Council political groups blame each other for £3m fitness hub 'mess'

An artist's impression inside the proposed sports hub in Cromer. Picture: NNDC

An artist's impression inside the proposed sports hub in Cromer. Picture: NNDC - Credit: Archant

Two political groups each accused the other of failings over the collapse of a multi-million-pound tennis and fitness centre plan in north Norfolk. 

The Cromer Tennis Hub was a £3.1m project to build a multi-purpose tennis and fitness facility around the town’s existing tennis club site

But in 2019, not long after the current Liberal Democrat administration took over NNDC, the scheme was scrapped after the lease required for building work to proceed was not secured and a funding bid failed.

The Norfolk Audit Partnership was brought in to review the handling of the project and identify lessons that needed to be learnt

Plans for a £3.2m community sports hub in Cromer have been submitted. Image: NORTH NORFOLK DISTRICT

An artists impression of the failed Cromer tennis hub - Credit: Archant

On Tuesday, the governance, risk and audit committee (Grac) heard from auditor Nicola Cocks, who stressed it was a review to look for gaps in the process and not a formal investigation. 

The auditor's report highlights several areas of concern, grading the handling of the matter as “no assurance” - the lowest grade.  

The councillors and auditors discussed whether a former cabinet member - who was left unnamed during the meeting – had properly followed the conflict of interest process. 

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Ms Cocks said she could not be certain about the robustness of the process because the minutes of the meetings did not include mitigating action. 

The incumbent Liberal Democrats and the previous incumbent Conservatives each pointed the finger at the other for the plan failing. 

Christopher Cushing, the new Conservative leader for North Norfolk District Council. Picture: SUPPLI

Christopher Cushing, the new Conservative leader for North Norfolk District Council. Picture: SUPPLIED BY THE CANDIDATE - Credit: Archant

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Conservative leader Christopher Cushing said many of the key decisions were taken after his party lost the council, and accused the incumbents of trying to “rewrite history”. 

“[The Liberal Democrats] had the votes in the chamber to take control from December 2018,” he said. 

“The group were in the driving seat and had the opportunity to review this and make a recommendation if they felt this should not have proceeded.” 

Councillor Eric Seward said the Lib Dems had asked for the business case to be re-examined and they were initially told a viable case remained. 

Vice-chair of the meeting, Saul Penfold, said: “This independent audit report shows the project was badly mismanaged and mishandled from the start. 

“To me, it’s a scandal that so much council taxpayer money has been wasted and the blame rests with the previous Conservative-run council and it is the Lib Dems along with the independents who have to clean up this mess.” 

Saul Penfold, Liberal Democrat candidate for Worstead in the 2019 North Norfolk District Council el

Saul Penfold, Liberal Democrat member for Worstead - Credit: Archant

Councillors, who had only been presented with a summary report from the auditors, agreed to hold further discussions after viewing the full report. 

Speaking after the meeting, Tim Adams, the Liberal Democrat member for Cromer Town said he was “horrified” by a suggestion in the meeting that the council could have taken legal action against the tennis club for pulling out of the plans. 

Mr Adams added it was now important the council learn lessons from the audit report and strengthen their processes so it doesn’t happen again. 

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