The Stormont Communities Minister has urged Causeway Coast and Glens councillors to take immediate action on recommendations made in an Audit Office report, or she will look to intervene.
Deirdre Hargey was speaking after an extraordinary audit found two land deals agreed by the council may not have been lawful.
The highly critical report also identified a culture of “bypassing best practice” in the council’s transacting of land disposals and easements.
Auditor Colette Kane recommended that an independent review should be carried out of the council’s governance arrangements, overseen by the Department for Communities, as well as enhanced training for councillors.
Mrs Kane also said that the actions of some senior council officers had “fallen short of the standards expected in a public body”.
Ms Hargey told reporters in Belfast on Thursday that councillors should have an urgent meeting to look at the recommendations, and the staffing in terms of what went wrong.
She said she is seeking legal advice over how she can intervene if she “doesn’t see progress”.
“I support the recommendations and I am calling on the immediate intervention and action by the councillors who are the custodians and the leaders within that council to show leadership, to show transparency and to show accountability, that they now move quickly and implement the recommendations that were laid out by the auditor,” she said.
“I will be working to ensure that the council do that immediately, in the next few days and weeks, and if they fail to take that forward then I will look legally at what intervention is open for me to ensure that I take that work forward on behalf of the ratepayers within that council area to ensure that we can build confidence into the process again, and to ensure that we are delivering first-class public services for the people that live within the Causeway Coast and Glens council area.”
The audit, the first of its kind in Northern Ireland, was ordered by former communities minister Caral Ni Chuilin in November 2020.
Mrs Kane’s report highlighted two cases where she said significant failings were evident.
The first related to an easement – a right to allow another party to use land without possessing it – which was granted by the council to a developer for £1 in June 2016 for land at Ballyreagh Road, Portstewart, to allow site access for a proposed hotel development project.
Planning permission for the hotel complex was granted by the council in June 2017, but was subsequently overturned as a result of judicial review proceedings in 2019.
The auditor’s report said: “There is a case for finding the easement has not been granted lawfully.
“There was a failure to demonstrate that best price was obtained including lack of professional valuation prior to the grant of the easement.
“Inadequate information was presented by senior council officers to committees and council to enable them to make informed decisions.”
The report said that the council’s chief executive was “directly involved” in the transaction and added that inadequate records were kept of key matters and that “inaccurate and unreliable information” was provided to the auditor.
The second land transaction concerned the disposal of land at Castleroe Road in Coleraine.
In 2016 the council agreed in principle to sell the land to a registered charity for £5,000 in order to facilitate the development of a boutique hotel.
The auditor again said there was a case for finding that the disposal had not been granted lawfully and added there was a failure to demonstrate that best price was obtained.
She said the council’s chief executive was directly involved in the transacting of this disposal. She added that inadequate records were kept of key matters and that the advice and guidance of legal officers was not followed.
The report stated: “The conduct of some senior council officers fell well short of expected standards.”
The auditor has now recommended that an independent review should be carried out of Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council’s governance arrangements, overseen by the Department for Communities.
She has also recommended the provision of enhanced training to councillors, to facilitate their understanding of the level of challenge and scrutiny needed when holding officers to account.
Mrs Kane said: “Throughout this audit, I have identified evidence that adherence to legislation and best practice in land and property matters was not part of the culture of the council.
“There was evidence that senior officers were advocating actions that were contrary to best practice.
“This leads me to conclude that a culture existed of bypassing best practice and guidance to get land ‘deals done’ which set the wrong tone from the top of the organisation.
“In some cases legal advice was ignored and, on one occasion, inaccurate and unreliable information was provided to the Local Government Auditor.”
A spokesperson for Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council said time would be required to assess the report and consider the next steps.
The spokesperson added: “Work on this report began in late 2020, and throughout that time council co-operated fully with the Northern Ireland Audit Office
“Council has already made changes to its Land and Property procedures and intends to comply with its obligations to ratepayers and stakeholders.
“The council will meet to discuss the report, its recommendations and further action to be taken, at the next full council meeting.”
Responding to the report, the DUP said: “We will take time to fully consider the findings from the Northern Ireland Audit Office, but it is clear this report raises serious questions for the council.
“It is our view that all recommendations should be implemented. We are not convinced that the current council leadership is best placed to take these reforms forward.”
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