Wigan councillor's 'outrageous allegations' branded false and defamatory

A Wigan councillor's 'outrageous allegations' claiming a corrupt relationship between the town hall and a hotel firm have been branded 'false' and 'defamatory' by an independent investigator.

Tuesday, 20th November 2018, 1:15 pm
Updated Tuesday, 20th November 2018, 5:17 pm
Councillor Bob Brierley

Coun Bob Brierley faces sanctions for the comments made about Contessa Hotels, the operator of Haigh Hall.

The independent representative will be stripped of his place on a town hall scrutiny committee, a standards panel ruled this week in his absence.

Craig Baker – director of Contessa – said the claims, made on social media and in person, had placed “a big black mark” over his firm’s takeover of the cultural landmark.

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And he said the councillor was like “a gangster with two henchmen” before a peaceful protest organised in the grounds of the hall earlier this year.

The hearing went ahead in Coun Brierley’s absence, despite him requesting in advance for it be postponed because his IT equipment has been seized as part of a separate police investigation.

But the panel, made up of three Labour councillors and an independent person, opted to go ahead as they said he had been given “ample opportunity” to provide evidence but failed to do so.

Independent investigator Linda Comstive told the panel Mr Baker had complained earlier this year about a post on Facebook from Coun Brierley that claimed cabinet members and the chief executive of Wigan council had been offered “weekend executive passes” for use of Haigh Hall.

Contessa and the council had entered into a deal in 2014 for the hotel firm to take on the lease for the Grade II listed building with plans to refurbish it into a boutique hotel.

Ms Comstive said Coun Brierley – who has been a long-standing critic of the deal for the hall – stated he had been offered one of the passes but had refused.

Mr Baker told the panel the claim was “totally untrue” and he had instructed lawyers to write to Coun Brierley, who represents Hindley Green ward as an independent.

Later in the year, at a peaceful “protest picnic” organised by residents concerned about the changes at the hall, Coun Brierley accused Mr Baker of accepting money from the council via an off-shore bank account, Ms Comstive said.

Mr Baker said he and his wife had decided to attend the event to speak with participants and address their concerns about the new use for the Hall.

“An hour-and-a-half before that peaceful protest, Coun Brierley with two others, and I’m not exaggerating here, it looked like a gangster with two henchmen, they were intimidating and walked around the building, walked around my motor cars, looking inside them,” Mr Baker told the panel.

“My staff were shocked and appalled,” he added.

Later that day, as Mr Baker and his wife spoke to those present at the protest, Coun Brierley made the accusation in relation to a “bribery” payment, the panel heard, which Mr Baker told members was ‘absolutely not true’.

“He (Coun Brierley) wasn’t being physically aggressive but he was being verbally very forthright, it could be classed as intimidating,” Mr Baker said.

Guests at the hotel were subjected to verbal abuse from some of those present at the protest, he added.

Ms Comstive said the councillor’s behaviour amounted to “serious breaches” of the members’ code of conduct in relation to bullying or abusive behaviour, bringing the council into disrepute and mis-use of his position as an elected member.

And Mr Baker told the panel for periods of the last year he felt he had “had enough” with the project and he estimated these incidents – along with several other issues – may have cost his business a six-figure sum because of reputational damage.

He said: “It’s put a big black mark on it. I don’t have the same pride to all this, I intended...my will was for this building to be looked after by my family, my children, and all the rest of it.

“Do I have those feelings anymore? I don’t. That’s an honest opinion. And it’s not just this but this probably stands for 90pc of it.”

He is also taking legal advice in relation to the second complaint, the panel heard.

The panel agreed to adopt Ms Comstive’s proposals for Coun Brierley to be stripped of his role on a town hall committee up until May 2020, for him to return his council IT equipment and for the findings of the report to be made public.

She said based on the evidence given there was “nothing whatsoever” in the claims, which were “completely unfounded”, and Coun Brierley had provided no evidence to substantiate his “outrageous allegations”.

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service prior to the hearing last week, Coun Brierley said evidence he was planning to rely on had been taken by the police.

He was arrested last month in relation to allegations of stalking, criminal damage and breaching data protection laws. He denies any wrongdoing.

A request for the hearing to be postponed was submitted by him to the chairman of the committee and he was not in attendance.

He had initially cited “qualified privilege” as a defence in relation to the complaints, the panel heard.

The panel agreed with Ms Comstive that he had been given ample opportunity to provide his evidence having been made aware of the complaint in April.

Coun Brierley has been subject to several standards committee investigations in recent years and has received sanctions for previous breaches of the code of conduct.

He has previously denied any wrongdoing and has maintained the town hall is conducting a “witch-hunt” against him.