WINCHESTER City Council has been condemned over its unlawful handling of the Silver Hill scheme, with an independent investigator telling civic chiefs: "Winchester deserves better".

Leaders failed to listen to the public, mishandled legal advice and lacked vision for plans to transform part of the city centre, according to a  report by solicitor Claer Lloyd-Jones.

Council leader Stephen Godfrey has hit back at the findings, accusing Ms Lloyd-Jones of offering "unsubstantiated opinions and inaccuracies".

It comes days after the council walked away from its development partner and vowed to start the £150 million scheme again.

Ms Lloyd-Jones was appointed last year to review decisions which led to a High Court ruling that the council breached EU law.

The judicial review, launched by rebel Tory councillor Kim Gottlieb, found the council should have invited bids from other developers for the project in 2004 and 2014.

Ms Lloyd-Jones said it was "obvious" as early as 2007 that the scheme was at risk of challenge and that the council could have avoided defeat.

"Losing the JR (judicial review) has vindicated the views held by some that the council doesn't listen to its citizens and that Winchester deserves better," she said.

"Neither the council, nor its officers, was equipped in skills or experience to have negotiated a successful outcome."

Council chiefs dispute suggestions that they followed legal advice they "wanted to hear" or failed to weigh up risks.

They also believe Ms Lloyd-Jones accepted objectors' versions of events without asking for a response from the council.

Leader Cllr Stephen Godfrey said: "I am disappointed with the main body of the report, which contains unsubstantiated opinions and inaccuracies and little reference to the many reports, documents and interviews that apparently informed the report.”

Ms Lloyd-Jones denied that she had made factual errors.

The report added: "There is an absence of internal challenge and debate on Silver Hill, both among members and officers. There is no whip on the issue, and a reliance on cross party support, meaning that there is no challenge from an opposition party, nor has there been challenge from Overview and Scrutiny which is not supported by independent advisers.

"This resulted in officers feeling obliged to take the position that they had to see the process through to delivery in order to fulfil the council's original intentions."

In her 13 recommendations, Ms Lloyd-Jones called for the council to rewrite its constitution, "reassess the skills" of officers, rebuild public trust and ensure its vision for the scheme is protected.

Its scrutiny process should be overhauled, she added, with independent advisers supporting councillors who review decisions.

Ms Lloyd-Jones also said Cllr Gottlieb's "potential conflicts of interest" should be investigated. The Winchester Deserves Better leader is himself a property developer.

But the report was welcomed by Cllr Gottlieb.

He said: "The council will need resolve and leadership, potentially new leadership, to absorb Ms Lloyd-Jones's findings and to bring about the significant changes that are now made inevitable."

Ms Lloyd-Jones will face questions from councillors when she presents her report on Wednesday.

Her report was published minutes before the print edition of the Hampshire Chronicle went to press on Wednesday.

Chief executive Simon Eden had previously said it would be published on Monday or Tuesday.