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Council needed more transparency over Windlestone Hall sale, report finds
A COUNCIL displayed a lack of transparency over the sale of a Grade-II listed hall which critics claim was sold too cheaply, an auditor has found.
The independent report into Durham County Council’s sale of Windlestone Hall supported the council’s £241,000 valuation, but said a second independent figure should have been sought.
Weardale County Councillor, John Shuttleworth, reported the sale of the hall, near Rushyford, to the Audit Commission claiming it had been sold for a fraction of what it was worth.
Independent auditor, Cameron Waddell, of Mazars, investigated the sale of the hall and said he could find no evidence to suggest the council’s valuation of the hall was “deficient”.
However, he also said the authority should have obtained a second independent valuation “in the interests of transparency”.
In a report based on his findings prepared for the council’s audit committee, Avril Wallage, manager of internal audit and risk, said the building was last officially valued at £900,000 in January 2009, half of what it was worth two years previously.
The council was spending £100,000-a-year on running costs, including heating the empty building during winter, with a further £300,000 needed for urgent repairs.
To renovate the 178-year-old mansion, which was the birthplace of 1950s Prime Minister Anthony Eden, would have cost at least £3.5m.
Ms Wallage said the council’s valuer believed the £241,000 sale represented the best deal for the authority as there had been no other interest.
One condition of the sale was that the council had to pay £36,000 to repair the building’s central heating, the report revealed.
Ms Wallage admitted: “Regardless of whether or not the sale represented best [value], some of the processes in place lacked clarity and transparency.”
Councillor Shuttleworth said the council needed to be more open about its transactions.
“The council is like a circus run by the clowns,” he alleged.
He said: “I think the lack of transparency shown throughout this whole process speaks for itself, it is typical of this organisation.”
During the Second World War it was used to house prisoners of war and between 1957 and 2006 the hall was a residential school for children with special needs.
The family who bought the hall in 2011 have previously said they want to restore it to a private home.
Stuart Timmiss – head of planning and assets at Durham County Council – said he welcomed the report and the authority has already taken steps to resolve the issues identified.
He said: “We remain absolutely true to our initial statement that; given the condition of the building, the state of the market and the very significant maintenance costs being incurred by the council the sale did represent best value for money for tax payers.”
Mr Timmiss said the sale was the best way to conserve the building.