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Mike Wood: Given the serious questions that have been raised about the disposal of council land in Sandwell, does my hon. Friend agree that the council should also investigate the case of my constituent, Patricia Barlow? Her late mother repeatedly tried to buy a piece of land next to her house, only to find out—after years of asking—that the council had disposed of that land to another business without even notifying her. Should the council look at the price at which that land was sold, and at whether it was all above board?
James Morris (Vice-Chair, Conservative Party)
I agree. My hon. Friend is right, and I will come on to describe other allegations that have been made about land sales in Sandwell metropolitan borough. Those allegations include land sales to Councillor Bawa and Councillor Hussain, for which an investigation found potential collusion and fraudulent practice in public office. Only Councillors Bawa and Hussain, and their immediate family members, submitted bids for those plots in September 1999, and those bids gave the impression of potential cover pricing and bid suppression. For one plot, four bids were received, all from Councillor Hussain and members of his family, without any declaration to the council that that was the case. Two plots that were sold in March and April 2000 were sold at a value below the guide price, and contrary to the agreement at the time the scheme was approved.
Councillor Bawa failed to declare his role as a councillor when a planning application was submitted on his behalf in October 2007, and there are concerns about the disposal of a plot of land that was removed from public auction in order to sell it to Councillor Rouf. Potential breaches of the financial regulations and the members’ code of conduct have also been found. Furthermore, a council house was allocated to Councillor Rouf, even though he had just sold a house for £125,000. Even more astonishingly, Sandwell Council spent £200,000 on the demolition of eight terraced houses and the clearing of the site, only for that to be purchased by Councillor Rouf’s son for £65,000. He was then granted planning permission for a seven-bedroom house, where Councillor Rouf now reportedly lives.
Former Councillor Derek Rowley was allegedly involved in the disposal of a number of council-owned containers to a member of the public. The council’s investigators could not look into that because the man in question is no longer a councillor, but it beggars belief that nothing can be done about such serious allegations of misconduct in public office. Another allegation was about former Councillor Rowley’s involvement in the hire of marquees that allegedly involve the ownership of a company that was not declared and had done business directly with Sandwell Council. Again, the council has not been able to do anything about the issue. It has decided to strengthen members’ and officers’ protocols, but—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Milling.)
All these allegations have exposed a number of incidents in which Sandwell councillors have apparently crossed the line and exposed flaws in how councillors and officers have behaved.
I come now to the next stage of this saga: the election of Councillor Steve Eling as leader of the Council. When Councillor Eling was elected leader, he said that he wanted to “drain the swamp”. To his credit, he made sure that the Wragge report was published. However, having watched his leadership over time, I am not convinced that anything he has done so far has brought about a new era of transparency or fairness—if anything, he has behaved in a way in which he has used his political power against individuals in the authority.
I am very concerned that the standards and audit committee, for example, has been used in a way that preserves the leader’s position and has deliberately targeted certain individuals. There are currently two standards investigations live within Sandwell Council, but there are serious questions to be asked about the conduct of the standards committee, its composition and the modus operandi being used to investigate two individuals. It is incredible that the council has spent over £7,000 on two QCs to chair a standards hearing against one councillor, while others have been let off scot-free. Far from draining the swamp, Councillor Eling has allowed the swamp to fester.