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Closed door debate on grants which saw Newmarket-focused schemes miss out on grant cash to stay secret, says West Suffolk Council

A council has refused to reveal the details of private meetings at which community groups were allocated hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money.

In February, West Suffolk Council named which community initiatives would benefit from its £467,000 Community Chest pot, but schemes focused on just Newmarket missed out on the grants.

Which initiatives won tax-payers’ cash was recommended by a group of councillors, which was chaired by Cllr Jim Thorndyke, in a series of meetings behind closed doors.

West Suffolk House, in Bury St Edmunds, where West Suffolk Council is based.
West Suffolk House, in Bury St Edmunds, where West Suffolk Council is based.

Using Freedom of Information powers, which were introduced to make public authorities more accountable for their actions, the Journal asked for the minutes of the meetings, but West Suffolk has said it cannot hand them over.

The council said the final decisions on awards were made by the cabinet and the cabinet papers were all in the public domain

Leah Mickleborough, the monitoring officer at the district, told the Journal that following consultation with the group ‘it is reasonable to consider that releasing notes of past meetings would be likely to inhibit future considerations of the group’.

“The group have robust discussions, sharing a free and frank exchange of views,” she said.

“It is important they feel confident and able to do so in future meetings of the group, in order to fairly assess all applications.”

The council said that grant applicants were clearly informed, when applying that any potentially commercially sensitive information would not be placed in the public domain.

“This could include information that could prejudice a future grant application they make.”

Newmarket-focused schemes which asked for money from the pot included The Racing Centre, All Saints’ Church and the SOS Bus.

The council report said the reasons organisations missed out on tax-payers’ cash included not meeting requirements for the fund, the quality of applications, the lack of justification for the scheme, that similar projects existed, they wouldn’t benefit enough people, or that they could be funded by alternative funding sources.

The report said the grant working party had spent hours considering each application, and added: “The officers will provide individual feedback to those applications that have been unsuccessful and to those where funding has been reduced.”

Cheques for schemes focused on Bury St Edmunds, Risby, Haverhill and Brandon, along with other district-wide initiatives did get sent out.

Successful projects included Friends of Priory School, in Bury St Edmunds, which won more than £5,000 for a gardening project; St Peter’s Church, in Brandon, which was handed almost £10,000 for a weekly repair and share project which will promote fixing things, and EPIC Dad, which was handed £14,500 to support fathers, father figures and families.

In 2017/18 the project, which was then based at the Abundant Life Church in Lakenheath, was given £24,491. And in 2018/19 and 2019/20 it was given £15,000 each financial year after a decision of the then Forest Heath District Council.

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