Council committee hears of 'shocking' wi-fi failings

This Is Wiltshire: Rickki Hunt and then Council Leader Rod Bluh launch the doomed wi-fi project in 2009 Rickki Hunt and then Council Leader Rod Bluh launch the doomed wi-fi project in 2009

SENIOR members of the council in 2009 fell victim to the skills of an accomplished salesman leading to a ‘shocking’ loss of public money, councillors heard tonight.

The scrutiny committee examined the contents of report examining the failures of an initiative to introduce wifi across the whole of Swindon, which led to a £400,000 loan being given out to Digital City UK in, the company behind the scheme, which has yet to be paid back.

A report, put together by a committee task-group, said some of the responsibility for the fiasco was down to former Council Leader Rod Bluh (Con, Old Town) for keeping important information away from councillors so it could be scrutinized, though he did nothing illegal.

However, much of the blame was laid at the door of businessman Rikki Hunt, who was the managing director of Digital City UK at the time. It was his ability to sell a flawed idea that led to the money being lost, the committee heard.

Councillor Des Moffatt (Lab, Rodbourne Cheney) who headed the task group responsible for writing the report, said: “Mr Hunt’s abilities as a salesman appear to be without equal.

“The very first lesson the trainee salesman gets is ‘sell yourself to sell the product’. Mr Hunt persuaded the leadership of this Council he had a scheme that would solve all the image and financial problems perceived at that time in 2009.

He later said: “I am satisfied that no Councillor or Council Officer made personal gain in this venture, indeed the losses to their reputation have been enormous.

“My friends and political opponents alike will be surprised to learn that I regard the Council and leading Councillors involved in this as victims.”

It also emerged that the many of the documents have been handed over to the police for consideration but as they have not had a formal complaint no further action can be taken.

As a result, the committee decided to pass a decision onto the cabinet to decide whether a formal complaint needs to be made.

Throughout the meeting, which was well attended more than a dozen members of the public, numerous other problems around the scheme were heard.

For example, a business plan put together by Digital City, used to justify the wi-fi scheme, which claimed the company would make £700,000 profit in just its second year, was described as ‘childish beyond belief’ and ‘nonsense’ by Coun Moffatt.

It was also heard that the decision to give out £250,000 of the loan should have been given much greater scrutiny but that officers felt there was a political imperative to support the entrepreneur so not enough questions of claims that two potential investors in the company were waiting in the wings, of which it emerged there is no evidence.

Mr Hunt, who was not present at the meeting, denies any wrongdoing in the scandal and issued a strongly-worded statement ahead of the meeting.

He said: "Much of this report is hearsay and conjecture with a limited factual basis and I have made my views known to the task group."

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