A WINCHESTER resident has complained about the allegedly "highly irregular" handling of a contract to run the River Park Leisure Centre.
Martin Wilson told city councillors last night that he has contacted the District Auditor about “potential maladministration” in the way DC Leisure had the contract to run the centre extended in 2011.
The background to Mr Wilson's complaint is the Conservative-run council’s proposal to redevelop the leisure centre and take open space from River Park.
Mr Wilson asked the overview and scrutiny committee to investigate the issues he raised, including why the 12-year contract was entered into when it was generally acknowledged that the 40-year-old "leisure centre was falling down”? Why was there inappropriate correspondence between DC Leisure and council officers prior to the award of the contract, suggesting how to avoid a tender? Why DC Leisure did not have to tender for the contract? and why the contract was not put out to tender so other operators could bid?
Mr Wilson said: “The seriousness and significance of the matters that we have uncovered, and continue to uncover, I believe have the potential to warrant specific investigation under the considerations of regularity, propriety and use of resources.
“As I have suggested, there are real concerns of serious maladministration.”
He added: “It appears that a number of officers may have materially failed in their duties and that they may have acted in a way that falls short of their positions as directors. The arrangements that been put in place are believed to have: potentially defrauded the Winchester City Council and therefore Winchester taxpayers of significant amounts of money - running into several millions of pounds; or knowingly committed WCC to a position that is to the benefit of individual organisations but to the detriment of the taxpayer in that it severely impacts on the council's ability to use resources effectively in the future. This would likely make them contrary to law.”
Simon Eden, council chief executive, said Mr Wilson’s allegations were extremely serious. He said Mr Wilson should supply more details.
He added: “The issue concerns the basis on which the contract with DC was extended. That is a matter of record in the reports.”
Mr Eden told the Chronicle today that the allegation would be refuted. “Mr Wilson argues there was maladministration. That means an improperly taken decision. We think the decision was properly made.”
He said Mr Wilson was not alleging any corruption.
Peter Leamore, DC Leisure area manager, said today: “As far as I’m aware the contract extension was all done properly and the council had even taken legal advice.”
Simon Cook, a city councillor, was head of the council's leisure department when the centre was rebuilt following the major fire in 1987.
Cllr Cook said contracts did not necessarily have to go to tender providing the council could justify it financially.
Meanwhile Liberal Democrat city councillor Martin Tod has raised concerns about the lack of consultation between the city and county councils about an alternative site for a new leisure centre at Bar End.
Cllr Tod said a Freedom of Information Act request had shown little contact between the two authorities. In a letter to council leader Keith Wood, he said: “The level of engagement with Hampshire County Council – as a major landowner at Bar End and as a possible supporter of new sports facilities for the county and the city – is not even close to what I would have expected.”
Keith Chapman, Executive Member for Culture, Recreation and Countryside at the county council, wrote to Cllr Tod: “We have not been formally approached by the city council to make land available at Bar End. Should there be such an approach, then we would be interested in having a three-way meeting to discuss the matter in more detail.”
But Cllr Wood rebutted the Tod claim: “He is talking rubbish. We have been talking to council leader Roy Perry. I spoke to then-leader Ken Thornber about its museums site at Bar End and tried to buy it from them. But the county needs to retain it so it is not an option.”