ARGOS, Lies & Video
- an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, marvelling at the surreal performance in front of the cameras in the heart of Scarborough and elsewhere.
Yesterday morning, Wednesday 3rd June 2020, the Overview & Scrutiny Board of Scarborough Borough Council was convened, albeit virtually (via Zoom), to address the matters of the Council’s intentions, going forward, in respect of the Travelodge regeneration and the ‘TOP SECRET’ redevelopment of the moribund ARGOS building (for student and trainee nurse accommodation, some retail outlets and a Town or Market Square).
Regular readers may recall Councillor Michelle DONOHUE-MONCRIEFF [Ind.] (now Portfolio Holder for the Environment & Sustainability) writing to the editor of the North Yorks Enquirer last September (2019) wondering, inter alia, where the money would be coming from for the Travelodge venture. This, of course, was a good point – long before the Coronavirus pandemic began taking lives and crippling economies worldwide.
The £14M Travelodge project pales into relative insignificance as compared to the ARGOS redevelopment with its £22M borrowing commitment. This was rushed in last July (2019) ‘as a matter of urgency’ and, aside from an alleged North Yorkshire Police investigation into the ‘leaking’ of the agreement between SBC and developers Wrenbridge, little has been heard of it since.
On the subject of the alleged NYP investigation – which, Councillors have been informed, behind closed doors, is still in progress and “whoever the culprit turns out to be will go to jail” – nothing further has been heard. I can confirm that neither I nor Enquirer editor Tim THORNE has been questioned. I do not know of anyone who has. And yet it was the Enquirer that published the ‘leaked’ document and it was on these pages that many Councillors saw it for the first time. There is transparency for you.
Interestingly, I can also confirm that when the former Portfolio Holder for Major Projects made an enquiry as to why, given the unprecedented and hitherto unimaginable devastation of the national and world economy, the massive financial commitments identified above were not being brought back to Full Council, the answer came that since there have been no changes of a budgetary or policy framework nature since the deals were given the green light last July, the opinion of Full Council would not be necessary.
- “no changes of a budgetary or policy framework nature”
My god! The world has been turned upside down, but there have been “no changes”? If you are going to tell a lie, tell a WHOPPER! But, then, the track record is already out there.
Returning to yesterday’s Zoom meeting, I can honestly say that I cannot recall a more shambolic waste of Council resources in my eleven years as an armchair scrutineer. It came across as having been rehearsed before coming ‘on camera’ – but rehearsed only once, and far too hurriedly.
Following seemingly endless presentations by Officers (Commerce Director Richard BRADLEY was far from fluent and Project Manager Alex RICHARDS scarcely better, though less repetetive), the pantomime began. We had babies crying, dogs barking, disembodied voices, lip-reading . . . it was pure circus.
But to business . . .
First let me present a letter sent to all Councillors ahead of the meeting by one of Scarborough’s most prominent and successful business leaders, Mr James CORRIGAN, which will give readers (and should have given Councillors) a clearer understanding of the issues at stake:
SCARBOROUGH TOWN CENTRE REGENERATION (STUDENT ACCOMMODATION AND MARKET SQUARE)
Scarborough is the town that I love. It is my home, I have lived here all my life. I have significant investments in the town. I care about the town and have worked very hard to make the town a successful place to live and work. The success of the Council is an important part of the future of the town in helping to promote the town. I have no personal or business reason to write this letter to you other than my desire for the town to be more successful for the benefit of all.
I was very concerned when the Council borrowed substantial sums to purchase the Travelodge in Scarborough at the end of 2018. I recently contacted a business analyst I knew who had been furloughed by one of the International firms of accountants to look at the published information regarding Travelodge and to re-examine the level of risk that could have been determined from information in the public domain prior to the decision to purchase. I have attached a copy of the report which concludes that the investment carried a much higher risk than was indicated at the time.
I should also like to draw your attention to a current HM Treasury consultation titled “Public Works Loan Board: future lending terms”. The following is a quote from the Forward:
“… however, a recent report by the National Audit Office (NAO) highlights how a minority of local authorities have started using low-cost loans from the Public Works Loan Board (a public body that lends to local authorities for capital projects) to buy investment property primarily for rental income.
The case for this ‘debt-for-yield’ activity can be compelling for the individual local authority. But it introduces risks locally and nationally. At the local level, it exposes ratepayers to the risk that the income does not materialise, leaving the local authority with an inflexible commitment to keep up with the repayments on their loans. Within the wider public sector, it diverts money from core services such as schools, hospitals, and roads. And, because local authorities can often access debt more cheaply than the private sector, it becomes hard for businesses to compete. In the wider economy, it could crowd out public investment, and risks distorting property markets.
The government has launched this consultation to work with local authorities, sector representatives, and wider stakeholders to develop a targeted intervention to stop this activity …”
The Government has recognised that the mechanism used to purchase Travelodge is wrong and intends to prevent this occurring in future.
I am concerned that the same mistakes are being repeated with Scarborough Town Centre Regeneration project regarding the former Argos building. This project is much higher risk than the Travelodge. There are many opportunities for problems from construction cost overrun to failure of the tenants, or the inability to find tenants for the commercial units forming part of the proposal. The margin of error for the project to become unprofitable is tiny.
The Council must use its position to help create an environment for the commercial and private sector to flourish, but cannot take risks of this magnitude that could potentially inflict significant damage on the town when there is an unforeseen event.
Please remember I care very deeply about this town.
I have not attached copies of companies house documents due to their size but am happy to forward them to you if required.
The members of the Overview & Scrutiny Board appeared oblivious to these very persuasive observations; the developments are now on their way to Cabinet to be rubber-stamped.
And this, remember, is the Council which Leader Councillor Steve SIDDONS [Lab.] promised us would be receptive to input, inclusive and give all members a part in decision-making processes.
One Councillor who does have a hand in the decision-making process is Councillor Janet JEFFERSON [Ind.], a member (at the time, the only non-Labour member) of Councillor SIDDONS’ Cabinet (Lite) since he finally got around to appointing one, some weeks into his administration, and a key ‘player’ to this day. She is presently the Portfolio Holder for Corporate Resources in a revised Cabinet of more realistic configuration. One would expect, therefore, that she would be exhaustively informed about every nuance of the Travelodge/ARGOS venture, which surely falls smack dab in the middle of her Portfolio.
I mention only in passing the fact that Councillor JEFFERSON lives, and operates a business, quite close to the former ARGOS building, which falls smack dab in the middle of her ward. Perhaps that informs her enthusiasm for regeneration in the old town – the ‘Bottom End’? I wonder whether or not that amounts to a personal/prejudicial/pecuniary disclosable interest?
At the very start of her submission to the O&S Board, Councillor JEFFERSON was at pains to point out to that the ARGOS initiative was inherited from the previous administration – i.e. not Secret Steve’s brainchild at all:
“Thank you, Chairman. I would first of all like to say, going back on this project, that, as our administration, we took it over in May 2019 following the elections. It was actually part of the previous administration, so I am here with interest to see what the Conservative reservations are.”
She went on to gush a flood about how wonderful it all will be.
Now, Councillor JEFFERSON’s desire to apportion the credit (or the blame?) for the ARGOS folly onto the previous administration did not tally with my own recollections. The only connection between the BASTIMAN administration and the ARGOS building that I ever heard about involved a chap from Lancashire who wanted the Council to buy, then lease to him, the ARGOS building in order to develop a ground-floor, up-market, ’boutique-style’ retail setting with ‘executive-style’ apartments on the upper floors. Talk is cheap.
Just to be sure, the question was put to several of the previous Cabinet as to what recollections they had about the future of the ARGOS building then, as compared to the Steve SIDDONS’ ‘TOP SECRET’ student/nurses/retail/square vision now.
What recollections have they? No more than my own; only the Lancashire connection which, as we know, came to nought. No students. No nurses. No shops. No Town Square.
This email response from the former Leader himself is quite unequivocal:
The proposal was not initiated by the last administration, it was actually led by the former CE and others, the only development on that site that we as an administration were involved in as you know was the proposal from a developer from Preston, hope this helps,
In other words, the ARGOS students/nurses/retail/square deal was set up by former Chief Exec Mr Jim DILLON (whose empathy for students was acknowledged, in November 2019 (sixth months after his hasty departure) with an Honorary Doctorate from Coventry University, and whose compassion for nurses has been recognised through his Directorship at ‘our’ York Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. Keep your eyes open for the retail connection, which I expect to be ‘on the square‘ (if you know what I mean – and I think you do).
What goes around, comes around, eh, in the world of serendipitous coincidence? Or, as Jerry Lee LEWIS once said, “We ain’t fakin’ – a whole lot of back-scratching going on”.
Thus, the ARGOS grand folly was not the brainchild of the BASTIMAN administration, as Councillor JEFFERSON was determined to have us believe. It follows, perhaps, that the Leader’s own chosen Portfolio Holder for Corporate Resources would appear to have been either:
ii) kept out of the loop, or
iii) serving up her own special recipe for pork pies . . .
What a way to run a Cabinet.