Friday 27th November 2020,
North Yorks Enquirer

EXCLUSIVE: Public Interest ARGOS Emails

Exclusive: Public Interest ARGOS Emails

  • an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, giving a very necessary public airing to some rather furtive ‘public interest’ email exchanges.

IF YOU NEVER READ ANOTHER NIGEL WARD ARTICLE, READ THIS ONE!

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Readers who have yet to read (or will struggle to remember every nuance of) an article of mine published on 25th October 2020, entitled “SIDDONS Goofs Again!”, in which I deconstructed an email from Scarborough Borough Council Leader, Councillor Steve SIDDONS [Lab.] to a member of the public (whose name I redacted) may wish to re-visit it.

Briefly, Councillor SIDDONS was bang out of order intervening in what was clearly identified as ‘solicitor to solicitor’ formal correspondence addressed to the CEO, Mike GREENE, and the Complaints Officer – NOT the Leader. To compound that folly, SIDDONS, in my stated opinion, made some ridiculous assertions.

It was inevitable that the recipient would himself have little option but to respond to the Leader’s faux pas, ‘in parallel’ to the solicitors’ exchanges. I was confident that his response would find its way into my In-tray.

As anticipated, that email was ‘leaked’ to me by a number of Councillors who have the best interests of the Borough at heart. Not all of them troubled to redact the name of the recipient, but I did. Why? Because, as we shall presently see, the recipient is what I would describe as a ‘heavy-hitter’ – the present head of one of Scarborough’s pre-eminent business dynasties – and not a man with whom one should casually trifle.

The recipient was, in fact, Mr James CORRIGAN. Readers who have been watching the SBC YouTube Channel live-streams of meetings will have witnessed his many penetrating questions – and the evasive answers those questions have elicited.

I decided that Mr CORRIGAN’s words were worthy of a wider public than the trifling numbers who watch the meetings and would carry far more weight if his identity were known to readers (including Councillors and Officers), so I sought his consent, which I eventually received. (Correspondence log here).

Mr CORRIGAN’s email appears below in blue type. There is much to be read between the lines, so I have interpolated my observations, indented and in red cursive type, for convenience of reference. Thereafter, I also reproduce an email from Mr CORRIGAN to all Councillors which adds a further dimension to an already fascinating insight into the Council’s obduracy and inflexibility.

Dear Councillor Siddons

Thank you for your e-mail.

Firstly, I must say that my correspondence with you and your colleagues being leaked and shared, most unhelpful. 

I am sorry if I am causing you distress. I am a concerned resident in our town and I am exercising the democratic rights and participation that the Council encourages by way of our constitution.

When you survived the vote of no confidence earlier in the year, you gave an assurance that your Council would be more open and transparent.

Readers will be aware that Councillors of all parties have been vocal in their criticism of the secretive machinations of the Labour/Independent administration.  

Unfortunately, it is the converse that is the reality. The Council continues to be evasive, secretive and rely on “Commercial Sensitivity” to avoid giving straight answers.

You obviously have not read my covering letter or lawyer’s complaint. I will summarise; 

I am concerned that the Travelodge purchase was a huge mistake, because the correct procedures were not carried out when investigating the purchase. Furthermore, the policy of borrowing to invest for yield was contrary to Government Guidance.

Readers may be unaware that loans taken out by Councils from the Public Works Loans Board (PWLB) are not subject to scrutiny by that body. Millions of pounds of public funds are handed over with little or no checks and balances. In the present case, the relatively recently appointed Commercial Director, Mr Richard BRADLEY, was granted delegated powers to borrow and invest £14 million to purchase the run down St Nicholas Hotel, despite it having changed hands for around half that price, in order to rent it to Travelodge – a firm already in deep financial difficulties with a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) crouching in wait just over the horizon.

Mr CORRIGAN refers to Government Guidance issued a year last July, preparatory to outlawing borrowing for ‘yield’, which Mr BRADLEY either disregarded or, more charitably, knew nothing about. (This is feasible; it is not the kind of information that would normally find its way into the consciousness of anyone whose previous experience was in waste management. 

The Council rushed in to purchase at the top of the market with an ‘urgent decision’ because of cheap finance available from the PWLB. The price paid was considerably excessive, but those charged with our corporate governance couldn’t see what was obvious to everyone else. The Travelodge CVA is ongoing. It is clear that Travelodge Hotels Ltd is far from “out of the woods”. Indeed, there is a real risk that it may enter further insolvency procedures.

You blame the Travelodge fiasco on COVID-19 and, as such, that the decision to purchase could not have taken consideration of a pandemic as yet half a year away. You are nevertheless pressing on regardless with the Argos development, refusing to reassess a project that was also passed BEFORE the pandemic. Yet YOU refuse to consider that these new material risks impact on the viability of the project that you now blame the Travelodge failures on, albeit under the previous administration. 

The perils of the ARGOS building redevelopment have been well-documented on the Enquirer (here). Not least of these Mrs DIXON’s absurd assertion that it was unnecessary for the decision to be revisited by Full Council since there had arisen no substantive changes since it was passed in July 2019 (presumably Mrs DIXON remains unaware of the global COVID-19 pandemic, its concomitant financial ramifications and its inevitable impact on universities and hospitals. Perhaps she is ‘in a bubble’ with the Finance Director, leaving the Binman out in the cold (as Enquirer resident cartoonist InToon has already opined)?

To be frank, in my opinion, this action, to not consider this new risk, is gross negligence. The project was conceived before the pandemic and its impact on the economy. However, the project should be reappraised specifically with the COVID-19 issues in mind. 

Will the local health authority really want their students living and cohabiting with CU University students? Students have been the most prolific age group/sector in society for the spreading of the virus?

Without wishing to cast any aspersions on university students and student nurses, one can readily imagine that a great deal of intimate contact will inevitably take place. Whether it does or it does not, the Council’s Duty of Care has to consider the risk of the new development becoming a Petri dish for the cultivation of the virus.

Surely the Hospital Trust would express disbelief that their employees were to be exposed to the virus in this way and then risk bringing it back  into their hospital workplaces? The no-win/no-fee legal claims industry would have a field day. Even without the NHS involvement, is it wise to site 200+ students in the densest community in the Borough that comprises predominantly the most vulnerable residents whom you are entrusted to serve?

Many of the 200+ students will own and use cars in which to commute to the Coventry University campus. My information is that residents have been lobbying Councillor Janet JEFFERSON [Ind.] (the long-standing Castle Ward Councillor and Portfolio Holder for Corporate Resources) on this point., but JJ is between a rock and a hard place, given her reliance on the Leader’s good graces.

Have you asked York Health Trust, who are a party to your business plan, if they are still prepared to allow their employees, whom they have a duty of care, if they are happy for them to cohabit with CU students in the light of this fundamental change of circumstances that was not a consideration in the agreement which is now not fit for purpose. If not, shall I?

Whether or not Mr CORRIGAN does so (which I may never know), I certainly shall. I expect those preparing objections to the Planning Application (20/02167/FL) to do the same.

It is beyond doubt that the financing of the Argos development is extremely tight with the most minimal margin of error. We are living through the biggest crisis the Country has experienced since World War 2 and yet you are ignoring this.

Mr CORRIGAN refrains from commenting to the effect that Councillor SIDDONS (and, in fact, the entire Council) will be history in 18 months, but the ratepayers will not. It is we who will pick up the tab for SIDDONS’ flagship folly.

I am certainly not anti students or against diversification. On the contrary, I fully support the principles. It is the right thing in the wrong place which incidentally unnecessarily impacts on the cost of delivery.  

The logical and most cost effective site would have been the former Comet store and carpark for many many reasons. Consider this, if Travelodge CVA is not successful and we end up with VP most of the CU students could be accommodated in the 140 rooms and removes the reliance of York Health Trusts involvement. A further benefit is it could be delivered on time. The timescale for Argos is now behind your stated delivery schedule and the planning application has not yet even been validated. 

This very sensible Comet suggestion could only have come from a person who knows Scarborough intimately, not from a disparate Johnny-Come-Lately crew of from Leicester, Brighton, Stockton or Redcar & Cleveland.

The deadlines by your own admission are extremely tight, exposing us to potential penalties. 

What if the decision was to be challenged by way of a Judicial Review? This is a real and potential, identifiable and known probable risk that would delay the project for 6 to 18 months, successful or not!  

A JR is has not been considered, never mind drawn to Members’ attention, planned for, or measures set in place to mitigate this real threat. 

The risk potential of a JR challenge should have been a primary consideration as part of the Council scrutiny and due diligence process. A risk incidentally that COVID-19 has no bearing on whatsoever. 

I hope Mr CORRIGAN will correct me if I am mistaken: these repeated references to Judicial Review have every appearance of a salvo across the bows of the SIDDONS ship of state. It is an option that I, as an impecunious pensioner, have always been forced to discount – for lack of mazuma. This is unlikely to prove an impediment to Mr CORRIGAN. And his legal team at Lupton Fawcett LLP (one of the top law firms in the North of England) is vastly experienced in the art of protracting litigation (win or lose) to the bitter limits. As against which, that ‘secret’ ARGOS deal is excruciatingly time-sensitive. As I said, Mr CORRIGAN is a ‘heavy-hitter’.   

Has the Council forgotten about the recent challenge to the Futurist demolition? A challenge that had a significant impact on delivery. I think it is important to point out that associated protracted delay was from a challenge that was unsuccessful. What happens if a challenge is successful? What then? Who pays!

I will continue to exercise my democratic and legal rights. They were hard won and it is important that those who abuse them are held to account.

Yours sincerely

James Corrigan

If Councillor SIDDONS has been able to formulate a coherent response to Mr CORRIGAN, I have yet to obtain sight of it. But I suspect he has not. Having trodden on the CEO’s toes once – and been pulled up for it – Councillor SIDDONS is unlikely to do so again.

And I happen to know that Mr CORRIGAN has been experiencing difficulties in the delivery of his emails to Councillors, thus engendering the suspicion that he may have fallen foul of the Council’s infamous (not to say illegal) blocking-and-filtering email interception system (as anyone who scrutinises the Council too closely will know all too well). This, too, suggests that SIDDONS is now on the back foot, if not the bones of his ass.

But despite these ‘IT difficulties’, Mr CORRIGAN’s email to all Councillors did eventually arrive (albeit two days later) and I am happy to reproduce it here (with my comments interpolated, as above):

Dear Members,

Please see below [in fact, shown above in this article] an email I sent to Cllr Siddons personally in response to his communication to me. A week has passed and I have not had the courtesy of a reply or even an acknowledgement of my genuine and sincere concerns.

This failure to respond is entirely typical of senior Council Officers: when backed into a corner – clam up. It should be remembered that Councillor SIDDONS was an Officer at Leicestershire County Council before coming to Scarborough (a less competitive arena in which to launch a bid for a gong).

 The inconvenient risks I identify below are in fact material changes which are deliberately being ignored.

 Since my sending of the email, the planning application for the Argos building has now been validated. Thus, we are now entering the ‘Public Consultation’ phase.

 As has been clearly demonstrated in my complaint from Lupton Fawcett, the Travelodge due diligence and subsequent purchase, at an over-inflated price, was flawed. The correct procedures were not followed. My concerns are that the same mistakes are about to be repeated. This time, not possessing prior knowledge cannot be blamed retrospectively, as I have drawn all of your attention to these facts. 

As yet, not one member of our ward [Castle] has formally been consulted pre-application which, I suppose, is understandable, as when this secret project was leaked to the public the police were called [see: https://nyenquirer.uk/not-for-publication/]. To make this  matter worse, yet again the local authority has gone against it own protocols, this time with the application. Rather than quoting it I reproduce it below.

On a personal level, would you want your loved ones treated at Scarborough Hospital by someone cohabiting with 150+ university students?

Mr CORRIGAN’s question is by no means rhetorical, as the British Medical Journal has emphatically warned. But it is not only nurses who would be at heightened risk. Elderly and low-income residents in Castle Ward would also be especially vulnerable.

YOUR scheme, which YOU are promoting, is playing Russian Roulette with our community’s lives and our grandchildren’s debt burden for the coming 40 years. 

Kind regards

James Corrigan

It is interesting to note that (like me) Mr CORRIGAN has identified several COVID-related risks that have apparently passed over the Council’s collective head.

In my view, however, Mr CORRIGAN has omitted to raise several important issues and I hope he and his legal advisors will take them into account.

The first is the effect of the present COVID-19 Regulations on the time-sensitivities of the Planning process. The Application was validated on 21st October 2020. How can the 28-day consultation process adequately function during the Lockdown?

Castle Ward is a recognised deprived area with a relatively elderly demographic. Not all residents have internet access. Having seen the Statutory Notices posted in the area, how should such elderly or low-income residents engage in the Consultation? They cannot do any of the following:

  • Pop round to a friend’s place where internet access is available? PROHIBITED under the COVID-Regs;
  • Attend a public briefing meeting and express a view? PROHIBITED under the COVID-Regs;
  • Go to the Library to access the internet? IMPOSSIBLE – the Libraries are CLOSED;
  • Go to the Planning Office? IMPOSSIBLE – the Town Hall is CLOSED.

In effect, a significant number of residents will be deprived of a voice. The process is undemocratic.

It may be that Lupton Fawcett LLP is already onto this significant flaw in the Planning process like a tramp on a fiver.

Perhaps the intention is to seek a Court Order either extending the Consultation period or, better yet, ordering the Council to withdraw the Application until such time as the Lockdown has been lifted?

Secondly, Castle Ward is within the Conservation Area. Has proper consideration been given to the disproportionate height of the projected development and the extent to which it would dwarf the surrounding architecture, sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb – as this image kindly shared by a public-spirited Councillor clearly shows:

20 meter calibrated  ‘tape measure’ illustrates the projected height

Opponents of the ARGOS regeneration project – and remember, these include a raft of highly qualified and experienced Planning Officers (see their joint letter in this article, well worth a re-visit) – are lining up to blow “SIDDONS’ Folly” into the trash can, where it belongs.

One anticipates that there will be more to come from those former Planners.

Thirdly, Mr CORRIGAN has yet to raise the matter of an increased demand for parking spaces.  Many of the 200+ CU/NHS students would more than likely commute to the Uni/Hospital using their own vehicles. Where will they park? Are locals to be forced to compete with students for the already scarce parking opportunities? And what about vacations? Will Castle Ward be saturated with a large number of vehicles parked up for 10 weeks over the summer season, and for shorter periods over Christmas and Easter – the busiest times of year? It is entirely predictable that the tourism/accommodation industry in Castle Ward will find any increase in demand for parking spaces extremely detrimental to business.

Of course, Travelodge sits squarely in the tourism/accommodation sector and is not so far away from the ARGOS redevelopment. Alas, commonsense is further away than ever . . .

Finally, I find it typical of the ‘openness and transparency’ that Councillor SIDDONS has (purportedly) brought to the Council that the word ‘ARGOS’ does not appear in the Application Summary on the Planning Portal (though that is the name by which the building is widely known) – not every would-be objector will know to search for 50-59 Newborough and those without internet access may not find it easy to ascertain the post code (YO11 1ET).

Note that, at the time of writing, there were only TWO public comments (see below). Shortly afterwards, the page was no longer available – see this WebArchive: http://planning.scarborough.gov.uk/online-applications/simpleSearchResults.do?action=firstPage.

Considering Mr CORRIGAN’s various interventions in their entirety, it is my opinion that he is not going to let this matter drop. Why would he? He is confronting an instance of rank stupidity in the heart of his own community, in a neighbourhood that he and his forebears have, for half a century, developed and enhanced – for profit, of course, but nevertheless enhanced – and he will surely do his utmost to prevent any misbegotten schemes from marring his own bailiwick.

This time, members of the Planning Committee will not be able to claim, post facto (as has recently been the case), that they were not made aware of the many pitfalls, or were just following Officers recommendations (i.e. orders).

Like The Futurist Theatre fiasco, this ARGOS redevelopment will never be forgotten, certainly not by Mr CORRIGAN – or by many other luminaries of the Borough.

Oh, and lest I forget:

Why can’t I find the words “Town Square”, or “Plaza” (or any synonym thereof) anywhere in the Planning Application?

The only element of the whole shebang that the people of Scarborough actually wanted has mysteriously VANISHED!

Has the Town Square gone the way of all the other promises? I think we should be told.

But if the ARGOS flagship sinks – and the East/West DEVO longshot likewise – it is difficult to foresee Councillor SIDDONS or any of his hodgepodge Cabinet surviving the next Vote of No Confidence.

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