John Potter, who leads the Lib Dems on Preston City Council and also represents Preston West at County Hall, has written to Lancashire Police chief constable Chris Rowley to request that the force brings Operation Sheridan “to a conclusion” - claiming that the probe is so far likely to have cost the constabulary £5m.
He says that the lack of a resolution to the inquiry, which began more than eight years ago, has left important questions unanswered about any structural issues that may need resolving within the county council - and is also fundamentally unfair to those involved who have been left “swinging in the wind”.
Operation Sheridan was launched after concerns were raised over the awarding of a £5m fleet maintenance contract to the now defunct One Connect joint venture between Lancashire County Council and BT during Mr. Driver’s first stint in charge at the authority.
He headed two Conservative administrations at County Hall between 2009 and 2013 and from 2017 until last year when he retired from frontline politics. Mr. Driver was publicly exonerated by police in relation to the initial focus of the Sheridan investigation in March 2016.
However, just after the local elections which returned him to power in May 2017, he and three other men were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and witness intimidation. It was then in excess of a further year before a file on Mr. Driver – together with former Lancashire County Council chief executives Ged Fitzgerald and Phil Halsall and former One Connect chief executive David McElhinney – was handed to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for consideration.
Three-and-a-half years later, there has still been no decision about whether to prosecute any of the four individuals over the allegations which led to their arrests in 2017. None of them has ever been charged in relation to the wider fraud investigation and all deny any wrongdoing.
As the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) revealed back in November, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the CPS uncovered that it had spent just over £1m on external legal advice since receiving the police file in 2018 - in addition to the cost of any time spent on the case by the organisation's own directly-employed lawyers, which it said it could not quantify.
Cllr Potter told the LDRS that the duration of what he accepts is an “extremely complex” investigation is “unfair to all concerned” - and worthy of the phrase “justice delayed is justice denied”.
His letter to Lancashire’s top cop has also been sent to Merseyside Police chief constable Serena Kennedy after being jointly written with the Liverpool City Council Lib Dem group leader, Richard Kemp, who raises similar concerns over the Merseyside force’s separate Operation Aloft inquiry into building and development contracts in Liverpool, which has been running since 2019.
Former mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson is one of several individuals to have been arrested under that investigation - in his case, in December 2020, on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation. He has also vehemently denied any wrongdoing and is no longer on bail.
In their missive to the two police chiefs, Cllrs Potter and Kemp state: “Our simple request to you both is to rapidly bring these operations to a conclusion. We know that the decision to charge or not and the timing [of those decisions] may well be in the hands of the Crown Prosecution Service, but we are sure that you and your force have a key role to play in the timing.”
The pair set out three reasons why they want the investigations concluded, including that both Lancashire County and Liverpool City councils “are suffering clear reputational damage at present”.
“We urgently need to know if what went on within these councils was confined to a number of people, whether those actions were caused by criminality and/or incompetence and whether the problems as perceived by the police and CPS, are structurally contained within the relevant authority.
“We have a duty of care to our staff and former staff. After [eight] years in the case of Operation Sheridan and three years in the case of Operation Aloft people are left swinging in the wind without being charged and possibly will never be charged let alone found guilty of any offence. This is simply unfair to them and their families.
“This is costing the taxpayers of Lancashire and Merseyside a huge amount of money. Our understanding is that the Operation Sheridan costs are more than £5 million for the police and £1 million for the CPS.
“We have no feeling for the Merseyside Police costs but there has been a large team in place for at least three years. These costs will, of course, rise if the cases come to court.
“All this expenditure is a real drain on resources when our police and council services are under threat from rising problems and national cuts in grants.
“So, our plea to you is very simple. Bring these matters to a head for the good of our councils, the good of those implicated and, above all, the good of the people that we represent,” Cllrs Potter and Kemp conclude in their letter, dated 8th February.
Cllr Kemp told the LDRS that his £5m estimate of Lancashire Police’s expenditure to date on Operation Sheridan was an “intelligent assessment” based on the £2m which had been spent by January 2017, a figure which was revealed to him at that time in an FOI request to the Lancashire Police and Crime Commissioner. However, more recent attempts to obtain an updated total via at least two FOI requests that the LDRS is aware were made last year have been declined.
The LDRS has previously revealed that Lancashire County Council's annual audit has not been certified by external auditors since Operation Sheridan was launched - and Cllr Kemp says that Liverpool City Council’s accounts have not been signed off since 2015.
The LDRS approached Lancashire Police for a response to the correspondence sent to Chief Constable Rowley, but the force said that it was unable to comment other than to say it was “awaiting any charging decisions from the CPS”.
Back in November, when its external legal bill for Operation Sheridan emerged, the CPS said: “We have received a file of material from Lancashire Police on which we are now conducting a review, as well as advising the police on further reasonable lines of enquiry.
“Whilst the review and investigation process are ongoing, it is not appropriate for us to comment any further.”