CONTROVERSIAL plans to close Darlington's historic Crown Street Library face another costly delay following a procedural omission - branded “an absolute embarrassment” by one campaigning councillor.
Darlington Borough Council's cabinet acts as trustee for the Grade II listed building but failed to make a declaration of interest ahead of a vote in January when they recommended to close it down.
That has now left the council “open to potential legal challenge”, according to a memo seen by The Northern Echo.
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In the document, sent to all councillors, Luke Swinhoe – the council’s assistant director of law and governance – says failure to declare an interest means the council must delay its plans a third time.
He admitted he did not “fully appreciate the implications the two different roles of cabinet would have on the declarations of interests that ought to have formally been made by members before they made decisions that impact on the Crown Street Library.”
He added: “As the interest issue was not dealt with as it should have been, the decision made by cabinet is potentially procedurally flawed. “I ought to say that it remains legally valid but it is however open to potential legal challenge.”
Had conflicts of interest been declared, a legal dispensation could have been drawn up to allow cabinet members to continue the decision making process.
However, as a result of the error, a final decision by the full council - which was expected to be approved on Tuesday, February 28 - will now be delayed a third time.
The Labour-led council plans to axe the town’s mobile library service, hand Cockerton Library over to volunteers to run and close Crown Street Library, transferring most of its resources to the Dolphin Centre. The measures are part of wide-ranging budget cuts in response to a sharp reduction in Government funding
An earlier decision was set aside last year following the threat of a legal challenge from campaigners while plans were postponed again in January after Conservative councillors called in the proposals for further scrutiny.
The latest delay was criticised by independent councillor Kevin Nicholson who previously raised concerns over the cabinet's conflict of interest - between being a trustee and seeking to close the building down.
"This is an absolute embarrassment for the council and raises questions about the integrity of the whole process," he said.
“I don’t understand how senior leaders and advisors did not pick up on the fact that there is an obvious conflict of interest.
"It is absolutely unacceptable. Making the wrong decision not once, not twice but three times is just embarrassing."
A spokesman for Darlington Borough Council said the matter would be brought back before cabinet as soon as possible to ensure minimal delay.
Cllr Nick Wallis said the delay was unfortunate, adding: “It is very important that our process is procedurally correct and transparent.”