Council can’t figure it out

A COUNCIL has said it does not know how much taxpayers money was spent on the failed tendering process into Hitchin Town Hall. The Comet put in a Freedom of Information request to North Hertfordshire District Council asking how much the council spent try

A COUNCIL has said it does not know how much taxpayers' money was spent on the failed tendering process into Hitchin Town Hall.

The Comet put in a Freedom of Information request to North Hertfordshire District Council asking how much the council spent trying to find somebody to take over the running of the town hall.

The process began in late January last year and ended in October when the council decided it was not happy with its preferred and reserved options, which had been part of an original list of three applicants

Instead it opted to strike a deal with Hitchin Town Centre Initiative (HTCI), almost a year after failing to agree a deal with the same organisation, and the two organisations will know within the next few days whether they have been successful in the first stage of applying for a Big Lottery Funding Grant of between £150,000 and £1m for the hall.

However, the failed process came under heavy criticism from members of the public and last month The Comet asked how much the process had cost the taxpayer.

This week a reply came from the council's information manager who dealt with the Freedom of Information request saying: "The council does not hold the costs of officer time for the market testing exercise undertaken for the Hitchin Town Hall during 2007."

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The Comet asked the council to reconsider its answer.

Asked for her opinion, Hitchin area committee chairman Judi Billing said: "I am staggered that modern time-recording systems don't allow the council to know how much each project is costing in officer time, when internal officer recharges are so often quoted to us as local ward councillors as reasons why savings have to be made in such things as Hitchin committee.

"We were repeatedly told last year that the reason the committee had to be cut from 10 meetings per year to six was that such occasions cost so much in officer time, and that this is accurately quantified.

"So is it only the costs of those occasions when we really work with the public which can be costed out, and not those pieces of work behind the scenes which are apparently so secret?"

Councillor Terry Hone, the council's portfolio holder for finance and deputy leader, said cost cuts discussed as part of the reduction in meetings were identified in the shape of an 18-hour part time post and "the full costs of arranging a committee meeting were not calculated as these could not translate in to a direct budget saving.

"The Hitchin Town Hall project has been worked on for several months and by a number of officers at various levels in the organisations. It has also had considerable involvement by councillors.

"The council does not record the cost of its daily activity as to do so would not be cost effective."

In addition to asking how much the process cost, The Comet also asked whether comments made at a council meeting in April by Keep Hitchin Special's Chris Parker, in which he announced specific doubts about the shortlisted candidates, had an influence on the council's decision to scrap the process months later.

The council said it did not, adding: "Officers carried out a more detailed investigation before and after the comments and in addition other factors were taken into consideration that affected the final decision not to engage either applicant."

Mr Parker said in reply: "Had it not been for the due diligence of Keep Hitchin Special in identifying the inability of the three tenderers to manage the town hall then NHDC could have had serious liabilities and the chief executive officer being identified as negligent.