Questions over Suffolk council engineer's dual safety role on over-budget relief road
PUBLISHED: 10:20 20 January 2018 | UPDATED: 14:24 22 January 2018
A new road, which ran almost £5m over budget, faces fresh controversy after it emerged a council employee involved in the project also completed work for the road's developers through his private company.
The safety audit for the Bury St Edmunds Eastern Relief Road (ERR), which opened in September last year, was written by a private consultancy firm part owned by a Suffolk County Council (SCC) employee – who was also advising the council on the project in his role as a senior engineer.
Jon Noble had the dual role of scrutinising the application for the highways authority, SCC, while Noble Highways Limited, a company he and a family member founded and owned, was contracted by the road developer’s consultants to produce the road’s safety audit.
The double role – which Mr Noble’s SCC manager permitted – has faced criticism, particularly as Mr Noble, in his council capacity, dismissed safety concerns about the road width, which later led to the scheme being delayed and increased its costs.
Our ERR investigation found:
•SCC has now banned employees taking up dual roles
•Concerns over the dual role have been reported to SCC’s monitoring officer
•Safety fears over the road’s width had been raised by several objectors but were rejected by Mr Noble in July 2014
•Land ownership issues brought work to a stop in August last year until a “six-figure” sum was paid to buy the land and resume work
•The road is expected to cost the taxpayer £4.8m more than its £15m budget
Although the road opened amid celebrations in September, it continues to face difficulties. Neighbouring businesses claim it was built on “trespassed” land.
Justin Godfrey is a managing director of Thomas Ridley Foodservice – a shareholder in the Rougham Industrial Traders Association (RITA) - which is behind a legal challenge to the road. He said problems arose because the ERR was granted permission to be built on land that was not available, resulting in a project that fell below required safety standards. But that was not mentioned by Noble Highway’s safety audit for the developer’s consultants and Mr Noble later dismissed concerns from objectors in his county council role.
Mr Godfrey said the road’s width had only been achieved by building on land owned by RITA – whose lawyers have written to SCC. “RITA continues their action against SCC,” Mr Godfrey added. “SCC is on notice that RITA alleges that they have trespassed.”
Aside from the legal challenges, that section of the ERR on Sow Lane has continued to face safety complaints from cyclists.
As SCC’s senior development management engineer, Mr Noble provided the council’s highways response to the ERR planning application and also addressed concerns raised by objectors.
He also represented SCC during a meeting with Cannon Consulting Engineers (CCE), which had been appointed by the applicant, Churchmanor, to look at the road’s design.
CCE’s Transport Assessment for the ERR, published in February 2014, shows Mr Noble, in his SCC role, took part in “scoping discussions” with its staff in November 2012, when the project was in its early stages.
Soon after this meeting, CCE contracted Noble Highways Ltd to produce the safety audit for the project, which Mr Noble co-wrote and approved. The audit, completed in January 2014, also featured in CCE’s Transport Assessment.
When contacted about Mr Noble’s dual role, Trevor Beckwith, Independent county councillor for the Eastgate and Moreton Hall division, said he reported concerns to the council’s monitoring officer. He said this was done verbally before a cabinet meeting in December and the monitoring officer was already aware of the concerns.
“Clearly questions have been raised that need answering,” Mr Beckwith added.
John Field, vice-chairman of SCCs scrutiny committee, speaking generally, agreed council employees should not give advice where “there is or could be a suspicion of a conflict of interest”.
SCC said Mr Noble’s manager had given permission for his company to write the safety audit – but added that such practices had been banned since July 2015. The council also claims the finished road is safe and wide enough.
Objectors have raised concerns about the road’s route since it was altered in 2012.
The new route followed Sow Lane, a narrow country track bordered on either side by private land.
Responses to the planning application said the narrowness at Sow Lane made it “very dangerous”, particularly for pedestrians and cyclists. A report commissioned by RITA also highlighted the lack of space for a footpath and cycle path, as well as poor visibility approaching a roundabout.
St Edmundsbury Borough Council’s planning officer put these concerns to SCC in July 2014. Mr Noble, acting as SCC’s representative, dismissed the concerns. Mr Noble’s safety audit, written for the applicant’s consultants, six months earlier also raised no concerns about width.
The application was approved by the St Edmundsbury’s planning committee in August 2014.
However councillors did not know the concerns raised by RITA had been dismissed by an SCC employee whose firm was subcontracted by the applicant’s consultants.
And problems resolving the issues over narrowness continued to disrupt the project.
Last July, a dispute over 12 inches of land brought construction to a standstill, just months before the road was meant to open.
Mr Godfrey said: “At the narrowest part, a private landowner received a substantial six-figure sum, in order to facilitate completion of the highway,” he added. “More public money wasted”.
SCC would not comment on the claims due to ongoing legal issues.
Mr Noble left SCC in July 2014 and Noble Highways was dissolved in February 2016. He is now an associate with WSP engineering consultants, a company he worked with to produce SCC’s final comments on the ERR.
Dual role was agreed by manager – but practices have since been banned
Suffolk County Council said Jon Noble was given permission for his company to carry out the safety audit on the Eastern Relief Road – but such practices have since been banned.
A council spokesman confirmed the audit was done by Mr Noble’s company, while he was still a council employee.
“Permission for Mr Noble to do this was granted by the employee’s line manager at the time, who is no longer employed by SCC,” the spokesman added.
They said other consultants were also used to get advice for the scheme.
The spokesman said: “In order to ensure transparency and prevent misinterpretation of events such as appears to have occurred here, staff are no longer permitted to undertake private work on behalf of developers or their agents, whose proposals they may be required to assess.”
Mr Noble said he had nothing further to add to the council’s response.
The council which approved the road, meanwhile, St Edmundsbury Borough Council (SEBC), said it was “not aware there was any potential conflict with any of the advice it received”.
It said the role of planning officer was not to look for potential conflicts of interest.
An SEBC spokesman said it sought assurance from Suffolk County Council (SCC) that appropriate safety audits would be done.
A council spokesman added: “We also sought assurances from SCC that checks and measures are in place to safeguard against any future possible conflict of interests.
“SCC has given assurances to both of these requests.”
Neither Cannon Consulting Engineers nor Churchmanor Estates Plc, which submitted the planning application for the road, responded to requests for comment.
The road is key to a £500m development strategy.
The strategy hopes to create 14,000 jobs by expanding Suffolk Business Park and building 500 new homes at Moreton Hall.
The project has been led and funded through a partnership between SEBC, the county council, the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership and applicants Churchmanor Estates.
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