Angry councillors in Warwick believe they have been kept in the dark after it emerged that The Jockey Club approached Warwick District Council officers about a potential partnership agreement - within six weeks of plans for a hotel at the racecourse being rejected.
This was only made public as a result of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.But the council says it did not agree to the idea - so it did not need to be made public.
The FOI stated that at the end of May, 2012, the district’s deputy chief executive Andrew Jones and former development manager Gary Stephens travelled to Oxford to meet with Jockey Club officials to discuss how to develop St Mary’s Lands as a major integrated racing and leisure events centre.
At the time it was noted that such a change might involve sale of the land and repeal of an Act of Parliament which states that at least 50 of the nearly 70 acres of the old common - redesignated as parkland - must be available for public use and offer leases for no longer than 21 years.
Directors in the Jockey Club Racecourses’ division were upset that despite spending £250,000 on fees and costs, its hotel application had been rejected by just one vote.
District council officers had recommended the hotel be agreed - but elected councillors decided to reject the application amid mounting public criticism.
The Jockey Club Racecourses body, which controls the site, had made a strong case for the need for a hotel and other improvements - and warned that other loss-making racecourses in the country had been closed due to falling profits.
On Wednesday district councillor Gerry Guest, the leader of Warwick town council, admitted he was stunned by the information gathered by local resident Nigel Hamilton, a leading campaigners against the hotel.
Cllr Guest (Con, Warwick South) said: “What Mr Hamilton has discovered seems to open a very large can of worms. The idea of the council considering selling St Mary’s Lands to the Jockey Club is unbelieveable - the whole town will be up in arms!
“I was one of those asked to sit on the first of the two stakeholder working parties considering the way forward for the racecourse - and I was totally unaware that prior meetings had taken place. The officers are behaving as if St Mary’s Lands belongs to them when it belongs to the district council - and as such it should not be allowed to influence planning procedure.”
After the hotel was rejected, Mr Hamilton made repeated Freedom of Information requests about possible discussions between The Jockey Club and council officers - and at first was told the information was too “commercially sensitive.” He persisted and finally got the answer that meetings and discussions had begun - but according to a statement from the district council this week, were not continued.
Town and county councillor John Holland (Lab, Warwick) said: “It is clear that the discussions between the district council and The Jockey Club have been far more reaching than any of us knew.
“My view is that the ownership of St Mary’s Lands should now be transferred to either Warwick town council or a town trust so that the public open sapce can be managed in the interests of Warwick residents.”
A spokeswoman for the district council said: “A management proposition was put to chief executive Chris Elliott and Andrew Jones by David Hill, former chairman of Warwick Racecourse. Our conclusion was that it was not properly thought through and it was decided not to progress with the suggestion.
“Following this conclusion we decided that all the interests of St Mary’s Lands operators needed to be addressed.”
Asked why the meeting was not made public, she added: “When the district council was approached by David Hill and the idea did not progress further than initial consideration, it was considered unnecessary to make it public.”