Mansfield District Council paid back £340,000 after crucial errors

THREE crucial errors meant Mansfield District Council had to hand back £340,000 it had been given for community projects, an internal investigation has found.

Bosses have now outlined changes designed to prevent a repeat and ordered a fresh report into why officers missed chances to spot the mistakes.

Chad reported in July how the money was at risk of going back to developers Bloor Homes because it had the wrong legal spending deadline on a council database.

In August the cash had to be given back to the Derbyshire-based firm, plus £44,000 interest, despite negotiations.

A commuity group this week repeated calls for a public inquiry on the issue, which has previously been rebuffed by senior officers.

In August Mansfield MP Sir Alan Meale accused the council of “showing signs of incompetence” after a second problem emerged weeks later over cash related to group repair schemes (see below).

Bloor originally gave the council the £340,000 in 2004 as part of a ‘section 106’ legal agreement linked to planning permission for new homes at Paddock Close, off Atkin Lane in Mansfield.

It was due to be spent on a list of community improvements, including work at Quarry Lane Nature Reserve and on the listed Hermitage viaduct.

But a 2007 database error meant the money was given an incorrect spending deadline of August this year, instead of 2009.

An interim report released this week says it has not been possible to identify who entered the date wrongly because the system contains no log of who was changing data.

The legal agreement itself was the ‘most significant’ mistake as it allowed the clock to start ticking on the spending of the cash from the date the aggreement was signed, adds the report.

Instead the countdown on spending 106 money typically starts after a development reaches a certain point.

Thirdly, says the report, officers missed chances to correct the first two errors.

It adds: “Once the date was established on the database there is no evidence of any idividual questioning the accuracy of the database.”

The report makes 25 reccomendations, including a separate inquiry into why chances were missed to correct the date, and a list of actions to tighten checks and procedures. It was approved by the council’s audit committee, which is monitoring the changes.

It also rules there has been no indication of “any malicious or improper action taken by staff”.

Ajman Ali, the council’s corportate director for housing and environment, said district auditors, who monitor council finances, are ‘happy’ with the way the authority has accounted for the money and separate cash it failed to collect as part of group repair schemes (see below).

Said Mr Ali: “This also signifies they are satisfied with the actions we have and are taking in terms of reporting and dealing with the control issues in the future.”

A separate plan has also been drawn up to improve the monitoring of section 106 agreements in an effort to prevent similar errors in future.

Maun Conservation group had expected the cash to towards Mansfield’s Quarry Lane Nature Reserve. The report notes officers did start work and organised spending some of the money, including reports and surveys.

Group chairman Colin Etches repeated a call for a public inquiry, or a meeting with the officers involved.

“This money was just the straw that broke the camel’s back with regard to volunteer groups and Mansfield District Council,” he said.

He said he wanted to see better communication between the authority and similar groups, adding he felt relations had recently begun to improve.