Request will be made for outside police force to look at Arch issues

Northumberland County Council. Picture by Jane Coltman
Northumberland County Council. Picture by Jane Coltman

Senior Northumberland councillors have confirmed that they want an outside police force to look into issues at the authority’s former company Arch.

This official request followed last month’s two-hour meeting of the county council’s audit committee to discuss a 98-page report into goings-on at the wholly council-owned development company under the previous Labour administration. Arch has since been replaced by Advance Northumberland.

This report was commissioned after the Conservatives took over at County Hall in May 2017 and completed in October that year, but has not been released until now at the request of Northumbria Police.

The force recently confirmed to the council that it would not object to the report’s disclosure and police have said ‘no criminal offences have been identified’ after ‘thoroughly reviewing the documents provided’.

However, having discussed a number of the issues in the report, which raised concerns around nepotism, collusion and a ‘culture of entitlement’, as jobs and perks were handed out to ‘the chaps’, the committee members still had questions.

Therefore, the councillors called for another police force to look into these matters, which include – but are not limited to – the purchase of the then Arch chief executive’s house in 2016 and the ‘unduly generous’ package, including a house and a car, provided to one contractor/consultant, both of which auditors said had ‘potential for criminality’.

This recommendation then had to be approved by the cabinet, which, as a decision-making body, can request that the council’s chief executive write to the Home Office to request another force investigates.

This was unanimously agreed at the cabinet meeting yesterday (Tuesday, April 9), as well as a proposal to ask Northumbria Police whether anyone has been interviewed in relation to these matters and whether there has been any referral to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Coun Georgina Hill, the chairman of the audit committee, said: “The feeling is that the issues haven’t been assessed properly and that there’s more to come out, rather than this being a line in the sand on this.

“There are lots of questions to be asked of the police and, with the exception of one member, the committee was very keen that another force looked at this.”

Council leader Peter Jackson referred to correspondence received by the council from the police in August 2017, which stated that ‘the information provided by the council would warrant the commencement of a criminal investigation’.

“That seems pretty clear to me,” he said. “What isn’t clear to me is the way that any investigation has been conducted, and the response to the investigation, in particular, seems very unsatisfactory.

“It’s a public duty if there’s something gone wrong in a very bad way with what is effectively public money. The public want this investigated properly.”

Coun Richard Wearmouth, who became chairman of Arch, now Advance Northumberland, following the 2017 elections, said: “I’m amazed that the data I have seen does not warrant someone being asked questions by Northumbria Police.

“That’s not something I say lightly. All of us have positive relationships with Northumbria Police as ward councillors, but I’m absolutely flabbergasted that these discussions haven’t taken place.

“It’s really important people have faith and absolutely feel that there isn’t political interference from PCCs (police and crime commissioners), because that’s a key part of their role.”

After the meeting, however, the Labour leader, Coun Grant Davey, was scathing of what he has repeatedly described as a ‘witch-hunt’ and a decision that would ‘expose the council taxpayers in Northumberland to hefty costs that don’t deliver services only perpetuate politics’.

He added: “I am very concerned that a political decision was taken on the issue of investigating Northumbria Police activities and those of the Police and Crime Commissioner surrounding the council-owned company Arch/Advance.

“This matter did not appear to have been scrutinised, as a report was not made available from a scrutiny panel before the decision was taken and may bring with it a high level of cost, as bringing in an outside police force to investigate doesn’t come cheaply.”

A Northumbria Police statement, which still stands, says: “We can confirm that Northumberland County Council contacted police with concerns relating to finance and governance at Arch.

“Police have been working with the council and reviewed a large quantity of documentation that they provided continually throughout this period to establish if there were any criminal offences.

“Officers thoroughly reviewed the documents provided and we can confirm no criminal offences have been identified. Therefore the matter has been finalised.”

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service