Schools officials spent pounds 250,000 of council cash on vintage vehicles: Administration 'bungles' allowed secret purchases by steam buff to go unnoticed for years. Tim Kelsey reports

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FIVE Lancashire council officials secretly spent pounds 250,000 of education-budget cash on eight vintage commercial vehicles, including an 80-year-old traction engine and a steamroller.

All five, former senior officials in the education department of Wigan metropolitan council, have now left the authority; one who was disciplined took early retirement. The council decided that the men were not trying to defraud it, so the police were not called in.

The bizarre purchases were made between 1984 and 1987. Many of the vehicles were hidden on remote council properties, sometimes under tarpaulins or in barns. A council spokesman said yesterday that it was still not known precisely why the officials bought the vintage vehicles.

However, the man named in a confidential report by internal auditors, seen by the Independent, as initiating the purchases is a steam buff.

The council's external auditors are investigating how, according to the report, the five exploited minimal financial controls and a bungling administration to remain undetected for years.

The internal auditors discovered that the officials had purchased a steamroller called Moriarty; a 'mint condition' Daimler lorry - the most valuable item in the collection; a rare Ford model T; a vintage Bedford truck that was repainted in Wigan colours; a Morris commercial; a Bedford chassis and a Foden chassis.

But the star of the collection was the Lively Lady, a four-horsepower Wallis & Stevens steam traction engine built in 1914. The five bought it in 1985, but like all the other purchases it was kept secret from elected members of the council.

The cost of the collection was estimated at about pounds 48,000, but the total spending was close to pounds 250,000, including a full restoration of the Lively Lady, wages for a council worker appointed 'curator of steam', storage costs and other extras.

In 1990 the five took the Lively Lady to one of the country's most respected workshops, Dorothea Restorations of Whaley Bridge, near Buxton in Derbyshire, and the final bill was pounds 65,000. Dorothea assumed that Wigan metropolitan council had approved the restoration work.

The council will see little return on its money. Apart from the traction engine, most of the other vehicles are now badly rusted and a Sotheby's expert recently valued the collection at only pounds 50,000. The internal auditors reported: 'The most valuable, the Daimler lorry, is stored under a tarpaulin in an open-sided barn . . . There has been no maintenance of the collection for some years. The engines cannot be turned over by hand, some are only fit for scrap.'

Indeed, a local scrap merchant has put in a bid to buy the Bedford van, but he intends to restore it rather than destroy it. The vehicles are now all held at a secret council address, with the exception of Lively Lady, which is still at Whaley Bridge while Wigan decides what to do with her.

The auditors' report said the officials deliberately hid the costs of amassing the collection in the 'small print of budget headings and away from the eyes of councillors'; repeatedly broke financial standing orders; and even trained five council staff as HGV drivers at the public's expense, so that they could move the steam engines around. Only one was used to do so.

Another man was permanently employed on what the internal auditors described as 'steam duties'. The man, a former music instructor, was made curator of steam in 1987. His work was completely unsupervised.

The council spokesman said: 'It's all been extremely depressing.'

(Photograph omitted)