Row over council’s £300K gift to law firm hots up

PROFESSIONAL services giant KPMG is to be asked to investigate the controversial award of a £300,000 by Bolton Council to personal injury law firm Asons, headquartered in the town.

The cash gift to the loss-making law company following its £1m move to the former offices of The Bolton News at Newspaper House – initially agreed under emergency powers behind closed doors by ruling Labour leader Cllr Cliff Morris – has caused a public outcry, including from other law firms in Bolton.

Asons’ £1m move to Newspaper House in the summer followed the abandonment of building work on what was to be the £7m showpiece HQ for the company at the gateway to Bolton on Top Way a year ago.

The build was halted after the Government clamped down on personal injury claims legislation.

Now, the authority’s opposing Conservative Group leader Cllr David Greenhalgh, who chairs the council’s audit committee, wants to know if the grant was a “write off”.

The Top Way HQ was to be built on £300,000 worth of council land – the site of the former Bolton College – gifted to the company on condition the building went ahead.

Cllr Greenhalgh told TheBusinessDesk he believed there is now some uncertainty over whether the money has been repaid to the council now the HQ has not been built.

Bolton Council has already come under fire from its Manchester-based auditors KPMG for the handling of ex-chief executive Paul Najsarek’s shock exit and £90,000 payout after only a few months in post in September.

KPMG said Najsarek’s contract was flawed because it did not include a six-month probationary period.

“I am chairman of the audit committee and I have a right to ask KPMG to look at this (the Asons’ grant) issue,” said Cllr Greenhalgh.

“I have been told by Cllr Morris that the money for the Top Way development has come back, but when I asked the borough solicitor and the chief executive of the council I got an inconclusive answer.

“I want KPMG to scrutinise what has been going on so we all know as the external auditor.”

Cllr Greenhalgh was speaking after Bolton’s ruling Labour Group closed ranks at a meeting of Bolton Council on Wednesday night (November 30) to block a Conservative motion of criticism of the £300,000 grant to Asons.

Some 250 protesters, including representatives of other law firms, also gathered outside the Bolton Town Hall.

Cllr Greenhalgh went on: “We are still in a very unsatisfactory position. We have not had answers to so many questions.”

Referring to the council meeting he said: “The ruling (Labour) group was very much on the defensive and didn’t answer any of the important questions about whether proper due diligence was carried out over the award of the grant.

“It looks more than ever as though it went ahead without any of the checks and what is worse was that it was done behind closed doors under emergency powers.”

TheBusinessDesk has contacted Cllr Morris but he has so far not responded.