SOMERSET County Council has been accused of wasting pounds 800,000 buying land for the construction of the largest refuse dump in the South-west.
Despite environmental protests from villagers around Dimmer, near Castle Cary, where the dump is located, the council said yesterday that it was proceeding with the completion of the landfill site. There was no public inquiry into the proposal and locals protest that they were never consulted.
The council, Tory-run since May last year, is considering the future of its waste disposal operations. It privatised the department dealing with refuse two years after buying the land, but has remained the sole shareholder.
It is now thought to be planning the sale of the privatised company. One of its most valuable assets will be the land at the Castle Cary site. The dump overlooks the town cemetery.
In 1989, the council - then a Liberal administration - bought Well farm, at Alford, near Castle Cary. The county valuer had concluded that the property, which comprised 100 acres of farmland, a farmhouse, and miscellaneous buildings, was worth pounds 1.2m. However, an independent valuation by a Birmingham firm of surveyors, commissioned by locals concerned that the council had paid well over the odds, reported last week that the estate was worth only pounds 409,000 in 1989.
A council spokesman said yesterday that the purchase was made on the basis that only 40 acres of the property were to be given over to the dump, and that the rest was to be used for other commercial purposes, or sold. He said that these other plans had not, in fact, materialised and that the farmhouse, which was the most valuable component of the estate, was sold for only pounds 94,500.
He said: 'This shows the extent of the slump in property prices and we were caught just as badly as everybody else.'
But Hamilton Ramsay, spokesman for the Dimmer Protest Group, has accused the council of cloaking the project in secrecy, and of trying to cover up mismanagement. 'For more than five years, our every effort to challenge the choice of Dimmer has been met with silence and evasion on a scale that suggests a deliberate policy on the part of senior officers.'
Mr Ramsay is calling for an investigation into the circumstances of the purchase. He insists that the council chose not to buy the farm by compulsory purchase because this would have required a public inquiry. But the council spokesman said that this had not been an option, because it was not just land for the waste site that was purchased. But he did not explain why the authority chose against restricting its acquisition to areas of land intended for the dump.
'Those responsible for the purchase of Well farm must be identified and, failing an adequate explanation, be required to refund the public money they have wasted,' Mr Ramsay, a retired diplomat, said. 'At the very least, it has cost the ratepayers an extra pounds 700,000 at a time when schools and hospitals are being closed and social services cut for lack of funds.'
There have been widespread calls for a public inquiry from local residents, environmental groups and a number of parish and town councils. There has been a small waste dump on the site since the 1970s, but in 1989 the council decided to increase the dump's size to cover 52 hectares of land. Access to the site is via a minor road through neighbouring villages.
At least one county councillor said that she had not been informed of the decision to extend the dump, or of the cost of buying the land. The council explained that she did not sit on the relevant environmental committee which it says was confidentially informed of plans to buy Well farm five years ago. Once the purchase had been made, a spokesman said, 'there was no need to report it back to councillors'.
In an article yesterday about the purchase of land for a refuse dump we stated that Somerset County Council has been Tory-run since last May. It has been a Liberal Democrat council since then. In 1989 when Well farm was bought, the council was Conservative. We apologise for the error.
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