St Albans council counts cost of call-ins

Challenges to controversial decisions on Westminster Lodge and Westfield are costing taxpayers

EFFORTS to push the district council into changing tack on recent controversial planning decisions have cost taxpayers more than �16,000.

St Albans’ new Westminster Lodge leisure centre was called in to a scrutiny committee in July for a second time, following a decision by the new Tory-led administration to expand the size of the main 25-metre swimming pool from eight lanes to 10.

Then in September another controversial decision by the new administration, to grant access to Harpenden town council to former allotment land on Westfield Road, was also called in for examination.

The cost to taxpayers for just those two challenges, in less than two months, is �16,471, according to figures released at a full council meeting last Wednesday.

That figure has shocked Cllr Maxine Crawley, who asked how the expenditure could be justified, “at this time of economic crisis.”

In both instances the challenges were initiated by a scrutiny committee, chaired by Cllr Robert Donald, Lib Dem group leader.

Most Read

The portfolio holder for localism, Cllr Beric Read, said that attendance fees of �1,341 were paid to expert witnesses to attend the Westminster Lodge call-in at the scrutiny committee meeting on July 20.

Fees of �425 were paid to a consultant for a peer review of allotment provision in the district for the Westfield call-in, discussed on September 5.

A total of 149 officer hours were spent on the Westminster Lodge challenge and 166 hours on Westfield. The costs of officer time were �7,466 and �6,261 respectively.

With postage and printing adding a further �978, the overall cost for both call-ins was �16,471.

Cllr Crawley has asked for a working group to investigate the expenditure further.

Cllr Read replied: “We will be looking at that. It’s a decision for the overview and scrutiny committee about what depth it goes into things, but with two meetings, it is an awful lot of money.”

However after the council meeting Cllr Donald defended the committee’s decision to challenge decisions, and questioned the figures tabled by Cllr Read.

He said he did not know how they were computed, and that no one had informed the committee its budget had been exceeded.

Cllr Donald branded tabling of fees a political ploy and posturing by the Tories to deflect challenges of decisions.

He went on: “The constitution allows for call-ins, it’s not unusual in a democracy. You need to have a check and balance of executive decisions on behalf of residents. I’m just doing my job.

“Of course I will not stop doing more call-ins, I will not be deterred by this.”

Mike Lovelady, head of legal services at council, said staff are collating costs for call-ins during the 2010/2011 municipal year, following a request from the council meeting.

He confirmed there were two call-ins last year, both concerning Cabinet decisions, including one on the former allotment site at Westfield in November.

Mr Lovelady said: “We do not automatically log the time spent on call-ins and their associated costs.”