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Govt quango held to account by FOI inquiry

The Kentish Express has exposed how a regional jobs quango spent almost £10m on an 11-storey office building – but has seen only eight new businesses move in since 2004.

Kent Messenger Group political editor Paul Francis used the Freedom of Information Act to reveal how the South East England Development Agency bought International House in Ashford for £8.2m. At the time, it hailed the acquisition as “a significant step forward for the regeneration of Ashford”.

In response to a request made under the Act, Paul was able to report how, in addition to the purchase price of £8.2m, the agency spent a further £1.1m to completely refurbish three floors and improve facilities on two others.

But after spending more than £60,000 marketing and promoting the building, just eight new companies took up office space, bringing to 19 the total number of businesses.

The money came from a fund set up by the Office of The Deputy Prime Minister to assist so-called “growth areas” earmarked for significant expansion.

The agency defended the amount it paid for the offices represented good value for money and reflected the state of the market for office accommodation at the time.

It also emphasised that the landmark building, which was built in the 1970s and has 8,000 square metres of office space, was bought as part of a wider long-term strategy to boost the town’s economy.

Paul said: “In the past, it has sometimes been difficult to hold quangos to account for the money as, unlike councils, they have not fallen under any access to information laws.

“The Freedom of Information Act is a useful tool in finding out what they are up to.”