Sunderland Council sets up dedicated web page after torrent of questions over controversial land deal

MARINE WALK ... Sunderland Council has been forced to answer questions over its sale.
MARINE WALK ... Sunderland Council has been forced to answer questions over its sale.
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COUNCIL bosses have been forced to take to cyberspace over the sale of land.

Sunderland City Council has been bombarded with dozens of Freedom of Information requests over the past year, related to the sale of land at Marine Walk in Roker.

Conspiracy theories and rumours of alleged corruption regarding the sale of the land which houses the Pier Point development began to flare in mid-2013.

People have also asked that the valuation report be publicly available to show that the original sale price of £25,000 was not below market value.

Council chiefs refused to answer the FOI request saying that due to the volume of similar requests, they were being treated as a “campaign” and classed as “vexatious”, which allows a public authority to refuse a request under Section 14(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

In September, the council received 26 identical requests over a five-day period alone.

The council has now publish a list FAQs – or frequently asked questions – to address some of the concerns on its website.

These include:

•“I heard the council didn’t get enough for the site when the developers bought it.”

•“I heard this was because the council leader is a friend of a developer’s family.”

•“I heard that the council is refusing to give out information it has to provide by law.”

•“I heard that the council has to get two independent valuations if it wants to sell land.”

•“I heard the council let the developers build Pier Point without disabled access.”

The website says: “The council has been asked various questions about this development because a small number of people are in opposition to the development called Pier Point.

“Discussion on social media has been full of inaccuracies. The correct facts are being made available here to help people understand what has happened and why.” Sunderland’s Tory group leader Lee Martin has seen the valuation report, and has formally asked the council to publish it in the public domain to avoid damaging the council’s reputation.

He said: “The council has a predisposition to keep things from public scrutiny. It is something that is not healthy and only damages the council itself.

“I have seen the valuation report and the public should be able to see it too.

“If someone were to ask me if I would have sold the land for £25,000 in return for the jobs and development we have seen at Marine Walk then the answer would be yes, but I do think the public have a right to see the valuation report.”

The Information Commissioner has heard two complaints about how the requests were handled and in each case has agreed that the council was legally entitled to refuse to reply to them.

Coun Mel Speding, Cabinet Secretary, Sunderland City Council, said: “The very popular and ongoing seafront regeneration continues to win praise and plaudits, including national awards.

“Yet the whole scheme has been subjected to a lot of lengthy (and expensive to answer) correspondence, which has been answered to the satisfaction of the Information Commissioner.

“The law is clear that in these types of cases, a line should be drawn under the issue and hard-pressed taxpayers money saved by moving on.”

Visit http://www.sunderland.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=9894 to read the council’s FAQs on Marine Walk.