Published: 11:16, 06 April 2008
County Hall chiefs have shrugged off fresh questions about the scale of the council's commercial activities amid continuing claims it is taking business away from private companies.
The growing controversy surrounding KCC’s trading companies was put under the spotlight when opposition Liberal Democrat county councillors highlighted the issue during a debate at a full council meeting (April 3).
But the party's proposal for external auditors to be called in to run the rule over KCC companies to ensure there were no cross-subsidies between companies was rejected.
Ruling Conservative county councillors dismissed the idea, saying auditors had already given the authority’s commercial activities a clean bill of health.
However, there was controversy during the debate when a senior county councillor involved in KCC’s trading operations was forced to issue a public apology to councillors after failing to declare a personal interest in the council’s commercial activities.
Conservative councillor Mike Snelling, also the leader of Gravesham Council, is a non-executive director of Kent Top Temps, one of KCC’s trading companies.
During the debate, he spoke out in support of the council’s commercial activities, saying KCC was not taking business away from Kent. He later accepted he should have made his involvement clear.
Meanwhile, Kent County Council has refused to shed more light on its business case for one of its latest commercial ventures, Inside Out, a trading company which has been set up to offer services such as painting, decorating and plumbing.
The council has refused to say how much public money it intends to spend on the business or what its profit projections are, citing commercially confidentiality.
The Kent Messenger Group had sought details under the Freedom of Information Act but the request for financial details were withheld.
Cllr Trudy Dean said she had no evidence KCC was contravening the law but she was concerned the council was not doing enough to satisfy the concerns of private businesses.
KCC’s decision to put money into its internet TV station, Kent TV, had only served to increase suspicions among some businesses. “It was summed up to me by one lady who said: ‘ why am I paying council tax to a council that is trying to put me out of business?’” she said.
Cllr Nick Chard (Con), KCC’s cabinet member for finance, said the Liberal Democrats call for an independent healthcheck was unnecessary because its own auditors had already confirmed KCC was acting lawfully and arrangements were in place for that to continue.
“We are doing exactly what the Audit Commission and the Government has asked us to do in seeking out the best things for our council taxpayers,” he said.