TWO of Bolton’s top solicitor firms have slammed a decision by council chiefs to give Asons a grant of £300,000 and called on the firm to hand the cash back.
Company partners are also now demanding a full investigation into the decision taken by council chiefs to award the grant.
News of the secret deal, which was agreed in private using what is known as the Emergency Powers procedure, has caused outrage since it was revealed by The Bolton News on Saturday.
Council accused of running ‘dictatorship’ after secretly approving £300,000 grant to town centre law firm
The cash has been granted to Asons to help with ‘development costs’ associated with their move to the Newspaper House building in Churchgate.
Amongst those angered by the news are bosses at other town centre law firms.
Craig Morris is a partner at Fieldings Porter, based in Silverwell Street.
He described the decision to award Asons the money as ‘deeply concerning’ and said ‘none of it makes any sense’.
Mr Morris said: “The starting point in all of this is that most lawyers live a comfortable life in comparison to many other people who are struggling through the back end of years of public austerity.
“We shouldn’t be at the front of the queue for public handouts, there are far more deserving causes and the focus for successful law firms should be what we can put back into the local community.”
Fieldings Porter has operated in Bolton for 145 years and Mr Morris said his firm ‘wouldn’t dream of asking the council to subsidise our firm’.
He added: “Five years ago we expanded into Manchester which involved us acquiring new leasehold premises. We performed due diligence and made sure that they were fit for purpose.
“If they hadn’t been we wouldn’t have gone to Manchester City Council to seek a grant, it was our responsibility as business owners to get that right.
“£300,000 is a huge sum of money that could be used for a whole host of important things. It’s temporary accommodation with a social landlord for 50 families. It could fund all school crossing patrols for a year or be used a contribution to social care. There are endless possibilities that are much better uses of public money than this.
“That kind of money could have made a substantial difference to a dozen local businesses or funded 30 apprenticeships.
“For me this is not a political issue, it is one of the proper management of public funds. I cannot believe that the wider labour group has approved this payment and I would call on them and the council as a whole to conduct a formal transparent investigation into this payment.”
He also appealed personally to Asons boss Dr Imran Akram, adding: “We both run successful law firms.
“Please reflect on the fact that this is public money and in accepting the same there are so many other things that the money cannot now be used for. Your business shouldn’t need this cash. Pay it back. It’s the best thing you will do all year.”
Council leader aims to reassure public and calls for full independent audit of decision to award Asons £300,000
EXPLAINER: What are Emergency Powers and why did Bolton Council use them to award Asons £300,000?
Asons grant: Why Bolton Council gave law firm £300,000 and what it expects in return
Stephen Crompton, joint managing partner at Russell and Russell is also very concerned about the grant.
He said: “This is extremely worrying. Law firms up and down the country have been subjected to the same challenging market conditions as Asons, so why has it been given preferential funding?
“The legal changes relating to personal injury claims is the same for all firms dealing in that area of law, ourselves included, yet we haven’t – and nor do we expect to – receive handouts from the council.
“Any firm worth its salt will adapt to changing conditions and plan accordingly, not expect the public to fund the refurbishment of their office accommodation.
“We have recently invested our own money in a new development on Newport Street in the town centre.
“The fit out of the office space there has cost a significant amount of money, but Russell and Russell is committed to Bolton and we want to remain a local employer and create jobs for local people, not fleece the public purse.
“I’d be very interested to understand on what basis the grant was given.
“When the Bolton News vacated the building, the office space was brought up to standard for selling on or leasing, so why it has taken a further £300,000 to make the place fit for purpose?
He added: “More importantly, is installing a games room and a roof terrace an ethical, and moral, use of public money when there are much needed care homes and children’s centres being threatened with closure because of the lack of funding?”