MP

THE leader of a council cleared of financial wrongdoing during a major regeneration project has called for the MP who ordered the investigation to pick up the bill instead of the taxpayer.

THE leader of a council cleared of financial wrongdoing during a major regeneration project has called for the MP who ordered the investigation to pick up the bill instead of the taxpayer.

Financial watchdog the Audit Commission yesterdaysaid it would not be issuing a report on Colchester Borough Council in relation to property transactions in the St Botolph's quarter project, a development worth hundreds of millions to the town.

Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell had called for the inquiry into the dealings of the cabinet, which at the time in question was led by a fellow Liberal Democrat, Colin Sykes.

The EADT can reveal the investigation into the council's accounts for 2003-4 ran into tens of thousands of pounds - which taxpayers in the borough will be lumbered with.


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It is also now emerged the MP wants the finances for the following year to also be put before the auditors.

But last night, Mr Russell was unrepentant, saying he had “lifted the lid on the council's shenanigans” -a claim dismissed by the commission.

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The council has said the St Botolph's Quarter regeneration project will bring £200million of inward investment to the town and includes plans for a visual arts facility and the Vineyard Gate retail development scheme which will be home to new flagship department store, House of Fraser.

The transactions Mr Russell asked to be put under the spotlight concerned the sale of St James' House, Roman House, the Kwik-Fit premises in Osborne Street, and a site in Vineyard Street.

John Jowers, leader of the council, yesterday told Mr Russell to concentrate on his own job as MP and also demanded he foot the bill.

“This has cost the council tens of thousands of pounds for nothing other than gutter politics,” he said.

“Who has benefited? Not the council taxpayer. In this case they will have to stump up a fortune for a pointless exercise of political interference.

“He has cost the people of Colchester tens of thousands of pounds, probably 2% of their council tax, and having done that, he should be man enough to admit his mistake and pay the money back.”

Adrian Pritchard, the council's chief executive said: “This will cost tens of thousands of pounds in terms of office time, Audit Commission resources and fees and all the peripherals.

“This report makes it quite clear that the council and its staff have acted properly over the plans for the St Botolph's quarter of Colchester.”

But last night Mr Russell said: “I have no regrets, and make no apologies, for the action I took which has led to the lid being lifted on the secret way Colchester Borough Council has been engaged in property transactions in Queen Street, Vineyard Street and Osborne Street associated with the council's plans to close the Bus Station, build a visual arts facility and redevelop the St Botolph's Quarter.

“It is my contention that the potential loss to Colchester council's taxpayers, because of the way the council has bought and sold property, runs into several million pounds.

“I am content to let Colchester's council taxpayers be the judge of whether the findings of what was done in their name by Colchester Borough Council were in the best interests of the town and its residents.”

“The conclusions of the Audit Commission are such that I believe the Government should hold an independent investigation into all matters relating to the closure of the Bus Station, building the visual arts facility and redevelopment proposals for the St Botolph's Quarter. I shall be asking the Deputy Prime Minister to hold a public inquiry.”

In its statement, the Audit Commission said: “The district auditor has written to both the objector and to the council setting out the reasons for his decision not to issue a report in the public interest.

“Although he has decided not to issue a report in the public interest on the specific grounds raised in the objection, the district auditor will continue to consider the regeneration and redevelopment of the St Botolph's area as the project develops as part of his audit and in the light of his audit responsibilities. He will if necessary report on any issues concerning the project.”

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