Bolton council will hold an extraordinary meeting next month where the controversial £300,000 grant to personal injury firm Asons Solicitors is expected to come under further scrutiny.
The 11 January corporate and external security meeting will be the latest stage in a row in which the council's leader, Labour councillor Cliff Morris, has defied calls for his resignation over what opposition councillors have dubbed a ‘secret grant’.
The grant was signed off under the council's emergency powers procedure. It was supposed to be for Asons to refurbish its town centre offices. However, the firm’s accounts show it also in a dispute with the taxman to the tune of £300,000 and reported a loss of more than £1m in the year to May 2015.
There is no proof that the grant and the tax bill are linked.
Separately, the council has now revealed some of the reasons behind awarding to grant.
Local newspaper Bolton News quotes councillor Ebrahim Adia, executive cabinet member for development and regeneration, and Cllr Morris denying that the £300,000 had anything to do with the £300,000 tax bill. Morris stated on the record that no one within the council with any links to Asons had been involved in brokering the deal.
Cllr Adia said councils often provided grants to local businesses as a way of growing income from business rates at a time of public spending cuts. ‘The Asons decision, like a lot of decisions that the leader or other executive members have taken over the last year or longer is within that context,’ he said.
‘It is also worth pointing out that while that £300,000 could have been spent on other things, like a one-off highways scheme, while would have been good for the people of Bolton, once that money is gone it is gone.’
Asons, according to cllr Adia, had been offered competitive rates by two other local authorities and the council wanted to ensure it stayed in the town centre.
He said the grant was pushed through under emergency powers because council officers needed permission to start the state aid approval process which can take several months.
Morris has also called for an independent audit, which he said would provide full transparency.
The statements have done little to assuage the anger of competing law firms.
Stephen Crompton, partner in the Bolton office of north-west law firm Russell Russell, told the Gazette he had been surprised at the number of people he knows who have brought up the subject and indicated that the grant should not have been made, that questions still need to be answered and in most cases that cllr Morris should resign.
He added: 'Whether the answers provided by the council today will satisfy all remains to be seen. The outcome of the auditors report is now awaited with interest.'