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Journalist slams council’s ‘public interest’ claim over £9m investment secrecy

Tom Bristow - WebsiteAn investigations editor has slammed a council which claimed it is in the public interest to keep a decision about a £9m investment secret.

The Eastern Daily Press has taken Breckland Council to task after it repeatedly refused to divulge details about what it is doing with a country club it spent £7m on buying and £2m on developing.

Breckland’s Conservative-run cabinet made a decision last week about the future of Barnham Broom Golf and Country Club, which it purchased in 2006, but refused to make details public.

The council failed again to publish the decision yesterday after choosing to hold a scrutiny meeting behind closed doors.

The move has prompted criticism from Archant investigations editor Tom Bristow, who has covered the case for the EDP.

A council document published ahead of the meeting warned there was a “high risk” of interest from the media following coverage of the saga by the EDP.

The council said it was keeping the decision secret because: “It is more in the public interest to withhold the information because releasing the information would expose the identity of the business and their affairs which could have a detrimental (sic) effect on the business and its longevity.”

Opposition councillors demanded last week that the decision be “called in” to the council’s overview and scrutiny commission on Thursday so it could be debated, but councillors voted by seven to two to hold the meeting in private.

Tom, pictured, told HTFP: “As councils spend more and more public money on commercial investments, they need to stop hiding behind ‘commercial confidentiality’ each time and be open with the public about what they are doing with their money.

“We are talking about large sums of cash – £9m in this case – and the public has no knowledge about whether or not they are getting value for money.

“Council transparency rules need to be updated to give the ‘public interest’ more weight over ‘commercial confidentiality’.

“We know that this council has been trying to get rid of its investment for some time.

“If it is such a great investment, as the council has previously claimed, why are they trying to sell it and why won’t they provide the figures to prove it?”

A Breckland Council spokesperson said: “Breckland Council rents the Barnham Broom Golf & Country Club buildings and land to a private company, which in turn runs the club as a private business.

“We have been reviewing this business relationship and considering future arrangements, but as this is commercially confidential we’re unable to share more information publicly at the moment.

“The hotel, golf and country club at Barnham Broom is just one of a number of properties that are owned by the council, alongside warehouses, office buildings and leisure sites.

“Income we receive in rent from these investments can be ploughed into providing good quality services and means we can keep local council tax among the very lowest in the country.

“Working in a business-like way brings significant benefits to local people but means we sometimes can’t share as much information as we would otherwise like.

“This is because it would stop us being able to secure the best business deal on behalf of our residents, could impact the business of other parties that want to work with us, or affect the private business activities of our commercial tenants.”