Thursday, May 30, 2024

Government probe into Development Corporation accounts could lead to police inquiry

THE Government’s senior local government minister Eric Pickles has confirmed a probe has been launched into the way Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation was wound up and it is possible a police investigation could follow into criminal activity. The whole matter was uncovered in an exclusive report in the Thurrock Enquirer.

The Development Corporation was established in 2005 to drive economic growth in Thurrock, create homes, jobs and opportunities.

Despite spending hundreds of millions of pounds however, it is judged by many to have been a failure and was one of the first casualties when the current Coalition Government came into being and implemented what was popularly dubbed “the bonfire of the quangos.”

Its closure was announced in October 2010 and it was officially shut down on 31 March 2012 when its planning powers and regeneration functions reverted to Thurrock Council.

However, a number of key personnel stayed, including chairman Will McKee (pictured right) and Chief Executive Niall Lindsay. The Board was supposed to have been closed in July 2012 but the Enquirer understands a case was made for some members of staff to stay on after that time and that is the crux of an investigation that has been launched.

Mr McKee’s last reported salary was £48,897 and Mr Lindsay’s between £130,000 and £135,000.

Final pay-offs to most senior managers have yet to be published though in April 2012 Director of Delivery Tom Gardiner received a redundancy payment of £130,200 and pay in lieu of notice of £24,950.

Aside from directors, other members of staff are believed to have been given delayed and substantial redundancy pay-offs.

As part of the winding down of the Corporation, more than £5m was transferred to the newly formed High House Production park company, with Mr McKee and Mr Lindsay appointed trustees, along with Lord Tony Hall and Mr Paul Shadavarian QC. A number of members of staff at the Corporation were given jobs at the Production Park.

Thurrock MP Jackie Doyle-Price, a severe critic of many aspects of the Corporation since being elected in May 2010 and a frequent inquisitor of its finances, quizzed planning minister Bob Neill about the DC’s finances, its relationship with the Production Park operation and its closure programme in April 2012.

Later that year, in October, she again took to the floor of the House of Commons to query what was happening, and asked “the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government when he expects to lay the final accounts of the Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation; and if he will make a statement?”

Junior Minister Brandon Lewis replied: “Work is ongoing to finalise the accounts of the Thurrock Development Corporation, which will be laid in Parliament as soon as possible.”

Now, almost nine months later, it seems the Government is little nearer to fully knowing what has happened to the Corporation’s money and assets. Its accounts have yet to be signed off.

Today the Enquirer can reveal internal auditors from the Department for Communities and Local Government are currently mounting a detailed investigation nto the finances of the Corporation through its closing months, and beyond, and the Enquirer believes some senior members have already been asked to pay back substantial amounts of money.

It is understood the probe may include looking into dispersal of some of the assets of the Development Corporation, for example its extensive photographic library which cost tens of thousands of pounds to assemble over the lifetime of the Corporation. The Enquirer has been told by a former IT manager of the Corporation that the DVD library had been “crushed for data protection purposes and that images could not be used by anyone other than the Corporation” – though some images are currently in use by commercial organisations.

At the same time as the Corporation was being wound down Mr McKee, 70, who was awarded a CBE in 2002, and Mr Lindsay (left), launched a planning consultancy business called Land And Property Asset Realisation (LAPAR) which targets clients in the public and private sectors.

The Enquirer understands the activities of both men are part of the internal auditors’ investigations, with other former senior paid officials at the Corporation under scrutiny.

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Mr Pickles gave the Enquirer a brief statement in which he said: “We take allegations of impropriety very seriously. I can confirm officials in my department have asked for an investigation into the events leading to the closure of the Development Corporation by our internal auditors. That investigation is currently ongoing and under the circumstances we are unable to discuss either its findings or its conclusions until its completion.

“Please be assured that on completion of the investigation, we will consult with the relevant authorities. If any evidence of criminal activity is found, this will be referred to the police.”

Ms Doyle-Price remains determined to ensure that truth will out over the Corporation’s performance, which many regard as flawed with botched and delayed land deals and acquisitions of land at inflated prices.

While there have undoubtedly been some successes, such as bringing the Royal Opera House workshop and the National Skills Academy for Creative & Cultural Skills, as well as piloting the course of the London Gateway Port – there have been many abortive and controversial projects, such as the failed attempt to create a new Community Hospital in Grays which has seen huge relocation costs including the building of a new Royal Mail sorting office and Territorial Army base – which have since proved unnecessary. The Corporation bosses stand accused of ploughing on spending millions assembling a site that would never be used

Many other significant land purchases have taken place in areas of the Borough, particularly Purfleet, which were significantly above the asset value the land now has.

Ms Doyle-Price told the Enquirer: “I asked the Department and the Controller and Auditor-General to investigate the accounts of the Development Corporation after becoming concerned about the process of dissolving the organisation and whether some actions were consistent with achieving value for money for the taxpayer. Those inquiries are ongoing and it would be unhelpful for me to speculate as to the findings at this stage.”

Thurrock Council inherited many of the assets of the Corporation, and its role as the area’s strategic planner. Sources within the authority have told of deep divisions between its senior officers and their counterparts at the Corporation, despite a veneer of cordiality when the two organisations came together.

There was much ‘backslapping’ at a localisation ceremony held at the Production Park. At the time Mr McKee said: “Everyone at the corporation is immensely proud of the organisation’s achievements, in particular its strategic policy framework and the transformational projects we have developed and implemented since becoming fully operational in October 2005.”

Thurrock Council leader John Kent added: “The work of the Development Corporation cannot be understated, its role has not been to build the buildings, but to lay the foundations and create the environment and the conditions for growth and investment.”

Minister Mr Neill said he wanted to pass on congratulations “from the Prime Minister down” for the way the Corporation, the Council and the Government had worked together to reach this point.

Subject to the auditors’ findings, those congratulations may yet turn out to have been premature.

Presented with news of the financial investigation and Mr Pickles’ comments, a Thurrock Council spokesperson said: “This is a matter between CLG and those at the TTGDC responsible for its closure.

“The Council ensured the successful transfer of former DC functions and staff into the Council in April 2012 and we are continuing to make considerable progress across Thurrock’s growth and regeneration agenda, with for example, the construction of the new campus for South Essex College in Grays, new Artists Studios being built at High House Production Park in Purfleet and securing £4.3m for local businesses through the TIGER fund.”

1 COMMENT

  1. It looks as though the great leader should once again be changing feet so he can get the other one in his mouth. The TTGDC was Labour’s unaccountable bulldozer to ensure that their mass immigration policy went to plan. As the Labour party has now admitted that has been a total disaster for this country as was the TTGDC for Thurrock. Nothing will be done as there’s probably too much to hide.

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