‘We are open and transparent – and we are not a closed shop!’

Louth town councillors have decided to defer all further votes on Hubbard’s Hills funding until after it has received the results of an independent review from its legal advisors in the coming weeks.

Hubbard’s Hills in Louth. (Photo: Hubbard’s Hills Trust).

The decision came after yet another heated council debate about funding for the local beauty spot which has been at the centre of a long-running row between the Hubbard’s Hills Trust and some councillors, who have criticised what they believe to be a lack of transparency.

As reported previously, the council’s governance and finance committee recommended in December that £35,000 of funding should be provided to the Trust, rather than £45,000 as requested.

However, the chairman of the Hubbard’s Hills Trust, Andrew Leonard – who is also a town and district councillor – said that the trust has had to spend significantly more than £45,000 per year in recent years, and had to use money from the reserves to make up the difference – but claimed that the terms of the contract between the trust and the town council mean that the trust could insist on the full maintenance costs being provided by the council.

At the time, Mr Leonard also said that legal action may be taken against some councillors who he claimed had provided ‘fabricated information’ at the meeting.

At a meeting in January, the town council resolved to allocate £35,000 in the budget for payment to the trust in 2021/22, but also agreed that extra funds could be taken from earmarked reserves if required. They also arranged for an independent review to take place regarding the current agreement between the town council and the trust, in order to clarify content, meaning, rights, and obligations.

At the council’s subsequent meeting this month, Coun Leonard was invited to address councillors and answer any questions regarding the trust’s request for £45,000 for the financial year ahead.

This meeting was preceded by an overview letter provided to the council from the trust, which is publicly available and can be found online on the Louth Town Council website.

At the meeting on March 2, Mr Leonard told councillors that there had been increased spending on litter collection this year, as Hubbard’s Hills “has never been used as it has been over the past year”, adding that the beauty spot costs each resident in Louth approximately £2.65 per year.

Coun Sue Locking said: “What I find saddening is that so many councillors seem to be so against Hubbard’s Hills being funded by the council.

“Had the Hubbard’s Hills Trust not been formed, the whole of this expenditure, it would all have to be provided 100 per cent by this council.”

Coun Hannah Filer said that Hubbard’s Hills is an ‘amazing asset’, but added that town councillors have a duty to ‘protect’ the town from ‘what could potentially be a bottomless pit’.

Coun Filer added that she does not object to the £45,000 being given to the trust ‘if required’, but made clear she would like to see the results of the independent audit before making that decision.

Coun Jason Garrett said: “It’s our job to scrutinise what the council does, including who we give funding to. This is a large sum of money, and it would be reckless of us to just give it away without asking questions and being 100 per cent sure about what the money is being spent on.”

He claimed the so-called ‘shopping list’ of costed projects had not yet been provided by the trust as previously requested, and added: “I’ve got no problem, if the trust needs more money, if it’s justified, then we can pay that. But it has to be justified!”

Coun Alex Cox said it was an ‘absolute disgrace’ for the trust to request £10,000 more than the £35,000 on offer, and said that threats of legal action were “bringing the council into disrepute” – which led to a fierce defence from Coun Jill Makinson-Sanders, while Coun David Wing added he “can’t stand any more of this” and left the meeting.

In response to the points raised, Mr Leonard told Coun Filer there is not a ‘bottomless pit’ and that all funds are used sensibly and appropriately, adding that they are checked by independent accountants.

Mr Leonard added that the trust’s approach is to be ‘prudent’ and ‘pragmatic’ with funds, and said their governing document clearly states that they should keep ‘sufficient’ cash in reserves. He said this is better than having to return to the town council ‘cap in hand’ to ask for more funding, mid-budget, from the council’s general reserves if an expensive repair issue arises during the year.

In his closing remarks, Mr Leonard said: “This agreement with the town council has stood for 12 years and, until recently, anybody who wanted to know anything asked me and got the information, or they did it through the town council.

“We fully expect to be open and transparent to everybody, and we consider we have been more than. You are always informed. We’re not some sort of closed shop.”

He added that the trust’s role is intended to relieve pressure from the council and the town clerk, and avoid the need for extra council staff to deal with the clerical work.

At the end of the debate, councillors approved Coun David Hall’s proposal to defer all further votes on Hubbard’s Hills funding until the town council has received the results of the independent review from its legal advisors, which the town clerk said is expected to be received before the April 30 deadline.