Cheshire Police are investigating whether any crimes were committed when the council sold off the park keeper’s lodge at Alexandra Park in Hoole.
Lead campaigner Linda Webb revealed the ongoing inquiry when she addressed Cheshire West and Chester Council’s audit and governance committee.
She and fellow residents remain unhappy a council officer sold the lodge and its grounds to a property developer for £249,000 in February 2013.
Campaigners who attended the meeting were backed up by their ward councillor, a former police sergeant, who told the committee: “There is something smelly about this.”
He joined Mrs Webb in calling for the council to commission an independent inquiry but this was voted down by the committee, a decision she later described as ‘appalling’.
Many in the community are dissatisfied with CWaC internal inquiries which led the authority to belatedly apologise for failing to consult over the sale but concluded the council was within its rights to sell the property.
Stephen Cooper and his partner Chrissy currently live in the property, purchased for £475,000 in May 2014, which, according to the council, makes it impossible to recover the property.
Mrs Webb told the committee: “Under the terms of your anti-fraud and corruption strategy you could have pursued your own investigations and referred matters to the police, should you have felt it necessary. We referred our concerns to the police some time ago; it has progressed to the economic crime unit of the National Crime Agency. The intransigence of your officers in failing to fully investigate this case on several occasions over two years left the residents of Hoole with no choice.
“The grounds for an independent investigation remain in the light of the council’s own failure to fully investigate the sale under its anti-fraud and corruption strategy.”
Hoole ward Labour councillor Alex Black, an ex-police sergeant with 30 years’ experience in the police including with CID, told those gathered: “I think there is something wrong, there is something smelly about this and I believe you have a duty to see that it’s investigated properly.”
He said the sale papers ‘look fishy to me’. An officer’s stamp had been used several times on every page on papers dated after the officer in question had left the organisation. On two other documents requiring officers’ signatures, the name had been typed in and ‘has been typed wrongly’ in one case.
Cllr Reggie Jones (Lab, Blacon), who unsuccessfully proposed an independent inquiry and for the council to refer itself to the police, said: “It’s not our role to protect council officers but it is right to protect those council officers from unfair criticism.”
Cllr Jones highlighted the property had sold at auction for less than its market value. He was concerned at a condition in indemnity insurance taken out by the council nine months before the sale that involved keeping the transaction secret. He questioned the justification for the lodge being sold on the basis it was ‘operationally surplus to council requirements’ and even whether the council was entitled to sell the property.
However, the overwhelming majority of councillors, both Labour and Tory, supported Mark Wynn, director of finance, who relied on external legal advice which concluded any further inquiry was ‘unlikely to find any further information’, the sale could not be deemed unlawful and any review could not change the outcome as the current occupants had bought the property ‘in good faith’.
He conceded: “I think we’d all prefer not to be here having this conversation. I think the council has recognised there are improvements in what could have been done in this process and it’s admitted there was an error in terms of consultation.”
Mr Wynn said an independent inquiry could cost between £30-£45,000 but accepted the decision on whether to proceed with such a review was a matter for elected members. Cllr James Pearson (Con, Davenham and Moulton) appeared to reflect a general view among committee members when he suggested the police were best placed to investigate.
A Cheshire Constabulary spokesman confirmed: “Cheshire Police received a complaint from a member of the public regarding the sale of part of Alexandra Park, Hoole, in Chester. Officers are currently reviewing the complaint to see if any offences have occurred.”