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No complaints fully upheld in investigation into Hasker Farm negotiations

Derbyshire Dales District Council has today welcomed an independent fact-finding investigation that has not fully upheld any complaints about the Council's consideration of a potential permanent Traveller site at Hasker Farm.

Six of 10 complaints made by members of the Hasker Farm Committee were rejected, while the remaining four were "partially upheld".

The investigation report is due to be debated by the District Council's Governance and Resources Committee on 15 February, with a recommendation that the Committee explores a review of the authority's governance arrangements with an external partner. The report can be viewed in full online (from p257).

The complaints against the Council were submitted at the end of September last year and referred for investigation to East Midlands Councils under the Derbyshire Dales Council's Complaints Procedure. The investigation included 10 hours of interviews with Derbyshire Dales officers and former Leaders of the previous administration.

Although the Council decided on 22 February 2023 not to proceed with the proposal at Hasker Farm in Callow near Kirk Ireton, in a 33-page submission - including documents secured through Freedom of Information requests made by local MP Sarah Dines - the complainants made a series of allegations about the way in which the matter had been dealt with by the Council's then political leadership and by senior management.

The majority of the complaints have not been upheld by the independent investigators, who have rejected serious allegations claiming "inadequate due diligence and gross professional negligence" on the part of the Council.

Also rejected are claims that the council:

  • continued commercial engagement with a known criminal,
  • financial concerns and significant conflicts of interest
  • lack of safeguarding assessment
  • unfair rejection by the Council of an alternative site
  • lying by senior officers of the Council

The investigators are satisfied that the total cost of work commissioned by the Council to assess the Hasker Farm site was £4,007.99, stating in their report:

"We do not consider this to be excessive."

The report does however partially uphold allegations about a lack of transparency and good governance by the Council, prior knowledge of convictions and of involvement in organised crime by the individual they entered into negotiations with, lack of enforcement of planning permission breaches and missing paperwork and lack of transparency.

The investigators are clear though that the Council did not enter into a business relationship with "a known criminal" or was even close to doing so and that the land in question was actually owned by the individual's son and that this was known and understood by the Council from the start of the process, when the land was offered on 11 May 2022.

The report states:

"We stop short of concluding officers knew the full details of convictions. We believe that the content of email of the 23th January 2023 and its implications came as a complete shock to the Council. All those we interviewed were clear that they would have terminated discussions immediately if they had known the full details of criminal history.

"We have seen no evidence that the proposal ever progressed beyond the preliminary assessments. No business case was ever considered by the Capital Working Group or by the Corporate Leadership Team, no recommendations were ever made to the Community & Environment Committee or to the Full Council, and no planning application was ever made."

The investigators acknowledge that all 39 Derbyshire Dales councillors were copied in on an email from the Chief Executive, Paul Wilson, on 15 June 2022 confirming that an expression of interest in providing a Traveller site had been received "off the B5035 between Middleton and Carsington" and that a precise location and details of the site would be provided as part of a workshop the following week.

This information contradicts claims made later by some councillors that they had no knowledge of the site. Indeed, the investigation report confirms that 25 councillors responded to the invitation to attend the workshop. The report confirms that a Powerpoint presentation was made by officers at the briefing, which included a slide on an OS based map delineating the Hasker Farm site.

The report states:

"Whilst the Council’s political leadership wanted to restrict public knowledge of the site until the preliminary assessments had been undertaken, we do not believe that there was any deliberate attempt by officers to hide the location of the site from other Members. Indeed, Mr Wilson appears to have gone out of his way to ensure that all Members were made aware of general location of the site and had the opportunity at the briefing session to view an OS based map showing the detailed location."

Concern is expressed however about the extent to which Members made decisions on the Hasker Farm proposal, not in formal meetings of the Council, but through closed informal Member briefing sessions for which no written records were made or kept.

The report adds that Members should have either made these decisions in public through formal meetings of the Council or agreed to a scheme of delegation to allow officers to make them, adding:

"This lack of transparency has undermined trust in the Council."

The investigators acknowledge that the new Council administration - elected in May last year - agreed on 28 September a new more transparent process for meeting the accommodation needs of Travellers, adding:

"The test of this new approach will be the extent to which the Council can finally meet its statutory obligations to provide suitable accommodation to the two vulnerable Traveller families who remain homeless – and whom we feel to be ultimate victims of this whole episode.

"We believe that at an operational level the Council should take steps to instil a more effective culture of record keeping and note taking by officers, particularly when dealing with third parties. Officers should also be reminded of the importance of maintaining a professional approach to writing internal emails, recognising the potential for all such communications to be made public at some point."

Speaking ahead of the scheduled Governance and Resources Committee meeting next Thursday, District Council Leader Councillor Steve Flitter said:

“We have been disappointed with the interpretation of this report in some quarters since it was made public. The facts are that a comprehensive complaint was received, investigated thoroughly and independently and a response reported to the complainants following our usual processes. Six of the ten complaints made against the Council were not upheld and four were partially upheld.

““The independent report made clear that officers were not negligent and they were instructed to cease to proceed once members became aware of the new emerging issues.

"The complaint covered a timescale that principally fell under the previous administration and this progressive administration has already taken action to agree a new more transparent process of meeting the accommodation needs of Travellers.

"We find every opportunity to learn from complaints and there is much to learn from this one."

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