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Questions remain about Wrexham Council owned farms

A BID to get answers about publicly owned farmland saw an opposition Wrexham councillor clash with the leader of the authority.

Grosvenor Cllr Marc Jones (Plaid) locked horns with council leader Esclusham Cllr Pritchard (Ind), also the lead member for finance and assets, in a bid to open up the farms issue at a meeting of the customers, performance, resources and governance scrutiny committee.

Last year Cllr Jones asked if the committee could look at council owned farms, their future and how they were currently being used.

He feels unused council farmland could be put to use either in producing food or renewable energy, or as starter farms for people looking to get into the industry.

Members were told in December that three of the nine council-owned farms were vacant and up for sale, with funds due to be ploughed into new school builds and refurbishments, but were keen to scrutinise the issue further.

The topic came back to committee this month but as councillors only received the report the day before the meeting and felt it lacked detail, it only added to their feeling of frustration in attempting to get answers.

Cllr Jones said: “I am very disturbed that we have only had sight of this report 25 hours before this meeting as for some of us who were engaged in full council yesterday, and other meetings, we didn’t open that email until 10pm last night.

“I think it shows not only contempt for the committee, it shows contempt for this council’s rules because you are meant to submit reports three days in advance.

“When we finally did receive the report I have to say it’s disappointing. It’s not an information report. It doesn’t even name the nine farms this council owns.

“It’s a few pages of information which doesn’t help this committee, the general population and the farmers to make an informed decision.

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“It states the delay in selling the farms now means they’re worth more, as if this is a good thing. This is not a way to conduct a policy is it?

Cllr Jones felt a proposed ‘Part 2’ private session to exclude press and public because of commercially sensitive information to be discussed was unnecessary given the lack of confidential information contained within the report.

“Why are we not debating this in the public domain?”, he added.

Wrexham Council leader Mark Pritchard. Source: Wrexham Council

Cllr Mark Pritchard took exception to Cllr Jones’s criticism suggesting it was an attack on council officers.

He said: “If he’s attacking the administration he isn’t attacking me at all, he’s attacking the officers that work for this council.

“Stop attacking the administration because what the administration does through due process is take policies to the executive board then to full council, then the officers follow the recommendations from that report.

“We as politicians make the decisions then officers follow through on them and if something needs to be said here then it needs to be said, and I’m more than happy to sit here all afternoon and answer questions.

“I think we need to flush this out today, what it is that Cllr Jones and other members have an issue with? Because the executive board made a decision to sell this agricultural land and the money from that would go into education, 21st century schools.

“Has he (Cllr Jones) got an issue with any of the officers regarding the sale of this land?”

Cllr Pritchard added: “These farms probably would have been sold if we hadn’t had Covid. But we are where we are today, and we pick up the pieces from Covid and we go through the process of asset sales.”

Cllr Jones responded: “I’m trying to find out some facts. I’ve asked a number of questions whether it’s the councillor or an officer who can respond to them.

“My issue is we have a third of the land we own laying vacant, not earning any money for the past five years.

“We’ve got a responsibility to our people to know why that land has laid fallow and whether we’re getting best value for money from these farms.”

After further debate about what further facts the committee wanted to help with their scrutiny, Chirk North Cllr Frank Hemmings (Lab) suggested setting up a Task and Finish Group to report back to the next meeting.

This was agreed by members.