Plans for Durham County Council's headquarters move have ignited a debate over openness and transparency.

Labour councillors have questioned why figures have not yet been made public to scrutinse the deal.

An opposition leader has challenged the ruling coalition to "come clean" on the costs on the "almighty gamble" affecting taxpayers.

The council says it cannot release such sensitive information while it is "in the middle of a property transaction".

It will move from County Hall to new buildings at Aykley Heads and a refurbished building in Stanley under plans by the Conservative, Lib Dem and Independent joint administration.

The previous Labour administration had a new £50m HQ built at The Sands, but the coalition scrapped plans to move there.

That building will now be sold to Durham University to develop its business school.

The plans were discussed at a corporate scrutiny board meeting, but only part of the report and discussions were in public.

Read more: Fresh Durham Council HQ row erupts over alleged £13m risk

Labour group leader Councillor Carl Marshall said, referring to reports: "There's nothing in there. There's no business case in there. There's no detailed costings on the proposed sites.

"It's a finger in the air that my 12-year-old son could come up with. It's absolutely shambolic.

"If anybody disagrees with me, then they should come clean, be transparent. Come clean with the taxpayer. Put the report out."

The Northern Echo: Cllr Carl Marshall. Picture: Northern Echo.Cllr Carl Marshall. Picture: Northern Echo.

Helen Lynch, the council's head of legal and democratic services, said the information was sufficient for councillors to make an informed decision about it.

Cllr Marshall then apologised for his phrasing and said: "It's not what the public would expect in a report of this nature.

"The public would be alarmed at the lack of detail in there about the proposals and about the level of risk around it, certainly having no clear plan and no clear costs on the alternative."

Cllr Olwyn Gunn said: "I'm really concerned that there is no public information about the actual costs involved in all of this.

"I've actually had members of the public coming to me and asking me questions around this which obviously I can't give the answers to.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Olwyn Gunn. Picture: Durham County Council.Cllr Olwyn Gunn. Picture: Durham County Council.

"I think there are issues here about what should be... in the public domain so the public have access to how their money is being spent."

Cllr Alison Batey said: "We're being asked to consider something where the key details aren't even really in any of this report.

"I don't feel like it's an open and transparent conversation."

Susan Robinson, head of corporate property and land, said it was legitimate for the council to keep sensitive information out of public discussions "to protect its commercial interests".

"It's in the middle of a property transaction," she added.

"If that were in the public domain it would impact on the council's ability to actually deliver those projects and secure best value.

"It is an accepted practice. That's why that information is not public at this stage."

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Ms Lynch said some elements may be made public in future, but others may not be released for a longer time to prevent undermining council negotiations.

She said: "In recognising the public interest... the information that could be made publicly available, was."

Cllr Andrew Jackson said: "I think we've heard that we are of a mind to disclose as much information as soon as we possibly can.

"It is right that the public have the information, but it's also right they only get the information at the right time.

"It's clear here that the transaction is still ongoing so we cannot disclose that information at the moment. Premature disclosure would be reckless."

Read more: Council leaders agree to sell new HQ to Durham University

Cllr Bill Kellett said: "This should have gone out on to the market but it didn't, and that's a potential loss to the council taxpayer of millions of pounds, and I strongly object to that."

Ms Lynch said: "The council is under a duty to secure best value, but going out to market is only one way in which to secure best value."

Ms Robinson added: "The independent valuation that was carried out was significantly less than the capital receipt that we will obtain from the university by the disposal of it to them."


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