An official inquiry has been launched into why councillors spent over the odds on a £500,000 derelict town centre pub.
An independent team has been called in by South Ribble Council to examine what happened six years ago that lead to the council splashing out £50,000 more than the going rate on the boarded up McKenzie Arms in Bamber Bridge.
The site was originally intended for an access road to a major redevelopment of the former Wesley Street Mill for housing.
But the road was never built.
Today campaigners fighting for better traffic access to the huge housing development on the old mill site behind the former alehouse, greeted the investigation as “great news.”
South Ribble voted in July 2012 to buy the pub on Station Road after a report was presented to councillors outlining the importance of access to the Wesley Street Mill site from the main street.
Property experts valued the building and its land at £450,000. But when the owner refused to budge on price, the council finally agreed to pay £500,000.
They then paid out a further £20,000 to demolish the building to clear the way for a road into the proposed development.
But since then the land has stood empty and overgrown, with the developers choosing not to use it for access after all.
Now the whole deal is being examined.
A spokesman for the authority confirmed to the Post: “Having been alerted by members of the press and public to a perceived issue with the acquisition of the McKenzie Arms site, the council has decided to carry out an independent review, the results of which will be reported back to members in due course.”
The issue was first raised 13 months ago when a report was handed to South Ribble’s scrutiny committee outlining concerns about the information made available to council members back in 2012.
The committee, which monitors council decisions, asked for “reassurance that members were not misled leading up to the purchase of the site.”
“This was in relation to whether the mill site could only be accessed via the McKenzie Arms, when in fact it could also be accessed from Wesley Street,” added the report, which the Post obtained through a Freedom of Information request.
Senior officers maintained in 2017 that there was nothing in the 2012 report “that states that the entrance through the McKenzie Arms site was the only access available. What it does state is that to secure the proper planning of the area, access to the site should be from Station Road, namely across the McKenzie Arms site.”
A review of the files was undertaken a year ago and it was concluded that “no evidence can be found to support that the McKenzie Arms site would be the sole access to the mill site.”
Now, with pressure being put on the authority to look into the matter again, a new review is underway into just what advice councillors received in 2012 before making their costly decision.
Coun Jon Hesketh, who was chairman of the planning committtee at the time, told the Post: “I don’t think I have been misled at all.
“I knew that there were other routes going towards it (the mill site). All we do is take what comes before us whenever we have an application and make decisions based on that.”
Work has already begun on building up to 196 homes on the land once occupied by the Wesley Street Mill. Access is set to be from Wesley Street itself, even though local residents are alarmed that additional traffic could make an already congested road even worse.
A spokesman for Countryside Properties, the developer behind the mill housing plans, said: “Access via Station Road was our original preferred option and every attempt was made to progress that scheme.
“Due to matters outside of our control the transaction for the former pub land experienced lengthy delays, which led to the decision to pursue the alternative.”
Campaigners, who had favoured a road through the McKenzie Arms site, are now pushing for nearby Club Street to be the preferred route in and out, not Wesley Street.
Derek Rogerson, who edits the local news website Bamber Bridge Bulletin, said: “I’m glad to hear an independent investigation is underway, although what it will achieve is anyone’s guess.
“Councillors have told me that they voted for Wesley Street as a secondary access road, not the primary one.
“We have steadfastly campaigned for the McKenzie Arms to be the main access road, but it looks like we have lost that particular battle. But before the council laid out a single penny they should have had a categoric assurance that it was going to be used.”