Ministry of Justice agree they knew of town council’s interest in buying redundant courthouse but then “forgot” about it

15:10 16 April 2014

Wisbech Court House. Picture: Steve Williams.

Wisbech Court House. Picture: Steve Williams.

Archant

The Ministry of Justice has admitted it “forgot” about Wisbech Town Council’s interest in acquiring the former court house before suddenly selling it to a private developer for £150,000.

Wisbech Court House. Picture: Steve Williams.Wisbech Court House. Picture: Steve Williams.

Correspondence between the town council and the ministry shows that the town council first expressed an interest in the building after its closure was announced in February 2012.

Deputy town clerk Susanah Farmer said the council discussed on Monday night the background to the sale.

“When we heard it was going to be sold two years or so ago we asked the Ministry of Justice about its status and their proposals for it,” she said.

“They came back to us, said they weren’t sure, and would let us know. They got in touch again in April of 2012 and ‘registered’ our interest but said they were currently negotiating with Fenland District Council.”

Mrs Farmer said the town council was told nothing more and only found out it had been sold when it broke on our website.

“I contacted them again saying ‘hello’ and they came back to say they were very sorry they hadn’t kept us informed of what was going on. They forgot. They had promised to keep us informed and didn’t.”

Councillor Virginia Bucknor said at Monday’s meeting she asked the leader, David Oliver, who has responsibility for Wisbech on the district council, why he hadn’t mentioned the town council’s interest when the cabinet pulled out of buying it.

“Cllr Oliver said he hadn’t mentioned it at cabinet as it hadn’t been necessary as the Ministry of Justice had been advised in 2012 of the town council’s interest,” she said.

“When I queried the sale last week with the ministry, the official I spoke to offered his “profuse apologies and said ‘I forgot’”.

She said: “I’ve been unable to obtain the minutes of the cabinet decision because none were taken with regard to this decision. Again, this seems remarkable.

“The auction was then proposed and then suddenly a local developer has offered the auction starting price which was immediately accepted without either testing the market at auction (to be held a few weeks later) or consulting with the MP or local council.”

Cllr Bucknor added: “We have not received any update from our MP on his investigations.

“I have sent a Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Justice to try and learn the true facts of how they suddenly decided in enormous haste to sell Wisbech Court House to a local developer for £150,000.”

The issue is likely to be among the first issues to be resolved by the incoming leader of Fenland Council following the resignation of Alan Melton.

The ballot for a new leader will take place on May 1 among Conservative councillors and two names are already in the frame- deputy leader Chris Seaton and former cabinet member John Clark. A third candidate, Councillor Jan French, is believed to have considered but then withdrew from putting forward her name.

NE Cambs Conservative Association Robert Sears said this week he felt an inquiry – possibly external- should be held into the courthouse sale.

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