Investigation at Desborough Town Council after conflict of interest allegations

Kettering council has commissioned an investigation into allegations that some councillors have a conflict of interest and should not be making decisions about library matters.
Kettering council has commissioned an investigation into allegations that some councillors have a conflict of interest and should not be making decisions about library matters.

A code of conduct investigation is being carried out after a complaint about a number of Desborough town councillors in relation to their involvement in a library charity.

Kettering Council’s monitoring officer has commissioned an investigation after a complaint by a Desborough resident concerning seven of the town’s councillors also being involved in the Desborough Library and Community Hub which is asking for a large grant from the town council.

The resident claims there is a conflict of interest, as the charity – which is hoping to take over the running of the council from the county council – has asked for £150,000 towards buying and then running the library.

At an extraordinary meeting last night (Jul 25) the town council agreed to hand the money over, which will come from the £517,000 the authority has in reserves. An original proposal of £90,000 for three years’ running costs was reduced to one year at £30,000.

11 of the 12 councillors voted for the £30,000 proposal with councillors Simon Stroud voting against.*

Gil Holmes, who is chairman of the charity trust and also a town councillor, said the town council’s backing of the library was good news for the town.

He said: “The hard work starts now. It has been 18 months to two years of hard slog and to get to where we are now and the library is going to have to pay for itself.”

The next steps are for the charity to formally purchase the building from the county council.

The library is being sold by the county council as part of its plans to reduce the number of libraries in the county. It wants a price of £270,000 for the building. The Desborough library charity has also secured £150,000 from the Maud Elkington Trust to go towards the cost of purchase.

The fact that the majority of councillors are also trustees of the library charity has caused some upset.

Town council chairwoman Jean Read, Linda Burnham, Irene James, Gil Holmes, Stephen Draycott, Bill McElhinney are all trustees of the charity and Jo Taylor is a committee member.

Usually councillors are not allowed to vote on matters in which they have another interest, but the council’s clerk arranged special dispensation under the 2011 Localism Act to allow the seven councillors to have a vote.

Independent councillor Simon Stroud voted against handing over the funds and said he is not against the town council supporting the library but is against giving a grant for running costs.

Instead he thinks it should have been a loan arrangement. He also thinks the library charity has not been upfront with all of its information and only presented its business plan to councillors yesterday, not allowing much time for consideration.

He says he has been told that there could have been a peppercorn lease arrangement with the county council, and he thinks the town council should have invited someone from Northamptonshire County Council along to clear up any misunderstandings about what deal has been offered and agreed.

He said: “For me something just does not feel right. My concern is the secrecy, the lack of transparency and what I believe are predetermined outcomes. I just do not understand how the councillors who are also library trustees have been given special dispensation to vote. There is a lack of transparency in the town council and that is what the Independents for Desborough campaigned on when they were elected.”

Desborough resident Kevin O’Brien, who was at the meeting, said he will be making a formal complaint to Kettering Council about the way in which the matter was handled last night. He says a pre-meeting of councillors that took place in the library before the 8pm public meeting should not have happened as it breached regulations.

This is the latest saga involving Desborough Town Council. The new councillors were all elected in May 2018 after the Conservative administration stood down following a row about a huge council tax precept hike. There were 10 members of the Independents for Desborough elected.

The town council’s clerk and the council chairman Jean Read were unavailable for comment when contacted by the local democracy reporting service.

*a slight amendment has been made to this story from an earlier version.