That ARGOS ‘Call-in’
A Guest Author article by Alderman NORMAN MURPHY, providing his inimitable insight into Scarborough Borough Council’s mis-handling of the ‘call-in’ motion to review the business case for the Leader’s flagship ARGOS ‘regeneration’ project.
As might have been expected with the current Labour Council set-up, the Full Council meeting on 6 September was the predictable car crash most observers thought it would be. Indeed, anyone who was unlucky enough to witness the shambles that unfolded at the Spa saw an administration that was obviously in melt-down.
The agenda for our august body of elected members was huge and, was undoubtedly bulked out by the leadership in the hope, and the correct expectation, that most members would not read it.
However, the one agenda item that was read was the proposition to call in the £22 million ratepayer-funded ARGOS (scam) development.
Now for those of you who are not perhaps as acquainted with the details of the ARGOS development as our elected members should be, may I take this opportunity to give readers a brief resumé of what we are being asked to fund.
What the 13 weak Labour Group under the command of supremo, Cllr Steve Siddons, and his Officers are proposing is that the Council should borrow £22 million and use the money to knock down the old ARGOS building situated in the Old Town of Scarborough.
They will then build what can only be described as an ugly barrack block of a building with the three upper floors containing 200+ bedsits for the use of Coventry University students, and maybe some medical students, while at street level there will be some retail units.
So that is what is proposed. But who, I hear you ask, is paying for this totally unwanted and pig ugly development. Well, it is us – the ratepayers. The mega-rich Coventry University, who will be the chief beneficiary of the ARGOS development, are putting NOTHING into the scheme. The York Hospital Trust, who say they want some of the accommodation, are putting NOTHING into the scheme. The development company Buccleuch Property (Scarborough) Limited, which is actually based in Scotland, is putting NOTHING into the scheme.
The only mugs who are making any financial contribution to the ARGOS project, and who are, by the way, taking all the financial risk, are the ratepayers of the Borough of Scarborough. The residents of Scarborough will be taking out a huge loan which will be paid back over 40 years, meaning that our grand kids will, in all probability, be making the final payments.
However, since the original ARGOS proposal was first priced up in early 2019, a few of the more astute members of the Council have realised that now, in late 2021, the financial case put forward to support the scheme might have changed somewhat and should, therefore, be reviewed; hence the request for a call-in.
Good sound Council procedure, you might think. A proposition that all members would want to get behind, a gesture of reassurance from the leadership, which would give those who voted them into office details of the current financial situation of the very costly ARGOS development; and inform residents of any changes that there might be in how the projects costs now stack up. A bit of OPENNESS and TRANSPARENCY you might think.
Well, that’s what you might think but it is not what Siddons and his Officers think should happen. Even though building cost have gone through the roof in the last two years with materials now in some cases 40% higher than in 2019, and labour costs rising even more, these realities can, according to Siddons, be ignored. As can the reduction in rental income from the retail units which many predict will be half what was originally predicted.
Nonetheless, Siddons contends that these realities, which are affecting the financial viability of every major construction project in the whole world, do not apply here in Scarborough and that he has spoken to the developers and they have told him that the ARGOS project can still be built at the original cost of £22 million and that rental income will be the same as predicted in 2019.
Indeed, Siddons’ ludicrous suggestion that the developers, who it should be remembered, stand to gain millions from the ARGOS (scam) project, are telling the truth, is laughable.
Anyway, whether Siddons liked it or not, the motion to call in the ARGOS project for financial examination was moved at the 6 September Full Council meeting Agenda and this is where the skulduggery begins.
So the motion was put to members; I won’t bore readers with the jargon, but in layman’s terms, what was put before members was:
“Shall we be sensible and, in the light of the COVID pandemic, re-examine the finances of the ARGOS project, or shall we be stupid and just ignore the reality of the current situation and give the developers a blank cheque?”
A bit like the sea-wall fiasco in 2005, when the developers gave the Council a fixed price for the job and then, when it was time to settle up, put in a bill that was twice the original estimate.
Anyway, the motion to call in the ARGOS scam was now on the agenda and the debate was started. As might be expected it, was a shambles right from the start. Siddons’ cronies, who tried to defend the project, talked a load of rubbish and made themselves look even more stupid than they do normally. Then, after over an hour of tedious and mostly meaningless debate, our elected members went to the vote.
Now, it should have been a straight forward vote; those in favour of the motion to call in the ARGOS scam say FOR and those, like Siddons and his cronies, who wanted it just nodding through, say AGAINST.
However, the acoustics in the Spa are not good and many members have hearing problems and perhaps unsurprisingly, the first to vote, who was a rather elderly member, got confused and voted against his intentions, signalling to the Counci’s Director of Legal, Lisa Dixon, who was supposedly adding the votes up, that he was AGAINST the motion.
The member, much to everyone’s amusement, quickly rescinded his vote, though some – except, that is, Lisa Dixon who (so she was to say later) briefly thought he had voted AGAINST the motion. In actual fact, he had amended his vote immediately and voted FOR the motion.
Anyway, the vote then progressed. However, things did not go as Siddons no doubt hoped. Siddons knew that his own 12 cronies (should have been 13, but one was absent) would vote with him. They have no choice; there is no room for independent thought in the Labour Group; where the leader goes, the rest must follow.
The same, it was expected, would apply to his 7 (thus far) devoted supporters from Cllr Janet Jefferson’s Independent Group. It was, in fact, anticipated that all 7 Independents from Jefferson’s Group would support Siddons with gusto. But no; one Independent promptly abstained and two, Cllrs John Casey and Andy Backhouse, voted FOR the motion.
Nevertheless, even though three of the Independents had broken ranks, it was still thought that Siddons would get the result he wanted and have the motion quashed. Anyway, be that as it may, despite these hiccups, the vote finally came to its tedious conclusion and Dixon added the votes up and presented her version of the result to members.
In was, according to her, a draw, 19 each. So without any debate, she simply asked the Labour Mayor to cast his deciding vote and, as a loyal Labour Party member, he voted with Siddons and the motion was lost 20 AGAINST and 19 FOR.
At this point, as might be expected, there was obvious relief and jubilation in the Siddons/Jefferson camp as they thought they had blocked the motion and had it kicked out. Meaning, of course, that the ARGOS scam could now proceed without any further scrutiny from elected members.
Siddons and his Labour Group cronies, who had come into power vowing to be OPEN and TRANSPARENT had, so they thought, managed to prevent anyone from casting an enquiring eye over the ARGOS scam’s allegedly “unchanged” financial status; and the £22 million was now in the bag.
The promises made by Labour cronies such as ALEX BAILEY (we shall hear more about our ALEX in a later article; brace yourself ALEX) who, in August 2019, wrote “My big interests at the moment are ensuring transparency”, were shown up for what they really were, a pack of lies. But who, on the AGAINST side, gave a toss at that moment? They had, so they thought, won.
However, at this juncture, although Siddons believed he had won, it was soon revealed that the best laid plans of mice and men, can, and often do, go adrift, and just when he thought he had got his way, disaster struck.
Several elected members, and members of the public and press, realised that the vote had, in fact, been won by the FOR camp and that the actual result was 20 FOR calling the ARGOS scam in, and only 18 AGAINST, leaving the mayor with no extra say in the matter.
Dixon had, so it seems, seen her opportunity to tamper with the votes when the first member miscast his vote.
She probably thought that no-one would notice and that’s why she got the result confirmed quickly by the Mayor’s vote, in the hope, no doubt, that in the confusion, she would get away with it.
However, she had failed. Dixon was immediately challenged to re-count the vote, which initially she refused to do, however, she must have realised that she had been caught out and would now have to act to save her own skin. In a trice, she put up the “I misheard the vote” defence; everyone else, it should be noted, had understood and accepted that the member in question had voted FOR the motion but not, it seems, our highly-paid Legal Officer.
So despite our Lisa’s clumsy attempt to swing the vote her way, those who wanted the ARGOS scam to be called in had been successful.
Dixon’s actions were, as I see it, and I don’t think many would argue, a deliberate attempt to rig the vote in the leadership’s favour, indeed a classic example of Scarborough Council at its worst.
So what next? Well, Siddons now has no choice but to allow the scrutiny to go ahead. However, with £22 million, more likely £30 million, up for grabs, it is unlikely that Siddons and the Officers will give up trying to get the ARGOS scam past elected members.
Already I am hearing that the normal procedure of passing this to either the Audit Committee or one of the Overview & Scrutiny Boards, is to be circumvented in favour of a four-member Working Group, set up to review the ARGOS scam, will be chaired by a Labour member – ALEX BAILEY perhaps? The ARGOS scam is after all in Castle Ward which is the ward he is supposed to represent.
My advice, if he is tempted, would be “Don’t do it, ALEX. Get out now while you still have a chance”.
The other three members, if Siddons can get away with it, will, so I am told, be Independents drawn from the AGAINST camp.
Siddons and his cronies have, as they have demonstrated time and time again, no shame and nothing to lose but much to gain. So “Why not?”, I suppose, is the reasoning; rig the Working Group to get the result you want.
However, my suspicion is that now that Siddons has lost the ARGOS call-in, the power that he once had to control the INDEPENDENTS is beginning to weaken. Two have already defied Siddons’ orders and at least one, possibly two, others are wavering, my guess is that another Vote of No Confidence is not far off and, if it does come, Siddons will almost certainly be defeated.
That being said, should the situation remain as it is now, there is still 8 months to go before the new Unitary Council elections take Siddons’ power away. So the question might be asked; will Siddons survive long enough to still land us up to our necks in debt, or will he be chucked out before he can force the ARGOS scam through?
Only our elected members, or possibly a by-election, can, it seems to me, resolve this conundrum.
In the mean time, I am told that the Villas in Tuscany are coming along very nicely and, although building costs have gone up by over 40% in Italy, the builders have been told not to worry about getting paid as there are still plenty of sheep left in Scarborough who can be fleeced.
So, as they say in Scarborough Clown Hall, “O Sole Mio – give it to me. My pension fund needs filling before I flee.”