AS a result of a freedom of information request by Richard Buttrey, and the involvement of the Government’s Information Commissioner, WBC have finally agreed (after earlier refusals) to the public release of auditor Grant Thornton’s decision letter on my objection to their 2017/18 accounts.

The letter was issued in July 2020 after a two-year audit investigation and has been strictly confidential until now.

While the objection was not sustained, the results of the investigation – set out over 11 pages – are illuminating.

The only individual named in the document is Cllr Russ Bowden – now council leader but, back then (2017), the lead executive board member.

The auditor states that Cllr Bowden was provided with regular detailed updates about the change in structure (ie investing in a different company – Redwood Bank Financial Partners – rather than Redwood Bank itself, as originally intended).

However the auditor states this is not the same as the executive board being aware of the change.

Furthermore, the auditor continued there is no evidence the executive board as a whole (I presume this means apart from Cllr Bowden), was formally appraised of the change, or the rationale for it, at their meeting in January 2017 before the decision to invest was taken.

The auditor argued this represented a weakness in the council’s governance arrangements and that, given the nature and scale of the investment (£30m), lessons should be learned.

The auditor considered at length the legality of the investment in relation to the interpretation of the minutes of that meeting.

The issue was ‘finely balanced’.

They concluded there was no clear evidence the council had acted outside its powers, although it was at least possible a court could decide the investment was illegal.

(Reasons were given for not seeking a declaration from the court).

Grant Thornton found it disappointing that there had been no acceptance by the council that there could be any room for doubt over the matter.

“This does raise questions,” they said, “as to whether lessons will in fact be learned” and “it does not provide us with confidence that this issue will not occur again”.

For that reason they recommended the council reviews its governance arrangements for authorising major investments.

Finally, the second part of the objection called for the auditor to issue a report in the public interest.

This was rejected, though in recent days Grant Thornton has said it is now considering the use of wider powers in relation to the council’s accounts, such as a public interest report.