Make or break time seemingly as scrutiny committee goes behind closed doors to debate controversial land sale

The Nene Waterfront in Wisbech.

The Nene Waterfront in Wisbech. - Credit: Archant

A ‘behind closed doors’ scrutiny committee over the £800,000 sale of land within its prestigious Nene waterfront scheme could be the make or break moment for Alan Melton’s leadership of Fenland Council.

Mr Melton believes he may have pre-empted an early leadership challenge by convening a special meeting of Conservative councillors to debate the resignation email of his former portfolio holder for finance John Clark.

The tone and content of Mr Clark’s resignation email has rocked Fenland Council in recent days but it is his alleged lack of knowledge over the waterfront sale that could determine both his and Mr Melton’s political careers.

Mr Clark detailed what he called “specific concerns” over the sale of a land to a company led by a man he claims “is thought to be a friend of Mr Melton’s. In fact I -understand they may even public share a football box at Peterborough”.

However Mr Melton was adamant that he has always taken a back seat in the negotiations over the land sale and referred to a cabinet meeting on August 29 at which he declared his personal interest.

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Minutes of that meeting – which neither Mr Melton or Mr Clark attended- show agreement was reached to dispose of the land to GB Construction Ltd. The deputy leader Chris Seaton told cabinet that Mr Melton “acknowledges a personal interest with the developer; he has been at no time involved in the development of this report with officers, therefore has not been in a position to discuss with matter with the developer.”

Mr Seaton said: “I can confirm that the leader has had no direct involvement”.

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However Mr Clark publicly stated Mr Melton was a “semi retired” building consultant and “I do not know how much advice he is providing to whom or if any lobbying takes place”.

Mr Clark cited another building firm – for which Mr Melton has recently become a consultant and which has land interests in Fenland- and said that “in my opinion this appointment clearly raises the issue of conflict of interest. Personally I am not comfortable with the situation. The constituents of Fenland may well share my view.”

The former finance chief is expected to be questioned by the overview and scrutiny committee about how much he knew in advance of the decision by the council to sell the Wisbech land. Officers, too, face being asked directly how much the former finance chief knew of the proposed sale.

The scrutiny committee ‘called in’ the cabinet decision to sell the land but last night some councillors felt the council had secured a fair deal on the land.

The former gasworks site – which will house a mixture of 73 housing association and private homes- has been sold at a loss but the council can expect a return in years to come.

“Not only will we have the rates from these new homes but the Government’s new homes bonus will give us immediate cash once they are built,” one councillor told me.

Mr Melton has not spoken publicly about the email from Mr Clark other than to say he was taking legal advice over its contents.

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