Bristol City Council has been accused of deliberately withholding information on Temple Island from top scrutiny councillors amid concerns the authority is entering an unlawful deal.
Scrutiny commission chairman, Paula O’Rourke, says they were promised the report by mayor Marvin Rees’ administration ahead of it going to cabinet on January 21.
But after it failed to land in time for a meeting on January 9, the furious councillor launched a blistering attack on City Hall leaders for “refusing” to give them access.
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Commission members, including Labour councillors voted 7-2 to call on Rees to postpone the item at cabinet, although one of them, Jon Wellington, said he did not believe the administration had deliberately blocked them from reading it.
Meanwhile, in an extraordinary twist to the saga, the top official at Legal & General spearheading the partnership with the local authority to develop the site formerly earmarked for an arena, admitted publicly that the company has been in talks with the council since 2015 – years earlier than previously known.
The full Temple Island report is due to be published on Tuesday, January 14, seven days before cabinet.
Green councillor O’Rourke, who chairs the growth and regeneration scrutiny commission, said she had asked for a draft version or summary but even that had been rebuffed.
She told commission members: “Today’s meeting was scheduled for this date so that members could scrutinise the Temple Island proposal and disposal paper.
“We have been refused access to all aspects of the disposal, despite asking for a draft copy of the report or a précis of what is due to go to cabinet.
“We have previously had assurances from the legal department that scrutiny is entitled to see papers, even in draft form, and the cabinet member (deputy mayor Craig Cheney) has told us that scrutiny is welcome to put anything it deems worthy on its forward plan and it would be scrutinised.
“Yet, here we are today, with no details of the disposal to scrutinise and that is just five days before the full paper is due to be published.
“One can only deduce that the administration has deliberately decided to keep this information from members of the scrutiny commission.
“Having reviewed the cabinet report from July, I am more adamant that scrutiny needs to have sight of the disposal agreement prior to the report going to cabinet, as there are serious questions unanswered.”
She said these related to whether the deal with Legal & General was a “simple property transaction” which did not require a public procurement process or a “public works contract” which would have to go out to tender.
O’Rourke added: “We are doing a land transaction with L&G but also require an office block to be built, so it is more than a land deal.
“In my questions I asked for evidence that we would not be entering into a contract that would be ineffective or unlawful.
“We have been told we cannot now scrutinise the very important legal and financial arrangements to say if this deal is either lawful or good value for money.
“If mishandled, this has the potential to leave the council on the hook for tens of millions of pounds, as well as serious legal challenges.
“This is valuable public land in the heart of the city which has already had millions invested in it. Any decision to hand it over to a private company must be carefully scrutinised.”
Labour councillor Jon Wellington said: “I disagree that things have been deliberately withheld from scrutiny.
“It is probably just work ongoing that cannot come to scrutiny. However, I agree it should be put back to March cabinet.
“If you’re still working on things, I can wait a month for something that will have massive implications for the city.”
The row overshadowed a presentation by L&G about its Temple Island proposals, although it contained few details.
Lib Dem councillor Wright said: “The vision you showed all looks very nice, which makes it all the more weird L&G wants to offload the risk onto the Bristol taxpayer.
“If it’s all going to be such an amazing success, why does the taxpayer need to back this up?
“We want to scrutinise the legal and contractual fluff which is the important stuff and it perplexes me that this is a 250-year contract. Why is the taxpayer being put on hook on any failures to go ahead?”
Bristol City Council has been asked for a comment.
Main image of Legal & General’s plans for Temple Island courtesy of Legal & General. Adam Postans is a local democracy reporter for Bristol.