The bitter row between an East Lancashire MP and one of his local authorities over a failed project to bring empty homes back into use has escalated with claims of 'hiding the truth' and 'intimidation'.

Earlier this month, Rossendale and Darwen Tory backbencher Sir Jake Berry infuriated the currently Labour-controlled Rossendale Council by claiming in Parliament it was imposing a 'gagging order' to prevent disclosures about details of the controversial scheme which lost millions of pounds.

He described it in the House of Commons as 'a £12 million fraud'.

The authority responded by rejecting the former Tory chairman's allegations and asking him to 'correct the record'.

It also pointed out an independent audit took place and a five-year police investigation which concluded in 2021 concluded there was no fraud, no charges were brought and no members of any political party could be held responsible.

The dispute surrounds the Empty Homes initiative for Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Hyndburn, Pendle and Rossendale, which was managed by Rossendale but has been mired in controversy since it was set up in 2012.

Lancashire Telegraph: Rob Huntingdon has blasted Jake Berry Rob Huntingdon has blasted Jake Berry

The row broke out at this month's Rossendale Full Council meeting, when its Tory opposition group leader Cllr David Foxcroft repeated accusations made at a previous meeting in February.

They were that Labour's Cllr Andy MacNae - who is standing against Sir Jake at the next general election - had some responsibility for the empty homes scheme which collapsed in 2015 with debts of more than £8 million.

Cllr McNae rejected the claims and borough Mayor Cllr Andrew Walmsley has now referred the exchange to the council’s standards committee for investigation.

But the following day, Sir Jake returned to the issue at Westminster.

He told Leader of the Commons Penny Mordaunt at Business Questions: "Rob Huntingdon, the chief executive of Rossendale Borough Council, is seeking to use it [the gagging order] to prevent the release of a copy of a financial impact report on the empty homes scandal presented to councillors in the council chamber on August 9, 2022, as well as seeking to prevent the release of copies of documents discussed at a closed session of the council on August 18, 2022.

"That is important, because his refusal to release those documents, when added to the fact that legal action has been threatened against councillors who reveal what is in them—a gagging order by any other name—has lost the taxpayers of Rossendale and Darwen £12 million."

Now the council has issued a statement in response. It said: "There is no gagging order, no smoking gun, no conspiracy, just a local council working hard for the people of Rossendale."

It accused Sir Jake of attempting to undermine the council, and said it has requested evidence to support claims of misconduct but none has been provided.

Mr Huntingdon said: "The ongoing actions of the MP are having an impact on the reputation of both the council, its workforce and the wider Valley.

"Intimidation in public life is nothing new, but addressing intimidatory behaviour matters.

"I do not accept intimidation, and these recent attacks in Parliament and the media, including social media, have undermined what should exist – mutual respect.

"I'd ask the MP to focus his energy on building constructive working relationships with the councils in his constituency rather than constantly criticising them. 

"We are in a good place, despite limited resources.  I don’t wish to see this put at risk."

Sir Jake said in response: "I understand up to £12million of taxpayers' money has been lost in the empty homes scandal overseen by Rossendale Borough Council.

"I make no apology for seeking full disclosure by the council of what on earth has gone on.

"I will not stand idly by as the council seeks to hide the truth."