Police investigate allegations of theft at Northumberland community centre

Allegations of theft are being investigated at the charity whose manager was a former Arch consultant and Labour spokesman, who is to be evicted from his rent-free home.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 13 December, 2018, 15:39
Briardale Community Centre in Blyth.

A statement on Tuesday night from the Briardale Community Centre, in Blyth, said that Graham Harper, who was the centre manager, ‘is no longer associated with the Briardale’.

Earlier that day, a judge had ordered that he must vacate his home in Blyth within 28 days, after a hearing at Newcastle County Court was told that the 52-year-old, who was not present, paid no rent or mortgage and had provided no evidence of a written agreement, although he disputes this.

The court case came as it emerged that there are serious concerns about what has happened at the Briardale, with the situation leaving the facility with a ‘severe cash-flow crisis in the immediate term’.

The statement from the board of directors, published on its Facebook page, said that ‘a number of irregularities’ were discovered when Mr Harper fell ill and the directors had to take over the day-to-day running of the centre, with the matter then reported to the authorities.

It adds that a new managing director has been appointed as they ‘strive to return the Briardale Community Centre back to normal as quickly as possible’.

A Northumbria Police spokesman confirmed that the force is investigating an alleged theft of money at the centre and that inquiries are ongoing.

When the allegations were put to Mr Harper, he responded: “It’s true that I haven’t been well and that has affected me at the Briardale. I’ve been under constant attack during my time at the centre which has had a very negative effect on me.

“I welcome a full investigation into the Briardale and I will participate fully and supply whatever is required of me.”

Blyth Town Council is due to discuss providing additional funding to the community centre in private session at a special meeting tonight (Thursday, December 13).

Meanwhile, Northumberland County Council has offered to pay staff, some of whom have reportedly not been paid for months, and support the centre.

The authority’s Conservative administration has expressed its concerns about the situation, saying that the directors of the charity, including Northumberland Labour leader Grant Davey, now face difficult questions from the council, Charity Commission and other authorities.

However, Coun Davey, who has known Mr Harper for many years and has worked with him in his role providing PR for the Labour group, has made it clear he is not on Mr Harper’s side in this matter and said he has been working to resolve the situation since it came to light last month.

Coun Davey added that he was not involved in Mr Harper’s hiring and declared an interest when he realised that he had made the shortlist for the role.

Council and Conservative leader Peter Jackson said: “I have been disgusted by the stories coming out of the Briardale Centre.

“The directors of the charity have a lot of very difficult questions to answer, including whether basic DBS and other checks were undertaken of staff they have hired, what controls were in place for the centre finances and how vulnerable people in the centre were protected.

“This situation cannot be allowed to continue. Northumberland County Council is primed, ready and able to step in to make sure staff are paid in time for Christmas and that services to some of the most vulnerable people in Blyth are maintained.

“In the meantime, I urge anyone who knows about the issues at the Briardale Centre or feels they may be a victim of any wrongdoing at the centre to contact my office team at the county council as soon as possible.”

In relation to Tuesday’s court case, a Northumberland County Council spokeswoman said: “We can confirm that Advance Northumberland (Housing) Limited obtained a judgement for possession in relation to a property in Blyth, occupied by a former consultant of Arch Corporate Holdings Ltd.

“Since occupation in October 2016, no rental payment has been received on the property. No tenancy agreement exists or consultancy contract in relation to this property agreed or entered into. Therefore, the occupier has no legal right to remain in the property.

“The occupier was served notice on October 2, 2017, and again on December 22, 2017. Several hearings have been adjourned by the courts to allow the occupier to provide further required evidence. This has not been provided.

“The possession order requires the occupier to vacant the property within 28 days.

“Further advice is available to the occupants of the property from the council, should this be required.”

Advance Northumberland, formerly Arch, was also seeking £10,625.20 from Mr Harper, based on a rent of £800 a month since November 2017, however, this was adjourned to the new year so that it could be dealt with properly after an expert was unable to gain access to the property to carry out a valuation report.

Mr Harper said: “This whole episode is part of a smear campaign set up by some individuals employed in public office. They have spent more than the outstanding rent to pursue me through the courts which is a fact I hope will be noted.

“It could have been halted if the company and the council had sat down when they unlawfully terminated my employment in May 2017 after the election. This was halted at the time by the incoming administration.

“I rented the house in good faith from Arch as part of my agreement with the company, I accepted a reduced rate below other consultants at the company to allow the shortfall to cover my rent and I didn’t occupy the house with my 82-year-old mother until April 2017, some 13 months after I accepted the reduced rate.

“I have an assured tenancy agreement which was also supplied to the court. The council has said that does not exist. This was signed on October 2, 2016. I have also supplied the council’s skeleton argument to court, which states that I ‘offered to pay rent for the house’, but the ‘council refused that offer’.

“I was unable to attend the hearing due to my health and the council has placed us in a very invidious position. The health of my 82-year-old mum has been impacted very badly as has mine and I am shocked that the council has not acknowledged the vulnerability of my mum.

“I think most reasonable people would see our catch 22 situation – I show a tenancy agreement the council/Arch refuses to acknowledge and I offer to pay rent and they refuse.

“I would welcome any independent investigation into the circumstances around the situation the council have placed us in.”

Mr Harper was previously jailed for 15 weeks, suspended for 12 months, after pleading guilty in 2010 at Newcastle Crown Court to obtaining a money transfer by deception, having forged a mortgage document to secure £60,000.

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service