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West Somerset Railway sale emails investigation launched
AN INVESTIGATION is underway into the behaviour of a councillor accused of ‘cosying up’ to one of the bidders for the freehold of the West Somerset Railway.
A complaint has been made by a member of the public against Somerset County Council cabinet member David Huxtable, who was responsible for overseeing the sale of the tourist attraction.
The council’s Standards Committee has now been asked to look into the issue.
Last month, the County Gazette revealed how questions had been asked after the authority made a u-turn and decided not to sell the railway.
Both the West Somerset Railway plc, who run the railway, and the West Somerset Railway Association, a support charity, had made bids for the freehold.
At a scrutiny committee meeting on Tuesday, county council leader John Osman reiterated the u-turn was nothing to do with the disclosure of private emails which appeared to suggest that Cllr Huxtable was siding with the Association.
In one email, Cllr Huxtable told a member of the Association he was considering opening a “media campaign” which he said would “point out that it is not in the public interest for the plc to hold the freehold.”
Instead, councillors were told that both bidders failed to meet all of the criteria needed for a purchase.
The County Gazette has previously reported how Cllr Huxtable was stripped of responsibility over the sale decision, and at Tuesday’s meeting, Cllr Osman explained future decisions over the railway now lay with him.
At the meeting, plans to set up a group for all 12 stakeholders of the railway – which include representatives of all the stops along the railway line – were revealed, although there was no indication as to when the group would be set up.
Cllr Osman said: “What is clear to me is that we now all need to work together, the council, the plc, the association, and all other groups involved in the successful running of the railway.
“There will be an investigation into a complaint made against a councillor and there is nothing more to say on this matter for now.”
Although plans to sell the freehold have been shelved, Susan Kaufman, manager of the Association, told the committee the Association would try to submit a bid for the railway in the future, and hoped the plc would join them.
She added: “We want what is best for the railway and we believe that that can be achieved by working together as one.”
John Irven, chairman of the WSR plc, said: “I was pleased that John Osman confirmed publicly that the freehold is safe with SCC.
“I am concerned that no timescale is defined for completing an extended lease with right of first refusal to purchase the freehold, which we were originally offered in 2011.
“This is critical for ensuring the longterm future of the railway by guaranteeing the promise.
“We look forward to a rapid conclusion to allay everyone’s concerns over the county council’s intentions.”
Cllr Mike Rigby added: “I’m glad we can start to move forward now following the business with Huxtable.
“But it seems we are far from a resolution.
“I understand that we’re further back than where we were in May last year where the council had an agreement with the plc to extend their lease.
“There has been uncertainty for all for 12 months now and disruption to the running of the railway.
“We need to get back to concentrating on running the railway well as it is one of Somerset’s most successful tourist attractions.
“Cllr Huxtable appears to have compromised himself on this matter.
“But the committee has no power to do anything; if this was an officer and they were found guilty they would be sacked or even reported to the police for colluding.”
Cllr Justine Baker, who asked for a timeline on what would happen next, said she was saddened one had not been given.
She said: “Members and the railway are no further forward in the future of the railway.
“Cllr Huxtable’s behaviour is disgraceful and at the very least he should apologise.
“The time, money and stress to both the plc and Association over the last year is immense.
“This is a councillor of senior standing who appeared not to be impartial on the sale of a key piece of estate that brings millions to the local economy and employs 50 local people, has 1200 volunteers and 8000 shareholders.”
Cllr Huxtable said: “I’m happy to take my case to the Standards Committee and help to clear my name.”
- THE Standards Committee is made up of one member from each political party in Somerset County Council.
Part of its job is to investigate any complaints made, reported from an independent person.
If a formal investigation finds no evidence of failure to comply with the Code of Conduct, the matter is closed.
Where an investigation finds evidence of failure to comply with the code, the monitoring officer will seek a resolution with the complainant.
But if this isn’t possible or appropriate, the investigation findings will be reported to a public meeting of the hearing panel of the Standards Committee for consideration and a decision.
The hearing panel has the power to make recommendations including: reporting its findings to the council, recommending that the councillor be removed from any or all committees and sub committees they sit on, recommending that they be removed from cabinet or cabinet responsibilities, arranging training, removing the member from outside appointments, withdrawing facilities such as a computer and excluding the member from the council’s offices or other premises.
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