A WATCHDOG is to investigate the handover of Cotswold Country Park and Beach to property developers Watermark after it emerged senior lawyers at Gloucester County Council raised concerns about handing over a lucrative public asset to a profit making company.

The Local Government Ombudsman has been called in to probe the 2007 deal which sublet the GCC-owned the former Keynes Country Park to leisure operators Watermark without any public consultation.

Following a Freedom of Information request, documents reveal that GCC lawyers raised reservations about the deal.

In an e-mail exchange between GCC lawyer William Canaway and Jane Daniel, part of GCC's commercial services team, Mr Canaway said the underlease appears to give Watermark "carte blanche" to develop.

"I can’t help feeling that if the sub-tenant conspicuously makes enormous fortunes out of this deal while GCC stands by making nothing, it may one day be subject to scrutiny," he wrote.

"We might be wise to have it clearly acknowledged by the client (GCC) that we’ve advised them of the possibility and that is just fine with them."

In another e-mail to Robert Fox, GCC's area land agent, Mr Canaway said: "Watermark will be eager to maximise their profits in a no doubt rather public fashion without any financial benefit to GCC."

He said the lease also allowed the developers to fence property off which could "provoke local opposition".

In November 2007, Mr Fox e-mailed Charles Coats, head of GCC's corporate property services, highlighting that Watermark would benefit significantly from the GCC asset while the authority would receive just a peppercorn rent.

He added that building holiday homes was a "big departure from what was originally intended i.e a facility for the general public".

He called for the concerns to be fully investigated before any decision made but Mr Coats said the issues were not reason for delay. The deal was pushed through the following month.

Other emails from GCC's legal team refer to "political pressure" and "bish boshing" from above to push the sale through without delay.

Cllr Esmond Jenkins, Cotswold District Council's Water Park representative, reported the matter to the LGO because he said there was no evidence the concerns raised had been investigated.

He said: "It was done in secret, not even the Cotswold Water Park Joint Committee was consulted."

The CWPJC is comprised of councillors from neighbouring local authorities, including GCC, CDC, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Borough Council.

"Of particular concern are the actions of individual officers at GCC which were apparently shaped by pressure from senior political figures," he added.

He said if the ombudsman found GCC had not acted in the public interest, the future of the park should be reconsidered.

"The lease was ill-conceived and rushed through in secret," he said. "These revelations have spurred on the local community to do something about it."

Nigel Roberts, director of law and administration at GCC, said the council "strongly rejected" the suggestion that the decision was contrary to the advice of lawyers.

He said: "Lawyers asking questions of their clients is the right way to ensure that matters are concluded in accordance with clear instructions.

"The limited information which has been quoted entirely selectively has been taken completely out of context and used to create a misleading impression.

"The council is satisfied that the ultimate decision to give consent was entirely proper."