A PROBE into the controversial sale of land in Twickenham 20 years ago was exposed as invalid this week, after it was alleged that key documents had been withheld.

Investigators had hoped to draw a line under the intrigue surrounding the sale of land to Squire's Garden centre when they presented their report on Tuesday.

But their hopes were dashed when a campaign group presented new documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, which could render the three-year investigation void.

"After three years, to find out that we have not heard the truth is disturbing," said group member Cllr Max Hoskinson.

Council chiefs have now vowed to hold an independent inquiry into the matter.

The 212 acre site, which is now occupied by Squire's Garden Centre and Fulwell Golf Course, was sold for £300,000 on a 999-year lease by Richmond upon Thames Council in March 1986.

Campaigners believe that this price could be £3million below its true worth.

Three investigations, including probes by both the District Auditor and the Audit Commission have failed to get to the bottom of the affair.

In a bid to resolve the matter in 2002, Richmond council commissioned a task group, comprising five cross-party councillors, to scrutinise the deal.

They presented their findings in a meeting on Tuesday and concluded that there was no proof of wrongdoing despite a series of 'apparent coincidences'. Their report said: "The findings do, however, give them cause for concern and an understanding of why some members of the public believe that the council was, at the very least, unprofessional/incompetent, a belief fuelled by a series of apparent coincidences."

Yet their bid to bring the controversy to a conclusion was shattered when the objectors revealed new documents recovered from the District Auditor under the Freedom of Information Act.

Anthony Berend, on behalf of the objectors, said that the documents showed that there were three documents, including the lease to Squire's which completed the sale, which were sealed without authority.

Ministerial consent for the decision had not been sought, without which the council is unable to legally act.

The worrying fact, he said, was that 22 families whose houses have been built on the land, may therefore have defects in their ownership titles which makes them unsaleable.

Also revealed was an email which suggests that the council had sought legal counsel opinion on the matter, but copies at both the council and the counsel chambers were untraceable.

The email, between two senior council officers said that some 'worrying' comments had been made by counsel.

Council leader Cllr Tony Arbour said that allegations that documents had been withheld were 'very serious'.

"It is a matter of great concern if relevant documentation has only now been identified. Accordingly the council will appoint an independent and suitably qualified professional to investigate why documents were apparently not available to the task force," he said.

"In the meantime those residents who, it is said, have defective title to their property because the Liberal Democrats failed to carry out the proper procedures, can rest assured that this council will put the matter right as soon as possible."

Vice chairman of the strategy and resources overview and scrutiny committee, Cllr Stephen Knight said that they would be examining the new papers to see whether the evidence was 'materially new' then would decide whether to reconstitute the task group.

"I am slightly concerned if new evidence came from the council's own papers, why was it not available to the task group in the first place. It obviously raises some serious questions," he said.

"I also have concerns whether it is in the public interest to spend more of the council's finances and resources to investigate something which happened so many years ago.

"Yet there is some public interest in finding out what happened and if things went wrong, why."

Mr Berend said that the objectors wanted someone to be held to account for what happened.

He said: "It is now clear that, at the very least, senior councillors failed in their stewardship of the council's assets in the period from late 83 to the mid 90s.

"We are excited by these developments and humbled by the cross-party report we have received. This is local democracy at its best."