Northern Ireland news

Scathing audit of Causeway Coast and Glens borough council identifies culture of 'bypassing best practice'

Paul Ainsworth

A SCATHING audit of Causeway Coast and Glens borough council has identified a culture of "bypassing best practice" as it found that two land deals may not have been lawful.

The probe by the north's Local Government Auditor Colette Kane was ordered in November 2020 by Stormont's then-Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín following "concerns about land disposals and easements" at the council since its formation in 2015.

Her successor, Deirdre Hargey, said the audit proved concerns on land deals "were very real".

Local government legislation states councils must not dispose of land at less than best price without approval from the Department for Communities (DfC).

A report on the audit by Ms Kane found the council failed to demonstrate it obtained best price in its transacting and did not have adequate procedures in place to protect assets.

It highlighted "significant" failings and said the behaviour of some senior council officers fell short of expected standards.

Two cases highlighted in the report are an easement granted in 2016 at Ballyreagh Road, Portstewart and a disposal of land that same year at Castleroe Road, Coleraine.

Ms Kane said there is a case for finding the easement and disposal were not granted lawfully.

Inadequate information was presented to elected councillors by senior officers to help them make informed decisions, the report found.

Record keeping of key matters in the cases was also criticised.

Her report recommends an independent review of the council's governance arrangements, overseen by the Department for Communities, and training for councillors to help them understand the scrutiny required to hold council officers to account.

It also recommends the council takes appropriate action against certain officers and suggests they are referred to relevant professional bodies. The DfC should also conduct a "detailed consideration of its responsibilities" for the council, the report recommends.

"Throughout this audit, I have identified evidence that adherence to legislation and best practice in land and property matters was not part of the culture of the council," Ms Kane said.

"There was evidence that senior officers were advocating actions that were contrary to best practice.

"This leads me to conclude that a culture existed of bypassing best practice and guidance to get land 'deals done' which set the wrong tone from the top of the organisation.

"In some cases, legal advice was ignored and, on one occasion, inaccurate and unreliable information was provided to the Local Government Auditor.

"There was also evidence of poor governance, for example, there was a lack of clarity over roles and responsibilities, with various officers

being involved in land transactions that appeared to be outside their remit."

A spokesperson for Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council said the local authority would require time to "fully assess the content and recommendations" of the report and "consider the next steps".

They added of the report, which will be discussed at the next full monthly meeting: "Council has already made changes to its Land and Property procedures and intends to comply with its obligations to ratepayers and stakeholders."

Minister Hargey praised Ms Kane and her team for their "diligent work".

"The detailed report has highlighted a range of serious issues that now need to be accepted and addressed by the council's elected representatives, chief executive and senior management," she said, stating that the report's recommendations "should be implemented in full as a matter of urgency".

The minister added: "I am engaging with my legal team to ensure that all appropriate steps are taken should the council fail in its duties to implement the changes required in a timely way".

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