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Briefing into a festering £3m scandal

03 September, 2020 — By John Gulliver

Cllr Richard Olszewski and Cllr Danny Beales

I WAS once de-briefed by a bespectacled, clerkly Mr Bracewell after I had left China many years ago. I knew, of course, he was “someone’ from the Ministry of Defence, attached to our security people.

It wasn’t a bit like a John le Carré interview, more chatty and friendly, and no doubt Mr Bracewell was satisfied with our conver­sation for I heard no more from him.

I have also been “briefed” many times with background material while preparing for an interview.

So, I can imagine how two of the council’s “finance” chiefs, councillors Danny Beales and Richard Olszewski, must now feel because I understand they are the two senior councillors who have been given a full brief on what I can only describe as a scandal involving a great sum of money which the Town Hall has allowed to become a bad debt.

The money owing is something in the region of £3million following the development of a multi-storey block of flats in Talacre Park, Kentish Town. An “overage” agreement had been reached which tops up the original price paid by the developer, with a final figure worked out on the basis of the total market price of the flats sold in the block.

The “overage” agreed about 17 years ago has never been realised.

Talacre Park

Undoubt­edly, council officials will regard the debt as an error, a sum of money difficult to track, an accident of accountancy, as it were.

Common sense would see it more forensically as a slipshod handling of public money.

I revealed a month ago that a briefing note was being prepared for two councillors and by now they will have received it, and, if so, will begin to see the enormity of the festering debt.

Nick Harding, a Kentish Towner, and a forensic accountant, exposed the astonishing failure of the council to collect the “overage”, showing me his trail of emails with council officials over many years in which he questioned and probed their systems.

I can only hope that Cllrs Beales and Olszewski will interview Mr Harding after studying their brief. I don’t envy their task. They have mountainous ledger entries to double-check that must run into hundreds of pages.

What will be the next step? Of course they will be expected to compile a detailed report for fellow councillors – and waiting in the wings will be a public hungry for infor­mation, recommenda­tions, and action.

Some problems in an institution are often buried – and forgotten. This, hopefully, is one that will not slip away. Too much public money is involved.

One of the riddles behind the development is the sale of the land in Talacre Park in 2003 for as little as £300,000 – a piece of land on which was built a block of flats that were sold for about £20m. Whatever the scale of th­e intervening over­heads a tidy packet was made. So far, the public are paying the price. Perhaps Cllrs Beales and Olszweski can make sure right will at last be done.

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