Birmingham City Council has been plunged into a damaging row over conflict of interest after it emerged senior officials have been helping the National Exhibition Centre's bid for a super-casino.

The council, which is under an obligation to remain independent since it will have to recommend to the Gaming Commission a site and operator for a regional casino, has not given the same assistance to a rival bid by Birmingham City Football Club.

Financial and property advice given to the NEC, in which the council has a major shareholding, was described last night as " irresponsible" by Ken Hardeman, council cabinet member for regeneration.

And there was an angry response from Birmingham City's managing director Karren Brady (pictured), who criticised the city council's "foolish" actions.

Coun Hardeman (Con Brandwood) said he had discovered in the past few days that officers, including Peter Jones, assistant director of property and major projects, and Andy Emerson, corporate finance manager, have been helping develop the NEC casino bid for ten months.

Their involvement amounted to giving "gilt-edged advice" to the NEC, he claimed.

The NEC has already run up a #100,000 bill for legal advice, money that would effectively have to be found from the public purse, Coun Hardeman said.

Although he is a member of the NEC board, Coun Hardeman said he took no part in discussions about the casino and left the room whenever the matter was raised.

He said it was wrong that public money should be spent on giving an advantage to the NEC bid while Birmingham City and its partner, Las Vegas Sands, had no opportunity of free advice from local government experts.

"Whatever Birmingham City and Las Vegas Sands have done has been at their own expense. They haven't had council officers pointing them in the right direction," he said.

Coun Hardeman, who is openly supportive of the Birmingham City bid for a #217 million stadium and casino at Saltley, said: "I find it totally irresponsible. I am appalled and disgusted.

"I want to know to what extent work has been committed, by whom, and under whose authority, bearing in mind that the council hadn't decided in principle until this week whether it wanted a casino or not.

"There has been considerable work done as a priority over a number of months.

"It has been done by council officers and NEC executives, it has involved lawyers looking at the legal implications and consultants as well.

"I shall be asking that we address urgently the need for Birmingham City to have that extra advice and bring them on to an equal playing field."

Ms Brady expressed concern that the involvement of senior officers with the NEC meant the club's bid would not be considered fairly.

"This is disappointing. This is meant to be a competitive and serious process whereby everybody - Birmingham City, the NEC, and any other interested party - puts forward their proposals in an unbiased way," she said.

"I think it is foolish for anybody from the city council to make any judgment about which projects to support without knowing the full facts of all the projects.

"The process should be fair, it should be open, but most importantly the project that provides the city of Birmingham with the most economic and regeneration opportunities should be the one that is chosen."

The council's close involvement with the NEC appears to contradict Government advice which warns local authorities against doing anything that might prejudice a competitive process to allocate casino licences.

The Birmingham Post has learned that an NEC strategy sub-committee met three weeks ago to select a preferred casino operator.

Members of the sub-committee include Stephen Hughes, the acting chief executive of Birmingham City Council, Andrew Morris, the NEC chief executive, and Sir Albert Bore, leader of the council's Labour group.

Sir Albert, who has publicly stated that he wants the casino to go to the NEC, last night rejected allegations that the council, controlled by a Tory-Lib Dem administration, was treating Birmingham City unfairly.

He said it was natural, since the council was a major NEC Ltd shareholder, that local authority officers would be used to develop business plans.

Sir Albert admitted he voted at the sub-committee in favour of the recommended casino operator but he could not recall the name of the company.

"I was at the meeting but on these occasions there is a technical analysis and recommendation and I could not tell you which operators were on the short list.

"I was happy to take the advice and support the recommendation," he added.

Click here to read 'Brum's big gamble' - a special Birmingham Post report on the bid to bring a super-casino to the city