Air force spent pounds 387,000 on house it was advised to sell

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The Independent Online
REFURBISHMENT WORK on a former air chief marshall's home which cost pounds 387,000 should never even have been started, according to an inquiry report into the debacle which cost Sir Sandy Wilson his job.

The report, which was repressed by the Ministry of Defence but published this weekend on the orders of the Parliamentary Ombudsman, spells out a catalogue of irregularities over the Haymes Garth residence near Cheltenham.

The renovation made headlines after it was revealed that pounds 33,000 had been spent on curtains and on overhauling the windows at the property. Now it has emerged that the air force had been recommended to sell the house before the work even began. It was finally sold last year for around pounds 450,000, only pounds 60,000 more than the cost of the improvements.

A study on the house had found that it would be more cost effective to sell it and lease a nearby property for Sir Sandy, then commander of Personnel and Training Command at RAF Innsworth. It found it would cost pounds 182,000 to do up the property - less than half the final cost - and that was too much, it said. Sir Sandy took early retirement in the wake of the scandal.

The inquiry report, by the accountants KPMG Peat Marwick, has only now been published after a complaint on freedom of information grounds by a member of the public was upheld.

It said there was a limit of pounds 31,000 for new work on service residences, and the Treasury should have been consulted before the alterations went ahead. It also added that Parliament had been misled twice about the cost of the work.

No record was kept of when the decision to refurbish the house was taken or by whom, nor of who authorised the decision to upgrade it. Originally, the improvements were to have cost pounds 230,000, though one minute recorded the estimated cost as pounds 164,000. Once work was under way, according to KPMG, "questions about total costs appear not to have been asked".

In February and March 1994 parliamentary questions answered by Jeremy Hanley, the then defence minister, put the cost of the work at pounds 250,000 and then pounds 260,000. In fact by then it had risen to pounds 347,000.

Nigel Jones, Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham, was one of those who questioned ministers about the affair.

"Effectively these residences are for visiting dignitaries, perhaps from other military organisations elsewhere in the world. We should concentrate on making sure our armed forces are properly equipped and trained, and should do away with some of the entertainment," he said.