BOLTON Council has been accused of ‘running a dictatorship’ after secretly agreeing to give a grant of £300,000 to a town centre law firm.

Minutes from a private meeting held on Monday show that Director of Place Stephen Young and Council leader Cliff Morris agreed to approve grant funding to Asons solicitors to ‘assist them in the development costs’ associated with their recent move to the former office of The Bolton News in Churchgate.

The meeting was not open to the press, public or leaders of the minor opposition parties and the council has refused to reveal the amount of funding given.

However, The Bolton News has learned that the sum of the grant given was £300,000.

Council leader Cliff Morris said the decision was made to ensure that a large company remained in the town centre and said the authority has helped other businesses in the past.

He said: “If it is going to keep 400-500 jobs in the town centre then its important.

“We have spoken to a lot of other businesses and helped others.

“This was a one-off payment and it is not to do with this year’s budget.

“The money was needed to make the building fit for purpose.”

Asons initially planned to create its new headquarters on the site of the former Bolton College building in Clarence Street in 2013, but the move was scrapped after the company blamed changes made to personal injury claims by Chancellor George Osborne.

The company then purchased the Newspaper House building for £1.1 million and carried out the council-aided refurbishment work - including creating a games room, coffee shop and roof terrace.

The decision and use of emergency powers to approve the grant has been slammed by opposition parties.

Tory leader, Cllr David Greenhalgh was the only opposition leader at the meeting and told The Bolton News he was outraged by the decision.

He said: “A growing number of decisions are being made by this council under emergency powers. “This process should only be used when absolutely necessary.

“What can be considered time sensitive in the awarding of this grant to Asons? Why could this decision not be left to the normal meeting, where it could then be called in for further debate?

“It’s simply not good enough, and a complete disregard of the appropriate procedures, and am I being cynical in thinking this has every appearance of being rushed through?”

Cllr Greenhalgh, who accused the council of running ‘a dictatorship’ pointed out that this was not the first time that Asons had been helped by the council.

He added: “Why should a private company receive a grant from Bolton Council to refurbish their new offices?

“A company that chose to leave their grade A offices in Bark Street to build a new set of offices on Topp Way, land which the council owned but gave to Asons, only for the plans to be shelved.”

He added: “This is not an attack on Asons, this is in attack on how this Labour Council operates.”

Lib Dem leader Cllr Roger Hayes questioned why the money was required at all.

He said: “I am horrified at the grant to Asons and the underhand way in which it has been done.

“If the reported amount of £300,000 is correct, I am sure there are far more urgent priorities given the present situation of the council’s budget.

“Were the former Bolton News offices really in such a state that this amount of money needed to be spent on them?

“This is another example of mad Labour priorities and their attempts to keep it secret by using ‘emergency powers’.”

UKIP leader Cllr Sean Hornby was also left ‘fuming’ at the news.

He said: “I went into that building when The Bolton News left and it was in perfect condition, so I don’t know what this money was needed for.

“It is £300,000 of taxpayers’ money at a time when the council want to scrap school crossing staff, close children’s centres and cut back again on youth services — they have got their priorities all wrong.”

He added: “As an opposition leader how am supposed to scrutinise the executive if I don’t know things until they have been decided? We need to change the entire constitution of this council.”

A spokesman for the law firm said: “Asons is a major employer for the town and we were eager to retain our presence in Bolton.

“The firm is proud of our close links with the council and we were encouraged by the council to bring our strong commercial presence to Churchgate and to stay in Bolton’s centre, thanks in part to the council’s offer to help with our new office’s refurbishment.”

The firm added that it ‘gives a great deal back’ to the town aside from employment and training, through various charity initiatives.

The spokesman said: “By choosing to remain in Bolton with the council’s help, hundreds of our employees also continue to support local businesses.”

CEO Dr Imran Akram, said: “Credit to the council for having such a sound commercial mind to retain such a big employer as Asons in Bolton centre.

“It’s paramount that the council works closely with businesses to retain companies, as competition is tough from other areas.”