Stockport council has been ordered to reveal how much money it has invested in The Produce Hall by the Information Commissioner’s Office.
It must also say what ‘due diligence’ it performed while choosing an operator to run the Grade II-listed venue – which town hall bosses see as the ‘anchor’ of the town centre’s food and drink hub.
It comes after a year-long campaign by the family behind Stockport ‘s Foodie Friday event to force the authority to release the details, following its decision to awarded the operator contract to restaurateur Steve Pilling.
The Barratts – whose bid to run the Produce Hall was turned down – were furious the council overlooked their bid and allowed Mr Pilling to ‘capitalise on the success of Foodie Friday’.
The venue opened amid a flurry of controversy in April, with complaints there were a lack of independent traders – all bar one of the businesses were run by Mr Pilling – and a row over the use of trademarked names.
However town hall chiefs refused to disclose further financial information, citing a confidentiality clause in the contract and commercial sensitivities.
Coun Kate Butler, former economy and regeneration for Stockport, said publishing details would mean the council would ‘never ever be able to cut any decent, commercial deals in Stockport ever again’.
But the ICO has now told the council it must divulge how much it has invested in the Produce Hall, how much money will be lost or generated – and over what time period it will be repaid.
It also has to reveal details of the due diligence it undertook while carrying out the ‘informal’ tender process – which is not governed by any written regulations or guidelines.
Failure to do so by October 15 could result in the authority being found in contempt of court.
However, the ICO has said the council was within its rights to refuse to publish specific contractual details or documentation submitted to council officers before a decision was arrived at.
Responding to a Freedom of Information request from the Barratts earlier this year, the council said its contract with The Produce Hall Company Ltd included a ‘duty of confidence’.
Mr Pilling, as director, had ‘expressly refused disclosure of any information regarding his involvement to operate the Produce Hall to be disclosed via the Freedom of Information Act’.
It added that any breach of this could lead Mr Pilling to taking court action against the council which ‘would be likely to succeed’.
The Foodie Friday team were also told they had scored higher for ‘financials’ than Mr Pilling in the council’s test, while he rated better for ‘quality of offer’, following a 16-month delay for which the council apologised.
The family has again hit out at the council following the ICO’s ruling.
Joe Barratt said: “We welcome the decision by the ICO to reveal the deal with Steve Pilling for The Produce Hall, despite Stockport council’s best attempts to keep this information from being released.
“Whilst this is clearly a victory for transparency and accountability, the council’s use of a ‘gagging clause’ in a contract to keep information regarding public spend from the public is deeply troubling.”
His father, John Barratt added: “When you have to fight for over a year to get access to your own scores, which then show you scored higher than the winning bidder on financials, you just know something isn’t right.”
Coun David Meller, cabinet member for economy and regeneration, said the council would release the information required but defended the authority’s handling of the situation.
“We will of course comply with the ICO’s decision. However, they have upheld our position that details of the deal remain confidential and there was also no mention that the procurement process was flawed in any way, ” said Coun Meller.
“The Produce Hall has proved to be extremely popular and there’s no doubt it’s been a big hit with the many visitors it attracts to the town centre.
“It has also been the catalyst for other businesses moving to Stockport, which all contributes to a vibrant and increasingly popular town centre, creating jobs and giving a boost to the local economy.
He added: “Stockport has also recently been awarded Purple Flag status which is testament to the hard work the council and partners have put in to making sure we have a welcoming, safe and well managed town centre.”
Several attempts have been made to contact Mr Pilling for a comment.
Get breaking news first on the free Manchester Evening News app – download it here for your Apple or Android device. You can also get a round-up of the biggest stories sent direct to your inbox every day with the MEN email newsletter – subscribe here . And you can follow us on Facebook here .