The Stench from the Pool
- – an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, offering an EXCLUSIVE insight into the deliberations of the ‘Places & Futures’ Overview & Scrutiny Committee on Wednesday 31st August 2022 – and, in particular, heated exchanges over the proposed sale of the site of the former Scarborough Indoor Swimming Pool and adjacent land.
Never, in thirteen years of scrutinising the machinations of Scarborough Borough Council, have I received so many enquiries regarding the antics of the Council’s Senior Officers as I have in the days following the call-in of the proposed sale of the Indoor Pool site – and never have I encountered so many applications of the word “corruption” – even, I might add, by experienced Councillors.
I propose to examine, in this article, the causes of these widely-held suspicions – a classic “Who dunnit?”, revealed step by step.
But first, I commend to readers an unusually detailed article published on the Scarborough News website on Thursday 1st September 2022:
Readers interested in obtaining a deeper understanding of the issues giving rise to the call-in may wish to review two previous examinations here on the Enquirer, published (respectively) on 24th and 29th August 2022:
Taken together, these three articles provide an in-depth assessment of the suspicions surrounding a deal that one Councillor has described as being part of a strategy of “clearing the shelves of anything worthwhile before the shop shuts its doors for the last time” – a variation on the expression “asset-stripping”.
In brief, the Council, having spent £½m on demolishing the former Indoor Pool, proposes to sell it to HQ Hotels (headed up by Mr Nick THOMAS MBE, pictured above) for £1m, throwing in the adjacent carpark – and thereby losing out on parking revenue variously estimated at between £80K and £160K per annum – without the sale ever going out to tender.
Having made my own enquiries and sought quotations from other reliable sources, I can report that a more realistic valuation for the site is said to be in the region of £2.8m to £3.2m – let us say, for the purposes of a round number, £3m.
Thus arises the very reasonable question:
“Has the Council negotiated an acceptable price for a prime site in the public ownership?”
This begs a second question:
“If not, why not?”
The Prospective Buyer
There cannot be many in Scarborough to whom the name Nick THOMAS MBE is unfamiliar. I refer those readers to the Wikipedia entry in that name.
I have never met Mr THOMAS, despite my many years in the entertainment industry, so I can offer only secondhand reports – every one of which has placed great store in Mr THOMAS’s pristine reputation as an artiste, a producer and a charitable philanthropist who, having deep roots in Scarborough, now wishes to turn his attention to giving something back to the town he clearly holds dear. This is admirable in every way, provided that it survives public consultation and Planning consent.
On this basis, I believe we can attribute the motivations behind the call-in to be directed not at the integrity of the intended purchasor, Mr THOMAS (which, as far as I can discern, is unimpeachable), but at the integrity of Senior Officers, the Leader and his bi-partisan Cabinet – about which one can hardly say the same.
I direct readers’ attention to a point approximately 15 minutes into the second part of the Meeting, following an earlier exclusion of press and public on grounds of ‘commercial sensitivity’.
Councillor Mike COCKERILL [C.I.M.], in very solemn tones, asserted that evidence shows that the processes leading up to the Cabinet Decision to sell the Pool site had been undertaken in breach of the Local Government Act 1972 as reflected in Cabinet Report 22/180 and, subsequently, at the Meeting of Cabinet of 26th July 2022.
Councillor COCKERILL continued by clarifying that the culpability for these breaches of the law lay not with members, but with Officers.
These momentous allegations may come as no surprise to regular readers who will have seen copious evidence of “the Tail wagging the Dog” – such is the practice of our highly-paid public servants. This particular ‘wag’ has been captured on video, like a fly in amber.
Councillor COCKERILL proceeded to state that it is his belief that relevant information was withheld from members, including unpublished critical information, qualifying that these vital omissions may possibly have been unintentional. (To my knowledge, another Councillor has been unsuccessfully attempting to exercise his right to review all of the relevant information for many weeks now).
Councillor COCKERILL then quoted several passages from Cabinet Report 22/180 (authored by Interim Regeneration Director Mr Marc COLE and presented by Councillor Liz COLLING [Lab.Co-Op.] Portfolio Holder for Inclusive Growth) recommending the sale:
At Item 3.8:
“In the disposal of its land, the Council is required to comply with s.123 of the Local Government Act 1972 as well as the provisions of its Constitution.”
Councillor COCKERILL maintains that it is these requirements that have not been fulfilled.
At Item 4.2:
That the appropriate Consultation has taken place with the Executive Management Team and the Portfolio Holder.
At Item 5.1:
That the Council was approached by HQ Hotels (Mr THOMAS’s company) to acquire the site.
Councillor COCKERILL then stated that he (and others) have asked – but not been told – if this approach from HQ Hotels occurred following the Council putting the site on the open market through the usual tender processes – or was the HQ Hotels approach “totally out of the blue”?
At Item 5.2:
That an ‘independent’ valuation was sought and that, in an Appendix to the Report, HQ Hotels offer was described as being “similar to that valuation”. These figures have not been disclosed.
Summing up these references, Councillor COCKERILL reasserted his allegation that the proper procedures had not been followed.
Make no mistake, this is tantamount to a tacit allegation that Officers have led the Council into a breach of the law.
But Councillor COCKERILL was by no means finished.
He next alluded to an email to the Council dated 21st July 2022 – i.e. 5 days prior to the Cabinet Meeting on 26th July – from an ‘alternative’ developer, who wrote:
“Now that the demolition of the Indoor Swimming Pool is largely complete, I would like to re-new our interest in the site and would be able to offer [amount omitted]“.
[Cllr. COCKERILL’s emphasis underlined]
Inclusion of the word “re-new” indicates that a previous approach had been made.
Councillor COCKERILL indicated that this ‘alternative’ offer comfortably exceeded the HQ Hotels offer – some Councillors say by more than 50%.
Next, Councillor COCKERILL threw in the bombshell that this same ‘alternative’ developer (BT) had first made overtures to Council Officers in February 2018. I have determined that members of the then-Cabinet were never made aware of this approach.
At Item 6.2.3 of the Cabinet Report, the Local Government Act 1972 is referenced – specifically, the requirement not to dispose of land for less than the best amount that can be obtained.
Having established these fundamentals, Councillor COCKERILL went on toset out the evidence upon which he based his allegations.
Reminding the Committee of the February 2018 email referenced above, Councillor COCKERILL turned next to an email from the same developer (BT) dated February 2021 (not long after the Council declined to re-new its contractual arrangements with Benchmark). Having received no response to its initial approach, this February 2021 email was addressed directly to CEO Mr Mike GREENE, re-stating the interest in acquiring the site. Councillor COCKERILL quoted:
“Please could you bear us in mind when marketing this site? In the meantime, we would welcome the opportunity to work alongside SBC..etc”
Nothing was heard from SBC for a month – and certainly nothing to suggest that a marketing exercise would be conducted.
In March 2021, the same developer (BT) again emailed Mr GREENE – a gentle reminder soliciting at least some acknowledgement. The following day, Mr GREENE finally responded:
“Good to hear from you. My sincere apologies for the delayed response. It will be great to discuss this site! . . . I have copied in Marc COLE, who is leading our Regeneration Portfolio, who could fix up some time for a chat.”
“Leading our Regenerations Portfolio”. Out of the mouths of children.
Make no mistake. This is incendiary. This is documentary proof that Mike GREENE and Marc COLE (and almost certainly Lisa DIXON and s.151 Officer Nick EDWARDS, too) were in full knowledge of the ‘alternative’ offer – but, inexplicably, ‘neglected’ to make the existence of that offer known to members – even Cabinet members. Cabinet Report 22/180 makes no mention of these emails or of any ‘alternative’ bidder.
It would be interesting to obtain counsel’s opinion as whether or not the requirements of the Act were fulfilled.
It might be even more interesting to obtain counsel’s opinion as to whether or not Officers’ “lies of omission” render them liable to prosecution.
At this point in the Meeting, metaphorical alarm bells/klaxons/sirens/whistles began screeching.
Prompted by Mrs DIXON, Chair Councillor Guy COULSON [Con.] urgently interrupted Councillor COCKERILL, cautioning against the risk of disclosing ‘confidential’ documents.
“They aren’t!”, responded Councillor COCKERILL, who then attempted to proceed with his summing up – only to be interrupted again by the Chair, halting proceedings whilst he conferred with Mrs DIXON.
The Chair presently announced that he had been informed – by Mrs DIXON – that the emails were not in the public domain and could not, therefore, be discussed in open session.
Please note that, according to Cabinet Report 22/180, these emails are never mentioned. OFFICIALLY, THEY DO NOT EXIST.
I would say that Mrs DIXON owes us an explanation as to how she can so positively assert that the content of emails that DO NOT OFFICIALLY EXIST can be ‘confidential’ or ‘commercially sensitive’ – without admitting that THEY DO INDEED EXIST and SHE HAS READ THEM.
A cookie-jar moment! Mrs DIXON has thus inadvertently confirmed that the emails DO exist and WERE known to her – though elected members have been deprived of any knowledge of them.
Councillor COCKERILL countered by asserting that he was not alone in being in possession of these emails (I can confirm that fact) and questioning the Council’s definition of “in the public domain”, given that the emails were demonstrably already ‘out there’.
Councillor COCKERILL then confirmed, as a statement of fact, that he knew of others who were privy to the emails. I can confirm that, too. I can also confirm that the Indoor Swimming Pool was the subject of a previous in principio arrangement – which information is also not included in Cabinet Report 22/180 and appears to have fallen by the wayside, again without being disclosed to members.
(Let me clarify: legally, if even one person (a third party) other than the sender (the first party) and receiver (the second party) is privy to a communication, it is then deemed to be irrefutably in the public domain. The Chair may have misunderstood this.
Enter a noticeably agitated Mrs DIXON, insisting most emphatically that the emails were indeed ‘confidential’. She wishes!
The Chair then determined to take the Meeting into private session, thereby excluding members of the press and public (and cutting the audio/video stream of the Meeting).
Before he could do so, Mrs DIXON then uttered the following statement:
“Thank you, Chair. I just wanted to respond to some of Councillor COCKERILL’s statements before going into private session, in relation to concerns that the Council has not followed the law of the land. As Monitoring Officer, I can confirm that the Council has adhered to the relevant statutory procedures and complied with the law of the land. We have taken external advice on that which validates that point, so I am sorry, Councillor COCKERILL but I do need to take issue with that because the Council has followed the law”.
The Committee’s deliberations in private session were, of course, not broadcast.
However, I have it from reliable sources that the Chair moved to the vote on whether to (a) send the sale proposal back to Cabinet (Full Council would have been more appropriate), or (b) to allow the sale to go ahead (subject to NYCC approval and, of course, Planning Consent), without permitting the Proposer (Councillor Heather PHILLIPS [Con.]) her right to sum up.
The vote went as follows:
FOR the call-in (i.e. having the sale decision re-visited by Cabinet or considered by Full Council) = 3 – namely:
Councillor Roberta SWIERS [Con.], Councillor Paul RILEY [Ind.] and Councillor Mike COCKERILL [C.I.M.]
AGAINST the call-in (i.e. allowing the sale to proceed) = 3 – namely:
Councillor Eric BROADBENT [Lab.] (the Mayor), Councillor Mike STONEHOUSE [Lab.] (Whitby Streonshalh) and Councillor Guy SMITH [Y.C.I.A.].
Tying at 3:3, the casting vote went to the Chair, Councillor Guy COULSON [Con.], who, after conferring for a few minutes with Mrs DIXON, voted AGAINST the motion, thus allowing the sale to proceed. Who was Chairing the Meeting? COULSON – or DIXON?
I find this curious; this is not the first time that Conservative Councillor COULSON has used his authority as a Scrutiny Committee Chair to give Labour decisions an easy ride. Conversely, readers will recall, when Councillor Andy BACKHOUSE betrayed Conservative policy, it cost him his Party membership. Likewise Councillor Jane MORTIMER.
And why is a purportedly politically impartial Mayor sitting on a cross-party Committee scrutinising his own Party’s decisions?
But these details are trivial in comparison to Councillor COCKERILL’s accusation that Officers circumvented tender requirements and withheld key information from members; that at least one other offer was on the table (reputedly much, much better); and that the damning emails evidencing this are in the public domain – contrary to Mrs DIXON’s ‘ruling’.
Mrs DIXON’s robust denial looks very weak in light of the email correspondence record. It is reminiscent of Mrs DIXON’s denial to the BBC’s Inside Out presenter, Chris JACKSON that she had attempted to use her status as a solicitor to “terminate” the NYE’s predecessor (Real Whitby Magazine). It is reminiscent of Mrs DIXON’s false assertion that external legal advice had been sought on the matter of Portfolio Holders voting on a No Confidence Motion in which they each held a pecuniary interest. It is reminiscent of Mrs DIXON’s false Witness Statement offered in evidence in a certain Bankruptcy Hearing. Et al.
For the avoidance of any doubt, as far as I am aware, Councillor COCKERILL is not in any way pointing a finger at Mr Nick THOMAS MBE, whose offer was surely made in good faith.
Equally, I cannot imagine that Mr THOMAS can be comfortable about the ink-black cloud of suspicions of corruption now hovering over SBC Senior Officers in whom he has placed his trust.
Why would his aspiration to build a 4-star hotel in the North Bay be so unswerving as to risk befouling a lifetime’s good standing and Royal patronage by pursuing an embarrassing association with the “Stench from the Pool”?
In any case, I hear that another site will be coming on the market in the Spring – after SBC has bitten the dust.
As to the prospect of Planning Consent, readers will recall how people-power kicked the ARGOS ‘regeneration’ Planning Application into the long grass.
We live in a democracy.