A TOP council chief overseeing the sale of the West Somerset Railway has come under fire after being accused of “cosying up” to one of the bidders.
A string of emails seen by the County Gazette appear to reveal Cllr David Huxtable brushing aside concerns over the sell-off and planning a “media campaign” against one of two potential buyers.
Cllr Huxtable, tasked with deciding who to sell the railway’s freehold to, rejected the criticisms and said he “tried hard to negotiate with both parties.”
He also denied that the disclosure of the private emails had forced a U-turn on the sale.
Somerset County Council revealed on Tuesday (May 20) that it had shelved plans to sell the railway, but councillors are now calling for an investigation into Cllr Huxtable’s behaviour.
Talk of selling the railway freehold has been in the public domain since last June after the West Somerset Railway Association offered to buy the line, but it was not until February 7 this year that the council officially put it up for sale and said it would meet interested parties.
Rival bids were formally submitted by the association and the West Somerset Railway plc, thought to be in the region of £250,000.
The plc currently holds the lease and runs the attraction, while the association is a charity made up of members and volunteers.
Cllr Huxtable was in charge of the sale and was expected to announce who the freehold would be sold to next month.
Now the council has confirmed to the County Gazette that a formal decision not to sell will instead be made by leader John Osman.
A council statement said: “In view of the public and member interest in this matter the leader of the council has decided to consider this decision.”
The authority said its decision to keep the freehold was because “neither bid fully met all the criteria required.”
The council said ‘key considerations’ included:
- There would be a professional and collaborative working relationship between the association and the plc;
- Offers were to be for the freehold;
- The council was reassured that no objections would be raised to a sale and/or subsequent amendment to railway orders.
After the council announced its U-turn the association released a statement saying it would negotiate with the plc to present a joint bid as soon as possible.
However, emails released under the Freedom of Information Act show several exchanges between Cllr Huxtable and the association dating back to before the freehold sale announcement was made.
Guidance issued by Government minister Brandon Lewis in 2013 says councillors should not have a “closed mind” over a decision.
Emails appear to show Cllr Huxtable, cabinet member for resources, attempting to brush aside concerns over the sell-off and apparently committing himself to the association’s bid.
Writing to association representative Roger Bush on December 3, 2013, after concerns from Bishops Lydeard councillor Mike Rigby, Cllr Huxtable said: “I’m waiting to see where the flak comes from. I feel Mike Rigby is still an issue.
“I’ve tried very hard to convince him that this shouldn’t have a very public airing.
“The more the public realises the current way the railway’s run the more chance of a public legal challenge.
“Can someone from your side have a word?”
Mr Bush replied: “Have tried to meet him [Mike Rigby] this week with my chairman and is happy to see us. Will keep you posted.”
A day later, Cllr Huxtable said: “I would have thought Mike Rigby would be making a big mistake if he made too much of this proposed transfer of freehold.
“Perhaps that needs pointing out to him.
“The quieter this is kept the better, and making a fuss could be construed as damaging the railway.
“We cannot return to the status quo (do nothing, his preferred option) or extending the lease now that the council is aware how the plc runs the railway.
“I think lobbying Mike is a good idea and copying him in on emails is a risk.
“In truth, his options are very limited, as is his influence, and any hiccups can be laid squarely at his door.
“The plc cannot win a PR battle against the association.”
Mr Bush said: “Thank you. We will keep a low profile . . . no emails etc.
“I will do my best to see him [Mike Rigby] next week and fill him in on one or two details.”
The same email went on to say: “I must say all is quiet both in the village and on the railway front since the proposed sale became public knowledge. Good news!”
Later emails then appear to show Cllr Huxtable setting out to influence the public’s perception of the plc.
On February 3, regarding addressing councillors on the proposals, Cllr Huxtable wrote to Mr Bush: “I am coming to your parish council meeting on February 12 when I think I might open my ‘media campaign’ which will point out that it is not in the public interest for the plc to hold the freehold.”
Cllr Rigby, who held several meetings about the sale with interested representatives, described the revelations as “scandalous” and said it showed evidence of Cllr Huxtable “cosying up” to the appointed representative of the association.
He said: “It’s astonishing to see what Cllr Huxtable was telling the association’s representative in these emails.
“Here’s the man charged with achieving the best outcome for the council in the sale of public property, effectively acting as an adviser to one of the two parties interested in the freehold.
“He should have been overseeing a fair competition between the two parties.
“Instead, it seems to me that the emails show he was actively assisting one of the parties and had already made up his mind as to who to sell to weeks before the bids had even been submitted.
“If these emails are correct we need a full explanation of how this behaviour has been allowed to occur and how widespread it is in relation to other council property deals.”
(Bishops Lydeard councillor Mike Rigby)
Another councillor, LibDem Justine Baker, who is also the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for West Somerset, was criticised by Mr Bush, who accused her of using the railway “to launch her election campaign.”
Cllr Baker said she was “sadly not surprised”
adding: “What’s shocking is it shows the lack of professionalism and makes me think ‘what else is going on with the administration?’.
“I’d like to know why Cllr Huxtable was so keen in his dealings with Mr Bush and what the reason for this was.”
John Irven, plc chairman, said he has seen the emails between Cllr Huxtable and the association.
He said: “Though we’re surprised at this change of direction by the council in the context of all the time, expertise and costs expended by all parties, we welcome the confirmation of the priority, as expressed by Cllr Osman, to safeguard the future of our much loved railway.
“We anticipate receiving clarification of the reasons behind this decision, and working through any resulting impacts for the railway and the council.”
West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger also welcomed the council’s move to retain the freehold.
The County Gazette made several attempts to contact Mr Bush by phone and email, but no response was forthcoming at the time of going to press.
Despite saying he try and respond to emailed questions about the situation, no responses had been received from Cllr Huxtable at the time of going to press.