Town council chaos emerges with groups not paying rent for decades
- Credit: Archant
The chaos affecting a Norfolk town council has been laid bare after it emerged that some groups have not been paying rent for years and councillors have been handing out leases without proper oversight.
Attleborough Town Council (ATC), which was until recently caught up in a long-running dispute between members, has examined nine lease agreements it has with companies throughout the town
Councillors looked increasingly exasperated as they heard at a town council meeting that agreements have not been reviewed for years, while others have lapsed completely meaning the council has taken no income from them - despite tenants staying in place.
Mayor, Philip Leslie, who investigated the leases, said this has been an ongoing issue and called on members to tackle it as soon as possible.
In one of the most shocking cases, the Attleborough Scouts appeared not to have paid any rent since 1991, despite a council motion in 2016 which said they should pay in line with rent paid by the bowls club – currently around £770 a year.
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Councillor Taila Taylor said: “It’s my understanding that we’ve had no income from them to date but they sublet, they do birthday parties, Christ Community Church used to have it.
“I’m guessing they're not letting these people use it for free, they’re taking money but they’re not giving us anything – which I think is ruthless.
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"I think we should evict them."
She said it was unfair to the other groups that have been paying rent.
This was echoed by councillor Sue Marsh, who said the Scouting Association accounts are available online and they have the cash.
It was also revealed that the Pavillion Nursery, which is run by ATC's Vera Dale, had been given a 25-year lease in 2016 by the former town clerk, without any sign-off from the council.
The mayor admitted he did not think “it looks very good” and was not in line with the principles they want going forward
Other leases included the Town Hall Bar, which councillor Joseph Ellis said there had been no tender consultation over, and the Andy Free car park off Dairy Farm Court, which has paid no rent since the lease ended in 2019.
Councillor Debbie Lane questioned how there had not been negotiations over the lease when the council had discussed selling the car park in 2020.
Mr Leslie said: “There were a number of references in the finance committee that were not followed through or followed up.
“It was about the time we were having our issues as a town council.
“As a result, by the time these became relevant again, actions had already been taken against the previous clerk which prevented actions for the council going forward with the legal process.
“We have had to wait for a new legal officer to come in.”
He added that if they had taken income from an expired lease they would lose the right to evict or renegotiate.
Ms Lane also questioned why the council was paying for buildings insurance on the two bowls club buildings, which were owned by the clubs.
Councillors also heard the town's football club, who play on Station Road, moved in new tenants without consulting the council, which Ms Taylor described as "insane".
Mr Leslie said the council wanted to be more open with the public going forward promising to release a report to the public explaining how the situation has occurred.
Attleborough Scouts and Vera Dale were contacted for comment.
Speaking after the meeting, Ms Taylor, described the situation as "a mess" and said there was a lot of ill-feeling in the community over the issue.
"All the money that has been lost is money that could have gone back into the public purse and spent to improve Attleborough for everyone. It's the community that loses out."
The Attleborough Scouts said it "vehemently denied" what had been said at the meeting.
"We have always been willing to work with the council on matters pertaining to the land and the concrete store that we lease from them and which we maintain," its executive committee said.
"When our lease expired in 2016, we requested a new lease and are still waiting for this. We have never received a rent demand from Attleborough Town Council."
The committee said the group does not let out any council-owned buildings and that the scout hall was owned by the group.
They said they "requested a full and unreserved apology from the town council".
What's happened at Attleborough Town Council?
In 2020, police were called to the town council after a large group of protestors refused to leave a private meeting.
The protestors were angry about attempts to remove two councillors - Taila Taylor and Edward Tyrer - accused of bullying by council staff.
A subsequent judicial review, penned by mayor Phil Leslie, found the allegations against the pair were "false" and formed part of a "malicious campaign".
The review showed an attempt by the then town clerk Gina Lopes, former mayor Tony Crouch and councillor Keith Montague, to organise a HR review into "member issues" at the council.
The pair received a full public apology from the council in May of this year.
ATC has had to fork out more than £114,000 in taxpayers' money in damages and legal costs.
At last Monday's meeting, behind closed doors, councillors discussed making a standards complaint against three unnamed members in relation to the judicial review.
Of the eight members who voted to remove Mr Tyrer and Ms Taylor, only three remain on the council, including Mr Crouch and Mr Montague.