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Waveney takes flak over hefty legal bill

PUBLISHED: 10:08 05 August 2009 | UPDATED: 11:20 06 July 2010

LACK of control over spending on advice from solicitors landed a council with a legal bill for nearly £350,000 to defend proposals to sell off two caravan parks, a government investigation has revealed.

LACK of control over spending on advice from solicitors landed a council with a legal bill for nearly £350,000 to defend proposals to sell off two caravan parks, a government investigation has revealed.

An Audit Commission report into Waveney District Council's payments to lawyers during the saga about attempts to offload caravan parks at North Denes, Lowestoft, and at Southwold Harbour to private operators has concluded that the authority did not fully consider whether continuing with the proposals offered value for money for council tax-payers.

The new report, to be discussed by the council's audit and risk management committee on Monday, said the council should have exerted more control over spending on external legal advice, which reached a total of £348,000, after public opposition on issues concerning ownership and access to the sites.

The report said: “Other than an initial estimate at the start of the process of £20,000, there is no evidence of projected costs being requested from the external legal advisers and there appears to have been limited consideration within the council of the value-for-money aspects of proceeding with the disposals.

“No overall budget was set for each disposal, and there was limited monitoring of the reasons for the increasing expenditure; neither was there clear overall monitoring

and reporting which linked initial aims to timescales and financial matters.”

Ruth Ford, district councillor for Harbour ward, which includes the North Denes site, said: “This is a lot of money, and it's all from taxpayers.

“If the officers' time and loss of income from the sites not being used was taken into account, I would think it would be a lot more than that amount.”

While the commission's report criticises the council's control of spending on legal advice, it also shows that an action plan agreed with council officers has already been put in place.

Of the nine recommendations that have been made by commission investigators, including drawing up a formal process for incurring legal costs and obtaining detailed forecasts of costs before commissioning legal advice, six have already been put in place by the council and the other three are due to be adopted by this autumn.

Although legal documents for the hand-over of the Southwold land are still being drawn up, the site looks set to be given back to the town through the Southwold Harbour Lands Trust some time next year, but Waveney will not make any money from the transfer.

A spokesman for the council declined to comment in advance of Monday's meeting.

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