COUNCIL officials and not councillors made crucial decisions over a huge water feature in St George’s Square.
And the news sparked condemnation from leading Kirklees councillors, who heard the decision-making process behind the costly black granite feature was “smoke and mirrors”.
The water feature project had been called in for scrutiny following complaints that the final creation bore little relation to the designs agreed three years previously.
Yesterday, a regeneration overview and scrutiny committee heard that the handling of the feature had been entirely passed over to unelected officers.
The project officer in charge has now left, and in a grilling from councillors current assistant director of finance, risk and performance Martin Dearnley was unable to explain in detail what had happened.
There has also been a new call for an inquiry into the finances of the feature – currently turned off and out of operation.
Clr Nigel Patrick, lead member for regeneration, said: “Every year there are more and more decisions that move from the councillors’ domain to the officers’ domain.
“There are so many decisions officers are making that are not recorded properly. When you ask who made that decision and what was the rationale you can’t get an answer.”
He agreed with Clr Robert Iredale that the end result appeared to have “morphed” out of two early designs on the recommendation of the architects Whitelaw and Turkington.
Clr Iredale said: “While I have no complaints with what emerged, I’m concerned with how the decision was made and that there was no audit trail. Effectively it was a series of officer decisions rather than member decisions.”
Mr Dearnley responded: “I can’t disagree. There were a number of opportunities for people to object through two sets of planning applications and not a single complaint was received.”
He added that the processes of the council had been correctly followed.
Clr Iredale accused him of “dodging again”, and described a “delegation agreement” which entitled the decision to pass from elected members as “smoke and mirrors”.
He said: “Hopefully there will be more regeneration projects and we have to have sufficient overview.”
Committee member Robin Schofield added: “It seems there was a total lack of a ‘path of control’.
“We have three options we decide on, but it seems the architect changes it. Is it caused by the shuffling of project managers? If this was in the private sector heads would roll.
“There’s no clear direction as to how people record things. If there was, your job would be easier and you wouldn’t need as big a team as you have.”
He then asked the final cost of the water feature, but Mr Dearnley declined to answer on the basis that it was commercially sensitive information which should be discussed in the “closed doors” session when the Examiner was not present.
After the meeting, Clr Tony Woodhead – who had raised initial concerns – called for the scrutiny committee to investigate any overspend on St George’s Square.
He said: “I looked again and again at the plans and it is not at all clear that we were having a water feature. We had an original design of fountains and planters which turned into not having planters and a bigger water feature. There were changes with no clear accountability.
“It didn’t go to planning and while the process may have been correct, clearly if you consult 1,700 people it is a matter of public interest.
“Hopefully the committee will recommend that anything like this is properly looked at in future.
“There was a public consultation, but the public got something different because it was being chopped and changed along the way. What they said they liked wasn’t what they got.”