The Audit Commission has recently published a public interest report into Uttoxeter Town Council's sale of some council owned land. Whilst the circumstances of that council will be particular to it, there are some valuable lessons to be learnt from the report which has been published.
The Audit Commission defines good governance and accountability as: "Ensuring the organisation is doing the right things, in the right way, for the right people in a timely, inclusive, open, and accountable manner".
We have taken four key points from the report.
- Robust and transparent decision making processes and governance arrangements are essential. You will often be reminded of the need to prepare reports, ensure that they are properly published and discussed.
- Decisions must be made and ratified in the correct forum, following the appropriate procedure. Councils must have clear terms of reference for their committees and council officials should have clearly defined roles. Policies and procedures should be published, kept under review and up to date and always be followed. Uttoxeter Town Council's difficulties stem from what were identified as flawed processes and arrangements. Most important of all, keep paper trails of the decision making process and be satisfied that it is open and transparent.
- Decisions must be supported by a weight of evidence in their favour. In the Uttoxeter care, the Audit Commission concluded that the decision to sell the land in question was "so poorly supported that the sale itself may be unlawful". You should always be challenging the information tabled and not resolve to adopt a course of action before being satisfied that the decision made passes the test of reasonableness, which underpins local government law. If necessary, adjourn a meeting to seek further information. Arguably, the more difficult the decision, the more evidence there should be to support it.
- Never forget the requirement to secure best consideration on a disposal. Obviously, a valuation report prepared by a suitably qualified professional is the starting point. In most instances, there will also be a full marketing campaign. Whilst this is not strictly speaking a legal requirement, it is essential that a council can show that anyone who might be interested in purchasing an asset is aware that it is available for sale. And following a marketing campaign, it is equally important to pursue all potential offers - and to document it properly.
- Take sufficient legal advice. But not only take that advice, heed it and demonstrate a proper consideration of it, where it is appropriate to ask for it in the first instance.
It is only fair that we conclude this note by saying that Uttoxeter's mayor (whilst saying he could not speak on the council's behalf) has mounted a robust defence of his town council's handling of the land sale in question. However, in doing so, he admitted that things could have been done differently even though the overriding intent of driving through the sale was to achieve the council's town centre regeneration objectives.
A link to the Audit Commission's report is available here.