City finds ‘missing’ £300K

Bone of contention: Ripon leisure centre.
Bone of contention: Ripon leisure centre.
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Questions over the “missing” £300,000 in Ripon City Council’s accounts have boiled over into a row over the ownership of Ripon Leisure Centre.

Conservatives and Independents clashed at a council meeting on Monday when Coun Alan Skidmore (Con) rebuffed claims made by Coun Peter Horton (Ind) in an election leaflet that said Independents had “secured a large sum of money” for the council.

Last month, Coun Skidmore had threatened to call in the district auditor to investigate the claim as he could find no evidence in the books to support where the sum had come from.

But on Monday he said it turned out the money had been “secured” by transferring the ownership of Ripon Leisure Centre to Harrogate Borough Council in 2009, which freed a £300,000 bond in the council’s coffers.

Describing the claim as “election propaganda” and “a fairytale”, Coun Skidmore said: “You cannot secure something you already own.

“But, magically, Hans Christian Andersen’s way, one of our members published this as being a fact. And it isn’t a fact and it never was a fact.”

Coun Skidmore has now ruled out calling in the district auditor.

When the Safeway supermarket on Harrogate Road – now owned by Morrisons – was built in the 1990s, as part of planning gain rules in place at the time, Safeway provided the city with the leisure centre on Dallamires Lane and a £300,000 bond.

The bond was put in place to generate money to pay towards a £19,000-a-year fee for Harrogate Borough Council to run the centre under a leasehold arrangement.

In March 2009, the then Independent-controlled city council transferred ownership of the leisure centre to Harrogate Borough Council – freeing the £300,000 bond – on conditiion the city council handed over £125,000 for investment in the centre.

Criticising that decision, Coun Skidmore said: “In one fell swoop a million pound asset was passed to Harrogate that belonged to the people of Ripon.

“We do not know what possessed anyone to give a million pound asset belonging to the people of Ripon away for what basically was a shortfall of £2,000 a year (in funds generated by the bond).”

But Independent councillors defended the transfer of ownership, with Coun Pauline McHardy telling the meeting there was a clause in the deal which allowed Ripon to buy the leisure centre back for just £2 and Coun Andrew Williams describing the deal as “exceptionally good” for the people of Ripon.

Coun Williams said: “The building was starting to have defects which were going to place a requirement on this city council, as the owner of the building, to repair it.

“Transferring the ownership meant the ownership of problems to repair it for the next 40 years transferred to Harrogate council as well.

“The asset was never worth a million pounds, as the land can only ever be used for leisure purposes.”

He also pointed out that the current Mayor of Ripon, Coun Mick Stanley, who served as an Independent councillor until switching to the Conservatives in February, had supported the decision five years ago.

Coun Williams added: “It was draining resources out of this council. It meant financial security for this council and it was a good deal for the city and one, Mr Mayor, that you whole-heartedly endorsed and helped negotiate.”

Coun Stanley said although he might have agreed to it because it was “probably the right thing to do at the time”, he stressed he did not help negotiate the deal.