BOLTON Council has been urged to release evidence of how a £300,000 grant given to Asons Solicitors was spent.
Opposition councillors demanded to be given proof of the law firm’s expenditure in redeveloping its Churchgate offices at a meeting of the council’s corporate and external issues scrutiny committee on Wednesday night.
In a written question, Lib Dem group leader Roger Hayes said that the council should have seen verified expenditure by Asons Solicitors of at least £1.5 million, 20 per cent of which was made up by the grant.
Margaret Asquith, the council’s chief executive, confirmed that she had seen proof of the firm’s spending and the council is now considering whether it is able to release the information. Cllr David Greenhalgh, Conservative leader, said: “It is in the interest of everybody, including Asons, for us to see this evidence.”
Helen Gorman, the borough solicitor, replied that releasing such information was “outside normal business procedures”.
Cllr Hayes said that he was “very sceptical” over the existence of the evidence and said that residents’ doubts would remain until the council released it.
UKIP group leader, Cllr Sean Hornby, added: “We were told by the chief executive and the borough solicitor it wasn’t normal practice.
“I believe that if this council has nothing to hide and the agreement is transparent then the council has nothing to fear.
“I think it is more likely that the receipts do not add up to this amount and I challenge this council to make available all the receipts if not to the full members of the council to all political leaders of the opposition in private in order that we can give assurances back to our members that all is in order.”
It was also confirmed at the meeting that the £300,000 grant is recoverable should Asons not continue to employ at least 120 people at its Churchgate office, as that would breach the terms of the grant.
Cllr Hayes said: “I hope the grant money is recoverable, but there is an issue of how the council is going to measure Asons’ performance.
“And if Asons were to go under, how are we going to get the money back? The whole thing beggars belief.”
A council spokesman said: “We will be doing regular checks on the number of people employed by Asons and on all of the conditions of the grant to ensure that they are being fulfilled.”
A written response to Cllr Hayes’ question on whether the grant could be recovered if Asons went out of business said: “The council is confident that it provided support to an employer in the town centre at a time when its business model was changing and that this investment will be returned through its rates and the wider economic benefit of retaining employment in the town centre.”
Cllr Sue Haworth asked that KPMG, the firm carrying out an external audit of the decision to award the grant, be made aware of Asons’ false inflation of legal bills sent to AXA Insurance, which was revealed this week.
The audit is ongoing.