Derbyshire council's 'significant error of judgement' over secretive handling of potential Traveller site - including knowingly working with drug dealer

Transparency issues, poor governance, improper record keeping and a “significant error of judgement” have been found in a Derbyshire council’s secretive handling of a potential Traveller site – including knowingly working with a convicted drug dealer.
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An external report, carried out by the East Midlands Council on behalf of Derbyshire Dales District Council, investigated the events surrounding the authority’s assessment of a potential Traveller site at Hasker Farm, near Carsington Water, from May 2022 and February 2023.

The Hasker Farm “scandal” saw council officers work on a potential deal over the proposed site for eight months through extensive private meetings, which involved working with a convicted drug dealer who had been acting on behalf of the land owner.

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This situation only came to light due to work from campaigners and the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), with the issue never discussed in public meetings organised by the authority – until the LDRS’s reporting.

A view of the site at ground level. (Image: Google)A view of the site at ground level. (Image: Google)
A view of the site at ground level. (Image: Google)

A statement issued by the council, signed by all of the then political group leaders, had claimed the site was dropped due to financial viability issues.

However, an FOI filed by the LDRS proved the real reason, detailed by chief executive Paul Wilson, was the risk of reputational damage of working with a convicted drug dealer.

The East Midlands Council report follows a significant complaint made to the council – implicating all councillors – with 10 allegations around poor governance, transparency, prior knowledge of criminal convictions, due diligence, lying, gross professional negligence and conflicts of interest.

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Of the 10 allegations, East Midlands Council partially upheld four and dismissed the remaining six.

It partially upheld allegations of:

  • Lack of transparency and good governance
  • Prior knowledge of convictions and of involvement in organised crime
  • Lack of enforcement of planning permission breaches
  • Missing paperwork and lack of transparency

In response, Derbyshire Dales MP Sarah Dines has called on Mr Wilson, and other senior officials, to resign from the council over the situation, highlighting “gross professional shortcomings, blanket denials, half-truths and ineptitude”.

The council’s governance committee is to discuss the investigation at a meeting on Thursday, February 16.

A report for that meeting, discussing the investigation, details: “The investigators were clear that there are several areas where the council’s conduct fell short of what the public should expect of their local authority across areas of governance, conduct of officers and record keeping.

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“It is incumbent on the district council to learn, and to learn publicly, to ensure as far as is reasonable, that it is set on improving itself following this complaint.”

The investigation found evidence of pressure placed on the organisation’s officers (who are non-political) by the authority’s then leadership – former councillor Garry Purdy and Cllr Sue Hobson (now leader of the Conservative opposition group).

It also details the need for the council to make decisions in public meetings, not in briefing sessions.

Investigators found that executive officials Tim Braund and Rob Cogings “had some prior knowledge” of the “criminal past” of the person they were communicating with and meeting with over the potential Traveller site.

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They found “this was probably shared more widely among senior officers, but that they chose not to investigate further and instead trusted their own assessment that (the land owner’s representative) was genuine in his desire to help the Traveller families.

“As events transpired, this was a significant error of judgement.

“Officers were essentially naïve in their dealings with (the land owner’s agent). They chose to believe their own optimistic assessment of him rather than looking too deeply into his suspicious past and were left exposed when the full details of his criminal history became known.”

Investigators assessed it was “not remotely credible” to conclude that all involved officials knew of the land owner’s agent’s criminal history and proceeded anyway in the belief that no one would notice.

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The investigation found the land owner’s agent was subject to a proceeds of crime confiscation order and that officers were aware of this, although Mr Wilson was “non-committal”.

A Google search is all that is required to find that information, which was emailed to the council by a former councillor.

However, investigators assessed that the council had not entered into a formal “business relationship” with the agent, despite eight months of talks including preliminary assessments of the potential site – paid for with more than £4,000 in taxpayers’ money.

The investigators found that no notes were taken at a private meeting held between councillors and officers to discuss the site, where it was said councillors approved a move to drop further work on the grounds of financial viability – since proved false.

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They wrote: “In general we believe that the failure to make written records of key events relating to the Traveller site proposal has undermined trust and confidence in the actions undertaken by the council and has left officers exposed.”

They reference that the only evidence of the private meeting at which the site was formally dropped by councillors was a “clandestine recording which has come into the possession of Mr Wilson”.

On the issue of transparency over that closed-doors meeting, without any previous or future public district council meeting, investigators wrote: “This is not an open or transparent way for members to make decisions and has contributed to a climate of suspicion which has surrounded this whole matter.

“It also left officers exposed, having no evidence of a political mandate for their subsequent actions.”

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In response, Cllr Steve Flitter, the council’s Liberal Democrat leader, said: “A comprehensive complaint was received, investigated thoroughly and independently and a response reported to the complainants following our usual processes.

“Six of the ten complaints made against the council were not upheld and four were partially upheld.

“The complaint covered a timescale that principally fell under the previous administration and this progressive administration has already taken action to agree a new more transparent process of meeting the accommodation needs of Travellers.

“We find every opportunity to learn from complaints and there is much to learn from this one.”

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Cllr Neil Buttle, co-deputy leader of the council and leader of the authority’s Green Party Group, told the LDRS: “It is unfortunate that we have left our officers to sort out problems that the council has caused by not properly getting a grasp on our duties to Travellers over the past few years.

“We have got to get it right and the approach taken by the previous administration was not ideal.

“I think we are going to have to change to make things more transparent, including our governance.

“I think we had it coming. We should have been better at what we were doing. It shouldn’t get to the point where people feel the need to complain about it.

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“I don’t want to get too angry about the previous administration. They were trying to sort out the Traveller site provision and they haven’t done it in the right way.

“I don’t want to be defensive and we need to learn from our actions.

“We didn’t mean to do anything badly, we just wanted to get it done.”

Cllr Peter Slack, co-deputy leader of the council and leader of the authority’s Labour Group, said: “I was not party to the Hasker Farm affair at the time of the complaints, and also my party was not involved in Hasker Farm and we had no prior knowledge of the owner, as we were not running the council at the time and the Conservative leadership at that time were involved, which resulted in the leader of the council resigning.”

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Then leader Cllr Garry Purdy resigned from the council following the LDRS’ reporting of his involvement in a private deal made with the Heights of Abraham over the length of time a homeless group of Travellers could stay on the Matlock Bath station coach park.

Cllr Slack continued: “But the progressive allowance is committed to transparency and good governance and for keeping office documentation in order.

“We are finalising in the next few weeks the new corporate plan for Derbyshire Dales District Council which will contain a new housing policy, environment policy, and for the district council to be carbon neutral by 2030.

“So we have moved on from the old Conservative administration.”

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Cllr Sue Hobson, leader of the council’s Conservative Group, said: “My commitment to transparency is well documented and I still believe that this report should be scrutinised and debated by full council, rather than just nine members of this committee.”

Ms Dines, Dales MP, said: “Whilst I welcome the external East Midlands Council report on the gross professional shortcomings of Derbyshire Dales District Council and its senior officers with regard to the Hasker Farm traveller site scandal, its conclusions do not adequately address the failures in due diligence on the part of the council officers involved.

“The report itself shows that senior DDDC officers had knowingly entered into commercial negotiations with a convicted drug dealer subject to a live Proceeds of Crime order in a process noted for an appalling lack of transparency and accountability, no written records and missing paperwork.

“I was misled by the chief executive and senior officers. The lack of transparency became clear to me as I struggled for months to get answers and even basic paperwork from DDDC officers and the council leadership, leaving me no option except that of submitting Freedom of Information requests in order to better understand the situation on behalf of the residents I serve.

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“This is an extraordinary position for a Member of Parliament to find herself in. I was strung along for months with blanket denials, half-truths, and refusals to provide information. In short, an attempted cover-up of unprofessionalism and ineptitude.

“I remain incredibly disappointed in the amount of time and taxpayers’ money that has been wasted by the council on what was a wholly unsuitable site.

“There has been a serious breakdown in trust between the council and elected representatives of the people in Derbyshire Dales it is meant to serve.

“While I am eager to learn what steps are being taken by the council to ensure their employees are acting with integrity and to the standard taxpayers expect, I expect resignations over this scandal, not further cover-ups. The chief executive and the other senior executives should resign.”