Keighley investigation: How a grandmother blew whistle on town council

WHEN grandmother and retired accountant Elizabeth Mitchell began taking an interest in local footpaths two years ago she couldn’t have known where it would lead.

Elizabeth Mitchell, centre with campaigners against Keighley Town Council, David Samuels, Barbara Forsyth, Graham Forsyth, Cath Evans, Michael Mitchell, Molly Plunkett, Michael Cook, Mary Roberts, Ian Roberts, Christine Cook. Picture by Tony Johnson
Elizabeth Mitchell, centre with campaigners against Keighley Town Council, David Samuels, Barbara Forsyth, Graham Forsyth, Cath Evans, Michael Mitchell, Molly Plunkett, Michael Cook, Mary Roberts, Ian Roberts, Christine Cook. Picture by Tony Johnson

After attending a meeting at the newly-opened Keighley Civic Centre, she visited the council’s website looking for more information and was shocked to see a mocked-up photo of a ‘dead’ woman dressed in underwear.

“I’m not a prude but that month the town had been in the media regarding the grooming of young white girls and so I wrote to three lady councillors asking their thoughts on removing it.”

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Had they replied, that might have been the end of Mrs Mitchell’s interest in the local council, but their lack of response only made her more determined.

She then wrote to the council officer, only to be told the image wasn’t offensive and that it belonged to a company called the ‘Police Experience’, a museum at the civic centre.

“I checked Companies House to find out who to complain to but there was no such company. “So I looked in more depth at the council’s website and found errors with their accounts and paperwork, so wrote and told them.

“Their hostile and abusive responses only motivated me further to look more closely.”

When she discovered how the civic centre project had been funded she was stunned.

“I realised they had taken out a loan of £1.1 million to be paid back over 50 years to pay for the Civic Centre; I was really shocked. It would be my great grandchildren’s children paying back that debt.”

On looking deeper, she discovered a catalogue of poor decision making and woeful financial planning which she believed amounted to incompetence.

Claims for payment from consultants had been submitted on “scraps of paper”, valuable items were missing from the asset register and payments for work or services had been made to family members without authorisation. Mrs Mitchell, who lives in Keighley, along with friends and family established a campaign group, Cavetown Council, in February 2013 to lobby for changes. They were told that the Local Government Ombudsman did not investigate parish and town councils and so, after much research, she and eight electors exercised their right to object to the council’s 2012/13 accounts which they put to outside auditors.

Several months later the objectors’ long campaigning was vindicated with the publication of a 13-page report by auditor PKF Littlejohn.

The report, dated October 31, outlined a “number of significant weaknesses in the Council’s governance” which had led it to take actions without considering its legal powers “and, as a consequence, to take actions that may be unlawful.”

The report added: “The focus of many of the weaknesses addressed in the report is the decision by embark upon an ambitious project to develop a civic centre, the poor financial performance of the centre and the resulting substantial increase in the Council’s 2013/14 precept.”

The report said the council had routinely failed to follow many its own basic financial regulations.

It identified instances where the council had failed to:

Obtain quotes for purchases over £1,000 - and therefore failed to ensure value for money.

Ensure payments were properly authorised.

Maintain documentation in support of cash receipts.

Serious questions were also raised by auditors over payments to family members of councillors and council staff.

The report said: “In the course of the year the Council entered into a number of transactions with family members of Councillors and employees. Such transactions are likely to be subject to greater public scrutiny but the Council’s Financial Regulations do not contain additional safeguards concerning such transactions.”

The council’s decision to open a museum shop into the civic centre was also called into question.

“The Council failed to consider or seek the support of legal advice as to which powers it intended to rely on to trade via the museum shop within the Civic Centre and as a result may have acted unlawfully.”

The council came in for strong criticism for the way it went about planning to develop the civic centre.

“The Council entered into the Civic Centre Project, which was a significant financial commitment, without an adequate business plan. The plan is inadequate in identifying and addressing the risks and overall financial viability.”

The report made 13 recommendations, including revising financial regulations to introduce additional safeguards over transactions involving family members and others closely connected to councillors and employees.

It also urged a thorough review of its governance arrangements to ensure “robust financial control in order to safeguard public funds”.

The audit said training councillors and the clerk were priorities.

“We recommend the Council takes the following actions as a matter of urgency...ensures the Clerk and Councillors are properly supported in the exercise of their duties with comprehensive training.”

This ‘reckless and arrogant’ spending - MP

KEIGHLEY Conservative MP Kris Hopkins, a long-standing critic of the authority, branded its approach to spending public money “reckless and arrogant” following the publication of an external audit report last month.

Mr Hopkins called it a “catalogue of disaster” and asked for “those responsible” to resign. None have done so.

He singled out spending on the creation of a new civic centre, which was set up without a proper business plan and is costing the council tens of thousands a year in running costs.

The most recent figures suggest the civic centre is costing around £250,000 a year to run and bringing in only around £40,000 in income.

The council’s overall annual income is around £700,000.

Mr Hopkins also said the council had been found to be failing to keep a record of cash receipts. making unauthorised payments and failing to properly monitor financial transactions to relatives of councillors and employees.

He wrote to West Yorkshire Police asking them to investigate potentially unlawful activity. The Force is currently looking into the claims.

Examples of questionable spending highlighted by auditors and council critics from 2012 onwards include:

Overpayments to a contractor who was paid despite not meeting commission targets.

The purchase of two horses, both sold at a loss due to being unsuited for their intended purpose of pulling an old police cart in the council’s museum.

Over £3,300 spent on Christmas lights without proper authorisation – and no evidence of why a lower quote wasn’t followed up.

No evidence given to auditors that council obtained quotes for some services over £1,000.

Payments made to relatives of councillors and employees without proper safeguards.

Failure to maintain a comprehensive asset register.

Inadequate business plan for civic centre which failed to assess its viability. No consideration given to the employment status of consultants.

No formal tenancy agreements for tenants of the civic centre.

No consideration given to relevant powers under which the council might legally trade via the museum shop.

Since the report was published the council has held a special meeting to discuss it.

Councillors voted to

apologise to electors and thanked critics for alerting them to the issues.

The authority has recently employed a new clerk and says it is working to rectify the issues identified by auditors.