertaken because of years of under-investment had left both sites needing extensive improvements.
It was estimated that £1.4 million was needed to bring the sites up to the standard required in the private sector.
Councillors proposed leasing the sites to a private company on a long lease but this sparked protests about the legality of the scheme and raised questions on the ownership of the sites that have still to be resolved.
Ironically, changes in the way the council can borrow money since 2002 means that it may be possible to improve the two sites without involving a private company.
"The Prudential Code of borrowing now means that it would be possible for the council to raise significant funds to improve the sites without externalisation. This option has not been evaluated," said the report.
Recommendations from the working party include the development of strategic direction plans, meaningful consultation with the public and other options for the future of the two sites being reviewed.
Dougie Donnington, chairman of the Southwold Caravan Owners' Association, said the report confirmed his association's view that there should have been more consultations before the district council announced plans to sell the site.
"We welcome the report and wait to see how councillors react to it but we are still pursuing legal channels to prove that the district council do not own the Southwold site and therefore it is not theirs to sell," he said.
Businessman Mervyn Lambert has opposed the proposed sale of the North Denes site and has written many letters to the council complaining about the way the process is being handled and raised various questions about the legality of the process.
"This report is nothing but a whitewash. It fails to deal with a number of serious concerns that I have raised. I am disappointed with the report but not surprised," he said.
Waveney District Council's scrutiny committee and executive will meet to discuss the report on Wednesday, June 8, at Lowestoft Town Hall, with the meetings starting at 7.30pm. Both are open to members of the public.