Friday, 24 January 2014

Sandwell Futures - A Tangled Web Indeed!

In an earlier blog I pointed out the very large payments by Sandwell Council (SMBC) to their good friends Interserve and related companies. The scale of payments is truly colossal and as I am neither a corporate lawyer nor an accountant I am struggling to try and make sense of the weird tangle of companies set up by the 67 alleged "socialists" (plus Unite the Union) who control Sandwell. As ever, any info/help gratefully received.

I have now been through the SMBC payments over £500 list for the last reported financial year - April 2012 to May 2013. It may be that some monies find their way back to SMBC from these huge payments and, once again, I invite them to clarify the position. Equally, there may be some payments under £500 which are not available for public view.

In the 12 months considered here no less than 227 individual payments were made to Sandwell Futures Limited but there were 16 credits against these. Thus the net amount is a frightening £42,010,943.23p!

To this must be added 25 payments to Environments for Learning Sandwell PFI One Limited less four credits giving a net total of £6,789,498.76p.

The high-capitalists shafting the people of Sandwell (and, possibly, the taxman) have set up a beautifully opaque web to companies to carry out this business. This is as far as I have got so far:

1. Sandwell Futures Limited have a subsidiary undertaking called Environments for Learning Sandwell PFI Holdco Limited which is the holding company for the aforementioned Environments for Learning Sandwell PFI One Limited;

2. The controlling parties of Sandwell Futures Limited are Environments for Learning Sandwell PSP Limited but that company is immediately controlled by Environments for Learning Limited;

3. Sandwell Futures Limited has no employees - only directors. Two are employees of SMBC. Another director is yet another mystery company called BEIF II Corporate Services Limited;

4. Yet another company pops up in the list of shareholders of Sandwell Futures Limited - Building Schools For The Future Investments LLP (Limited Liability Partnership);

5. Although not shown in the list of shareholders in the Annual Return of 17th June, 2013(?) the last published accounts of Sandwell Futures Limited refer to two other minority shareholders ie Cambridge Education and Agilisys Limited;

6. One of the controlling shareholders is said to be Dalmore Capital Limited;

7. The two ultimate parent companies are Interserve plc and Barclays Bank plc (the latter usually shunned in left-wing circles due to its pro-apartheid history).

I will be looking into more recent payments and posting again on this but let us not forget that only in October last the "cabinet" of SMBC specifically awarded a new multi-million pound contract to Sandwell Futures Limited. Cooper and chums specifically resolved "that any necessary exemptions be made to the Council's Procurement and Procedure Rules" so that the contract did not have to go out to tender or any other type of open competition.Why?

Perhaps Cooper can take to his blog and explain all this. We wait with bated breath....

AS EVER - INFO ABOUT SANDWELL COUNCIL & SANDWELL COLLEGE TO:

E-Mail: thesandwellskidder@gmail.com


TWITTER @bcrover

THE SANDWELL SKIDDER - A COMMUNITY BLOG

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Save the,er,Badger (!?)

Wealthy West Bromwich East MP, the expenses-guzzling Watson, rarely lets a bandwagon roll past without heaving his ample bulk aboard. I was unaware that WB East was cursed by rampant bovine tuberculosis or overrun by friend Brock but, nevertheless, Watters took to Twitter some months ago with the rallying call to "Save the Badger!" Unfortunately, some of the ever-diminishing band of employees at Sandwell Council (SMBC) seem to have got the wrong end of the stick.....

On 4th July,2013 an event was held at The Kremlin in Oldbury. It has been described as a "bereavement registration event" or perhaps more unfortunately given the funerary theme, a "Legal & Governance Away-Day". Sounds a bit of a bore doesn't it? Well in true SMBC-style the answer was to throw some taxpayers' money at it and so we get this:

"The Director of Legal Services requested that a training day be arranged to be led my a motivational speaker who could demonstrate, through actual experience and success, that business opportunities could be harnessed and taken to market. It was felt desirable to if possible [sic] the individual should be from the West Midlands. It was decided......that Ruth Badger fitted this criteria.....she is from the Black Country."

"The Badge", as she became affectionately known via some TV stuff, may have come from the Black Country but she now operates from offices in Imperial Court, SALFORD, Manchester. I have no knowledge of her current business activities and suspect that she may well be a very good motivational speaker etc. Whether she has any experience of local authority governance, matters legal or "bereavement registration", I know not but, so what, she was only charging £3,000 + expenses (excluding VAT) for the day.That apparently constituted "best value" for the poor old Sandwell taxpayer and so she was lured from her faraway sett.

In passing, since 2012 much of the legal work at SMBC has been "outsourced" to a private firm of solicitors called Ashfords with offices just down the road from The Kremlin in,er, Exeter, Bristol, London, Plymouth, Taunton & Tiverton. Fortunately for the Sandwell taxpayer, the remuneration of the aforesaid Director of Legal Services has, accordingly, been kept to a modest £124,521 per annum.

Ruth Badger, as a good business woman, asked for half-payment up front and duly submitted an invoice for £1,500 on 7th May, 2013. Oh dear, the unfortunate (senior) Council Officer - named on SMBC's own website as, and I kid you not, "The Cemeteries Boss" - who made the booking had not followed Council procurement procedures by eg. shopping around other "motivational speakers", getting cheaper quotes etc. Not a problem at SMBC. Complete form NC1 and the deal is approved and payment made.*

Note the date of the invoice. SMBC forking out for this and then on 9th May (two-days later) announcing the closure of The Public - allegedly on costs grounds.

The event duly took place (as with everything SMBC - "a great success") and Ruth Badger invoiced for her further £1,500 ex vat plus £82.80 mileage (ex-Vat). I am not sure where she travelled from - possibly not Salford - as she claimed a further £11 (ex- VAT) for the M6 toll! Accordingly, her "motivational skills" for the cemetery boys and girls cost the taxpayer a VAT- exclusive figure of only £3,093.80p.

And so - were "business opportunities harnessed" and "taken to market" in the "socialist" Borough? What we can say is that on 25th November the Express and Star reported that the costs of burial in Sandwell were "to soar". As ever, the rent-a-gob SMBC "leader",Cooper, was quick to tell the paper that this was all due to Government "cuts" (and,of course, nothing to do with SMBC's debt-fuelled - and continuing - spending orgy).

Yesterday, The Birmingham Mail headlined a piece; "Why you wouldn't want to be caught dead in Sandwell...." and published a table (prepared by the GMB Union) which showed the burial costs of 22 local authorities in the region. Sandwell was the highest at £2,611 (Nuneaton lowest at £715) and SMBC was third highest of 22 for cremation costs at £1,837 (lowest East Staffs £375). Something to be proud of, indeed!

The good "socialists" at SMBC are just planning Council Tax increases AND large inflation-busting rent increases. I do hope the shock doesn't kill you and that your "away day" is still some way off......

PS Are SMBC holding a similar event this year?

ALL INFO RE SANDWELL COUNCIL & SANDWELL COLLEGE TO:

VERNON GRANT, BOX 374, 27 COLMORE ROW, BIRMINGHAM B3 2EW

TWITTER - @bcrover

* Note for Kremlin nerds only - although there were two invoices from Ruth Badger Consultancy I am only aware of ONE form NC1. This technical stuff will feature again in another blog post.





Saturday, 18 January 2014

Cooper - Skating on Thin Ice? (Ice Rink Scandal Part 2)

In my last post I dealt with the "unusual" circumstances in which a huge town centre car park is to be demolished at public expense and handed to Planet Ice (or one of their associated companies). This prompted someone to contact me and advise that at the private Tesco opening function in West Bromwich - back in July 2013, Sandwell Council (SMBC) "leader", Cooper, was bragging about a big new central regeneration project (this just one-month after announcing the closure of a big central regeneration project - The Public).

This caused me to check back and I am ashamed to say that, in my bumbling amateur way, I had missed the elephant in the room! On 15th July, 2013 the Express and Star did an article on the ice rink project (or published a SMBC press release whichever you prefer) and it makes very interesting reading indeed. Please go to the E&S website if you want to read the full article.

I have put this up in two posts already but must give you the exact wording from the minutes of the Cabinet Committee meeting of 18th December, 2013 (SIX MONTHS AFTER the E&S article):

"The Council has been approached by company xxxxx xxxx, who wish to develop an ice rink within West Bromwich....."

But hang on, what's this from The Express and Star: "He (Cooper) added the talks started after HE initiated the idea with a number of companies." They then directly quote motor-mouth as saying, "I put the feelers out there with one or two organisations....."

First big question - And so what, in a time of austerity and "cuts" - and at the same time as The Public is being closed (allegedly for financial reasons) - is Cooper doing going round offering up Council assets for the use of a private company?

In the same E&S article he is also quoted as saying that the site (in July 2013) was "yet to be confirmed" but then says, "it requires some demolition to take place." And so it appears, if the Tesco function story is true, that Cooper was talking about a central site which, by his own admission required demolition, but which was unable to be confirmed!

Second big question - why was rent-a-gob so anxious to have an ice rink in West Brom - is it some pathetic attempt at leaving a "legacy" because he is certainly doing that already!

Third big question - did Cooper contact "one" or "two" or more developers as he stated. Who were the others? Why were THEY not interested? Who chose the car park site?

Council employees and "strategic finance" were then ordered to investigate all this at taxpayers' expense - presumably authorised by "independent" £165,659 per annum Chief Executive, Jan Britton. Interestingly, and as previously, the scheme got a low score of only 54% but a little thing like that isn't going to make any difference to Cooper & Co.

Fourth big question - what was the cost in time and resources for Council officials to investigate this scheme? Once again (and as with The Public) why was none of this put out to tender or open competition? How much revenue will be lost from closure of the car park?

The matter then came to the Asset Committee of the "cabinet" (see above and last blog post). We must conclude that either the E&S got their story and quotes wrong in July 2013 (highly-unlikely and no trace of Cooper asking for a correction), or that whoever drew up the minutes made a fundamental "mistake", or that someone is lying.

As previously stated the three committee members, Hussain, Crompton and Ealing managed to get through the minutes of the previous meeting, THIS IMPORTANT ISSUE and NINE other agenda items in just 30 minutes. We must assume, surely, that Cooper did not exercise any influence on these three councillors which makes it all the more surprising, noting the 54% score, that they should not only very quickly resolve to abandon the original lease idea but then resolve to SELL the publicly-owned site to Planet Ice!

Fifth big question - why was decision made - what will the terms be - why is SMBC only dealing with one party?

As I said on Twitter @bcrover - there is a bad smell here. Someone has farted but we don't know who!

AND FINALLY:

Funny how outside organisations always approach SMBC isn't it? Remember para 6.9 of The Public fundamental review: "In September 2012 Sandwell College APPROACHED THE COUNCIL and initiated discussions concerning the conversion of The Public to a 6th form centre." Is THIS true?

ALL INFO GRATEFULLY RECEIVED:

VERNON GRANT, BOX 374, 27 COLMORE ROW, BIRMINGHAM  B3 2EW

Twitter - @bcrover   (#icestink for this story)

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Another Sandwell Scandal - Spot the Difference?

In my blog of 18/12/13 "The Public - Odds and Sods", I made reference to a proposed deal for the Queen's Square (QS) Car Park to be demolished and an ice rink built in its place. The sordid details are slowly beginning to emerge...... I should say that the Wolverhampton section of Sandwell Council's (SMBC's) press office - aka The Express and Star - slipped out a "report" on this on Boxing Day when most of us were otherwise engaged and I missed the "killer fact" mentioned therein.

SMBC is, of course, a Labour party fiefdom which is run by a so-called "cabinet". That body has a sub-committee called the "Asset Management and Land Disposal Cabinet Committee" which was due to meet on 18th December last. As with most things in the secret state of Sandwell, a large part of the agenda was redacted and not available for public view. Besides the approval of the minutes of the previous meeting there were 10 other items on the agenda including the ice rink proposal. Just as with matters concerning The Public, much of the proposal was secret ie Item 11 and Item 11a. There was a further item 11 deemed suitable for the taxpayer/voter to see but this, in itself, was heavily redacted. (These are the items marked with an "X" below).

In the agenda it specifically says (and I kid you not): "The Council has been approached by company xxxxx xxxx, who wish to develop an ice rink within West Bromwich. Officers have had a preliminary meetings with company representatives and a mechanism for the delivery has been agreed in principle".

It went on to say that the Council already has "a demolition partner". I take this to mean that a contract for all demolition work within the Borough has been awarded to a single company - presumably after open tender/competition (?) It was proposed to knock down the QS Car Park and hand a nice clear site to the "ice rink developer". This Car Park is a very large multi-storey job right in the Town Centre adjacent to the recently opened New Square/Tesco Development and the Queen's Square shopping centre which is currently undergoing major refurbishment. Nevertheless, SMBC have deemed it surplus to requirements and proposed to "grant aid" (ie use taxpayer's money to pay for) the demolition at a secret cost of £XXX. You would have thought the demolition of this large structure would merit individual tendering/competitive quoting but no, and the "demolition partners" kindly provided a secret quote of £XXX for the job!

The idea was that the secret developer would build the ice rink under licence (please don't tell me Interserve are involved again....) and then lease the site from SMBC but only at a peppercorn rate ie at a purely nominal rent and not at a commercial market rate. Why? Under this daft idea SMBC would not only lose the car park revenue but would not get any rent to offset against it.

In passing, The ice rink developer proposes to close another ice rink in a different local authority area if this scheme goes ahead and so any arguments about "job creation" will, presumably be offset by job losses at the facility that is to be closed - although I am sure that will be of no concern to the "socialists" at SMBC.

SMBC are even trying to claim that it is a good thing to develop derelict/underused sites but it will only be derelict when the building has been demolished at PUBLIC expense to help the developer! Clearly it is also not a great vote of confidence for West Brom as a shopping centre since SMBC say the car park is not necessary given the New Square parking (even when the revamped Queen's Square centre comes on stream). Lest we forget, SMBC's favourite consultant, Mr Farrell of Jones Lang LaSalle, also  referred to the "unattractive demographic profile of people currently (July 2012) frequenting the town centre" but the ice rink developers appear to have a different view.

SMBC also say they want to stimulate the night-time economy in West Brom which is a bit rich having just closed The Public!

As with The Public the mysterious "Strategic Finance" department of SMBC prepared a report but, as with The Public, it is secret. Nevertheless, the agenda stated that the score for this project was XX%. We now know that this was 54% which EVEN SMBC admit "is below the level which would secure unconditional approval".

But then it gets even worse! At the meeting itself there were just 3 "councillors" ie Hussain, Crompton and Ealing. Not only did they give this plan the go-ahead but they quietly dropped the lease idea and agreed to pay to clear the site with public money but then to SELL it to the ice rink developer now identified as Planet Ice Property Leisure Limited - the price and conditions to be agreed by the Area Director - Regeneration and Economy (ie Mr Nick Bubalo who scrapes by on a, for SMBC, lowly remuneration of £104,789) in "consultation" with,er, Hussain and one other unspecified "cabinet" member.

And so, just like The Public, a multi-million pound deal is being stitched-up behind the scenes on the basis of secret reports which the taxpayer is not allowed to see. There has been no tendering nor open competition (as with the Interserve/Sandwell Futures deal) for an ice rink let alone for any other use (including, presumably, selling it as a car park). Once again, we have to assume that no councillors (or council workers) are "on the take" and so it must surely be utter incompetence that drives SMBC to agree a deal with a single developer and to bend over backwards to provide them with a clear site at public expense.

All this must be subject to planning permission but, of course, the developer is obviously confident that SMBC will not stand in its way since it is said demolition will start in the spring and building in the autumn of this year. (Of course, the person who advised that planning permission was NOT required for the interior destruction of The Public was,er, Nick Bubalo......) Some readers may feel moved to object when the planning notices are available.

Council's are not supposed to provide "state aid" to private companies but SMBC have waived their responsibility to police this and state they will "ensure THE DEVELOPER provides written confirmation of compliance with state aid regulations." Oh Yeah?

Again, as with the College deal, SMBC are dealing with one favoured party only and so how is the price for the cleared site to be agreed? Will yet another expensive firm of consultants be instructed to come up with an answer suitable to the parties? How can an objective view be formed if, again, there is only one game in town? Why is a so-called Labour Council so anxious to assist certain developers?

The Committee wants some minor points to be cleared-up but they have resolved to do this deal.

With the reading of the minutes plus nine OTHER agenda items the whole meeting on 18th December - including this vitally important matter for central West Brom - took just 30 minutes.

The "leader" (sic) of SMBC, Cooper, keeps blaming the Government for "cuts" to the budget but as shown in my last post (and some to come) huge amounts have to be paid out each month in respect of borrowings and payments under PFI contracts BEFORE any money can be spent on statutory or frontline services. Even if Planet Ice stump up a reasonable sum (unlikely if they were originally going to get a long lease at a peppercorn rent) this money will disappear into debt repayment (eg for the borrowings to afford the multi-million, untendered, Public contract).This is the reality of Cooper's Sandwell "wongaland".

BREAKING NEWS:

A very detailed Freedom of Information request has been submitted in respect of the so-called "Concordat" ie the still secret deal between SMBC and Sandwell College by Mr Darryl Magher. Go to www.whatdotheyknow.com  Cooper went on Twiiter recently and falsely alleged that all the details are on the SMBC website - look yourselves, they are not. The agreements could easily be photocopied and released TODAY but we shall see what actually happens.........

As ever, info about this or other Sandwell Council matters (or Sandwell College) can be sent anonymously or otherwise to:

VERNON GRANT, BOX 374, 27 COLMORE ROW, BIRMINGHAM B3 2EW

Twitter: @bcrover   (#icestink for this story).

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Interserve & Sandwell Council

In the last couple of days, Interserve, have started smashing-up The Public. The "cabinet" of Sandwell Council (SMBC) specifically voted to suspend their normal contractual and procurement rules to give them the multi-million pound contract without tender or competition but have not said why this was done (and the mainstream media can't be bothered to ask).  One must assume that no-one within the Council is "on the take" and so I have speculated on Twitter what the hold is that Interserve has over the Labour councillors.

Ironically, Interserve built the allegedly too small new Sandwell College but they were involved with SMBC in the last Labour Goverment's disastrously expensive Building for Schools programme. Needless to say, in the secret state of Sandwell the true facts about these contracts have never been made public. Interserve themselves boast on their website that they were paid to build three of the schools and then contracted to receive  a meagre £50M over 25 years for "facilities management" just for those 3. They were involved in two more before the Government scrapped the scheme.

SMBC formed a joint company with Interserve for the Building for Schools programme called Sandwell Futures Limited and I am not sure whether any money they pay into that company comes back to them. No doubt SMBC will hasten to explain.

I have today been through the list of payments made by SMBC over £500 for the month of December and am truly shocked by my findings. SMBC have to produce this by law. It is possible there are other payments under £500 to Interserve-related companies but I cannot tell. Again SMBC may wish to clarify. There are also some large payments to oddly-named companies which I am still investigating but what follows is bad enough.

Clearly Interserve are into SMBC for more than (about) 5 schools - there must be other deals going on which are secret. Have they been put out to tender, I wonder? Anyway, I am going to set out the full stomach-churning list of payments so that you can see for yourselves just what is going on.

REMEMBER - THESE ARE PAYMENTS FOR JUST ONE MONTH

To Sandwell Futures Limited from the Education & Children's Service Budget:

                                                   174,309.00
                                                       7,598.00
                                                       6,173.83

                                Total           188,080.93

To Sandwell Futures Limited from the Individual Schools Budget:

                                                        2,158.95
                                                        5,259.45
                                                    105,812.08
                                                        4,263.95
                                                      56,008.27
                                                    103,607.15
                                                        1,438.00
                                                    104,521.35
                                                      85,527.82
                                                        9,322.00
                                                      40,183.96
                               Less credit       (2,830.00)

                                   Total         515,272.98

To Sandwell Futures Limited from Strategic Resources Budget:

                                                     442,240.00
                                                     459,700.00

                                      Total       901,940.00

To Sandwell Futures Limited from Street Scene Budget:

                                                     118,738.57
                                                     124,955.18
                                                         1,999.09
                                                            631.43
                                                         1,133.24
                                                         1,250.76
                                                         1,428.02
                                                       35,919.58
                                                       15,293.54
                                                       60,549.99
                                                            605.95
                                                         2,450.38
                                                         4,514.35
                                                         6,756.44

                                        Total     376,226.52

And so in just ONE MONTH Sandwell Futures received £1,981,520.40 ie NEARLY £2M in ONE MONTH (the ANNUAL budget for The Public was approx £1.5M).

BUT WAIT - IT GETS WORSE. There are further payments(just in the single month of December) in respect of the crazy PFI deals to another Interserve company, Environments for Learning PFI (One) Limited:

                                                        2,644.36
                                                    567,089.12

                                         Total   569,753.48

And so there's over half a million pounds again in just ONE month.

SMBC have two directors on the Board of Sandwell Futures. I wonder if any sort of conflict of interest arises? One of those directors is someone called Melanie Dudley who is paid a mere £120,092 per annum by SMBC according to their audited accounts.

Using the vernacular on Twitter I said that Interserve had had Cooper's pants down but it looks like they have smacked his arse as well! I gather the local Labour party are having a "cost of Cameron" day this weekend but Sandwell taxpayers might like to print this and question their representatives on the "cost of Cooper"!

CUTS? WHAT CUTS?

Info always welcome to Vernon Grant, Box 374, 27 Colmore Row, Birmingham B3 2EW

Twitter @bcrover

                                                       
                                                     
       






Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Leak of JLL Reports - Part 2

I am afraid this post is rather lengthy but,once again, it is important to get the facts "out there" since the reports have still not been made available to the people (despite the leak) and the mainstream media have limited their "investigations" to simply printing lurid headlines. As of a couple of hours ago I again checked with Councillor Mick Davies and he has still not seen the report despite a full Council meeting taking place last night. I assume that the other non-Labour councillors have also not seen the reports.

One has to wonder why Sandwell Council (SMBC) took The Public on. I referred in my post of 18th December - "The Public - Odds and Sods" - to the mystery tweets from the SMBC "leader", Cooper, which may or may not be related to the issue. Cooper, himself, has gone on record to say he was always against the project (well it didn't involve 22 men and a round ball) and some of his underlings appear to have shared his view. Most of the rest of the "Labour Group" seem prepared to do his bidding in any event (one shining exception being the currrent Mayor of Sandwell, Cllr Linda Horton, who was prepared to buck the party line.She graciously attended the closing-day events and gave a passionate address).

SMBC set up a charity, Sandwell Arts Trust (SAT), to operate The Public but certain councillors appear to have regretted this since it prevented them exercising the usual Pyongyang-style "control" that they so enjoy in other policy areas. The result of all this was an almost constant "review" process of The Public's operations culminating in the instructions to expensive top property firm Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL).

If I might digress here.Although we live in a time of almost unprecedented and rapid technological change, SMBC seem addicted to long-term contracts. Not only was the now defunct SAT given a 25-year deal but:

(a)  The fantastic "money-saving" Transform Sandwell deal with BT was for 15 years but has proved to be disastrous and will cost the taxpayer millions as SMBC attempts to extricate itself from its useless contract;

(b) "Socialist" SMBC are paying arch-capitalist company, Interserve, £50M over 25 years to provide facilities management for just three schools (plus the original building and other PFI costs). Presumably they are also paying similarly crazy amounts for the other two schools in the PFI scheme with Interserve;

(c) The press spin of the still secret deal with Sandwell College (not part of the Council) says the lease of The Public is for 25 years!

Back to The Public. I am sure that most readers will have been inside the fabulous interior of that purpose-built arts and community centre. I have had the benefit of a guided tour which included the "private" parts of the building but anyone who has been in can see immediately that the building is a "one-off" and patently not suitable as a standard commercial or retail facility. Nevertheless, "councillor" Hussain and, so we are told, his "cabinet" colleagues decided to throw money at JLL to "investigate options for the use of The Public that could result in the subsidy being significantly reduced, or preferably eliminated" ie find a way to shut "that darned place" down. This was in early, 2012 - over a year before the New Square development was due to open and when the brand-new £77M new college was still being built.

JLL stated the bleeding obvious, "the building as constructed is extremely bespoke and does not lend itself easily to accomodating a range of uses". What is vital to note here is that they were trying to find alternative uses to what the building was specifically designed for and for what SAT were providing. In their first attempt at a report they said "our conclusion was that the only potential avenue which was worthy of further consideration was the conversion of the ground floor into restaurant and retail units to capitalise (!) on the new Tesco development".

The JLL report was prepared by Philip Farrell and, despite his expertise, he does not seem to have appreciated that the building was not designed as an office block or supermarket but as a bespoke arts/community complex. He describes the design as "unusual" and "illogical" - so that "it prevents the effective occupation of the vast majority of users". BUT it wasn't designed for "the vast majority of users". I am sure that when the far-sighted Victorians had the Town Hall designed they did not do so with a view that it would be rapidly converted into a B&Q or such-like. It is a PUBLIC building - designed for the PUBLIC and paid for by the PUBLIC. It was, he said, in "a challenging location" and he bemoaned the parking difficulties. Of course The Public was initially at the arse-end of an arse-end, and then next to a major construction site, but still managed to provide an increasingly-popular service to a growing cohort of visitors. The situation improved dramatically with the opening of New Square but, by then, the death warrant had been signed.

Nevertheless, JLL went on to cost (at taxpayers' expense) what they, as property experts, considered to be the "only option" and even had architectural plans drawn up by Messrs Flannery & de la Pole. This was the idea of converting the ground floor to restaurants/retail whilst leaving "The Public" to operate on the upper floors. Constructions costs would be £2.3M with potential income of £208,000 pa. They envisaged SMBC then selling the ground floor "investment" for £1.9M approx which would mean a loss to the Council of , to give the precise figure £416,899. Clearly this is not an insignificant amount but one wonders how this compares with the costs involved in the still secret College "deal".

Having spent loads of money costing all this and getting architectural plans (at the request of Hussain and his "cabinet" colleagues) and given that they were also concerned how the (then unknown) opening of Tesco/New Square would pan out they concluded "bearing in mind this is the only development option which we believed had the ability to create a positive contribution to The Public, it can be considered that the concept of physically altering the building to attract occupiers has been shown to be unviable". Once again you, the reader, will note that no monetary value (nor indeed any other value) was placed on the use of the building as a facility for the public - who had paid for it - but that the whole report was based as a straight commercial property "deal" in respect of a unique building (which featured in the book "1,001 Buildings to See Before You Die"). It is also noteworthy that the magnificent facilities for the disabled provided by The Public are not worthy of a mention anywhere in the reports but then I suppose the disabled aren't "commercial".

We can only guess what the cost of the report as originally estimated was as this is still being kept secret by SMBC but Hussain and, so we are told in an FOI reply, his cabinet colleagues specifically asked JLL to consider a range of bizarre ideas for the building rather than let it continue for the benefit of the people of Sandwell and beyond. All this at taxpayers' expense, of course.

1.  Use by Council for Office Accomodation - ie could SMBC move some staff into the building. Apparently a Mr Fletcher of SMBC said that after "a very thorough review" all leases had been terminated where possible and that the vast majority of staff were now (early 2012) based at The Council House, Jack Judge House and the Training and Development Centre. Accordingly, JLL said, that Council did "not have a requirement for additional office space". Bearing in mind that SMBC has been sacking staff left, right and centre it seems surprising therefore, that SMBC should tweet on 14th November, 2013, "Environmental Health and private sector housing has today now moved to Court House,West Bromwich!" and also that they have reportedly leased THREE floors of Guardian House, West Brom (one of the most expensive office blocks in Sandwell and about 100 metres from The Public).

2.  Events/Asian Weddings - So anxious were the "cabinet" to pursue this curious option that an appointment were made for two businessmen to tour the building and in an effort to get best value for the taxpayer I am told that one councillor actually also turned up to facilitate the visit. JLL report that the two gentlemen were "very impressed" with the building but JLL listed a number of factors why the (massive) building was unsuitable including lack of parking, room and kitchen sizes, lack of sound-proofing and others.

3.  So desperate were SMBC to kick-out arts/community they also came up with the idea of  using the building for "IT Showcasing" a la the ill-fated Sega World in London. Quite what planet the councillors are on, I have no idea but at taxpayers' expense JLL pooh poohed the idea and stated; "We have made efforts to verify our deductions by contacting the estates and publicity departments of high technology firms that JLL has connections to. Although unwilling to have their comments recorded publicly the response has been that West Bromwich has two overwhelming obstacles - the socio-demographic of the local population and the areas lack or prominence REGIONALLY and nationally". Such a shame that Apple will not be moving from Silicon to Sandwell Valley among the pound shops, money lenders, lap dancing clubs and bookies! Surely it would have been a perfect fit!

4. It gets better! Councillors (at least recognising the strong links The Public had built with the local Asian community) asked JLL - at taxpayers' expense - to evaluate kicking arts etc out in favour of a cinema, "asian" concerts, Bollywood "attractions" and even "film-making" (whilst Sandwell Valley does have a burgeoning film industry this is, regretably, of the "Katy Goes Dogging Again" variety). For reasons that are too obvious to all but the "cabinet", JLL discounted this idea. In a classic put-down JLL said Bollywood locations "are in prestigious and well-known places such as palaces,landmark buildings,areas of outstanding beauty etc. We do not envisage interest in filming in West Bromwich". (Don't forget all this lot cost £39K!)

JLL then also considered a number of other possible uses but noted the difficulties in gauging "the Tesco effect" and continued to bemoan problems with cheap all-day parking which was damaging to The Public's lucrative conferencing and events market. (Incidentally, SMBC are trying to cook up yet another secret deal which will involve demolishing the adjacent Queen's Square car park and leasing the site to a secret "ice-rink developer"). The options JLL considered (some of them unbelivable and,yes, at taxpayers' expense) were:

1.  Conventional office use - inter alia, not an option as no shortage of cheap office space in Sandwell (please note Sandwell College). It also pointed out how weak the Sandwell economy is and that "the West Bromwich office market is so small". There are very cheap rents widely available (which begs the question why SMBC are allegedly about to lease 3 floors in one of the most expensive sites). Also, costs would be involved in conversion works;

2.  Serviced offices - basically as above plus already some in West Brom;

3.  Incubator Offices (sounds hot but really very boring). As above,but such companies also usually require a level of public subsidy;

4.  Council/Public Sector offices - would be large fitting-out costs plus public subsidy;

5.  Charity/Third Sector offices - SMBC already marketing Alberta House to this "market";

6.  Retail: JLL noted depressed market in West Brom with Queen's Square - at the time - having no less than 22 vacant units.Much depended in this market on the then unknown fortunes of New Square.

7.  Bulk Retail: ie turn a £70M beautiful architect-designed building into a furniture warehouse/electrical store (can you believe this?) Needless to say this was discounted because of the physical lay-out of the building and, again, parking difficulties.

8.   Public Service Facility eg Job Centre,Police Counter - problems included lack of demand and use "detrimental to the attractiveness of the building to other tenants";

9.  Licensed Leisure - ie a Wetherspoons-type pub! In classic style JLL said "We are aware of the political sensitivity of such a use being considered for a family arts centre" and that "this use may not sit comfortable (sic) with the community ethos inherent in The Public". (Strangely, Farrell does not seem to have considered a lap-dancing club - presumably for the same reasons!);

10.  Restaurant - this is Farrell at his finest and the undoubted highlight of the £39K reports. He said, "West Bromwich town centre does not currently (early 2012) have a significant presence from national or regional restaurant operators, Pizza Hut and McDonalds being obvious exceptions. This is due to a (sic) unattractive demographic profile of people currently frequenting the town centre and a lack of a quality scheme to occupy." Shame that ordinary folk in WB are poor and, therefore, unattractive but why bother about social issues when there are commercial property deals to be done? JLL could see an opportunity here depending on the success of New Square but noted that three major chains had signed up for New Square but then pulled out;

11.   Gym - the configuration of The Public did not lend itself to this plus existing gyms may have absorbed the market locally (an interesting comment given the costs of the new much-vaunted leisure centre). As ever, no on-site parking a problem;

12.  Paintball/Quasar/Bowling etc
13.  Soft Play (eg Wacky Warehouse) - both of these not suitable for a variety of obvious reasons;

14.  Conferencing/Events - already being done and could be expanded but problems with noise insulation/parking;

15. Adult Education - strange one this. Already a facility and extra demand could be catered for by new College (!). Building "not suitable" for all classes because of noise insulation problems;

16.  School - Apparently there were some discussions about the provision of an academy school (strange?) Farrell specifically states, "The Public is NOT suited in any way to use as a school....." Clearly Sandwell College know better.

17. Nursery/Creche - complete lack of secure outdoor space and lack of on-site parking;

18.  Library - would need to be additional fire protection plus only advantage would be freeing up old library site for possible use;

19.  Care Home - (you are either laughing or crying by now.....) - would require complete demolition of existing structure;

20.  Dr's Surgery (+ NHS Boots medical centre/dentists etc) - Building would have to be reconfigured plus lack of parking a problem;

21.  Residential/Affordable Housing - would require complete demolition but lack of demand (wonder whether Nando's would be keen on a mini-estate next door?);

22.  Workshops - Interestingly JLL spoke to the Custard Factory (privately-operated) but SMBC had already held discussions with them! All sorts of problems with the building - fire risk etc plus insufficient latent demand. Would need years of support and to be near a pool of skilled graduates. No-one apparently considered whether Tesco/New Square would react to such an operation on their doorstep!

23.  Demolition/Site Sale - would require planning permission (SMBC couldn't face that option because ordinary people would be able to have a say). JLL noted poor road access to site even if demolished. Wouldn't actually bring in much money and JLL "have not discussed this option with anyone outside the project team as we believe it to be very controversial"! Also the risk European Regional Development Fund millions (ie taxpayers' money) would have to be refunded.

Whilst there may be some embarrassing things to come out of all this tosh, it was clearly not envisaged that SMBC would spend millions on the building and give it on favourable terms to Sandwell College (the still secret "good news" which we eagerly await). Quite frankly, apart from some costings etc and reference to certain economic statistics (mostly available anyway) there is nothing that the ordinary man or woman in the street could not have figured out themselves and there is certainly nothing commercially confidential. In effect JLL were asked by Hussain and his "cabinet" colleagues to consider some preposterous options (Bollywood etc) and then thought up some daft ones of their own ("Wetherspoons etc) before discounting them all. Having said that they were unequivocal is stating that The Public was unsuitable for use as a school and yet SMBC say Sandwell College approached them with just such a scheme. As such this was £39K of public money straight down the drain in a time of "cuts".

Whilst "demolition" grabbed the headlines this was only part of the report and, as above, it all depended on whether an arts/community presence was to continue in the building. The actual conclusion reads:

"After the conclusion of our report it is our opinion that, subject to clarification of the ERDF clawback position, the Council has only two  that will allow it TO REMOVE OR SIGNIFICANTLY REDUCE THE CURRENT SUBSIDY (my emphasis) paid to The Public:

  *  Remove all non-profitable activities from the building ie cease most cultural and community activies, significantly reduce the staffing costs and operate the building primarily as a events/conference venue with office space on the top floor and cafe on the ground floor;

  * Close The Public and consider the option of demolition.

The point is that Cooper and his merry men were already determined that arts/community had no value and could not be subsidised further so all this was a total waste of time and public money. How this is any way "vindicates" Cooper in his decision to do a dodgy deal with Interserve/Sandwell College which is to cost millions is beyond me but, of course, that deal is still a secret.

In Report 2 JLL say that in addition to the Council House etc referred to above "the only office space will be in three elderly town halls, Wednesbury (approx 10 people), Smethwick (approx 30-40 people and West Bromwich (10-20 people). Due to the nature of these properties it will be very difficult to end the Council's interest in them.....JLL would be pleased to assess the options to dispose of these sites...." Kerrching! In a time of cuts SMBC paid them £10,500 to provide (secret) reports on West Brom Town Hall. You could not make it up!

Philip Farrell is also contracted to the Homes and Communities Agency (not part of SMBC but in "partnership" with them) who are, ironically, disposing of the old college site in West Brom. His name is on the billboard in the High Street and those of an "unattractive demographic profile" frequenting the area may wish to symbolically pay their respects.

Although Farrell slags off the "illogical" building it is noteworthy that visitor numbers were ever-increasing, the office space was full and that none of the tenants voluntarily moved out (they were all forced out by SMBC).

SAT also recognised these austere times and prepared a subsidy reduction plan but SMBC refused to even discuss that - there was not one single discussion - informal or formal. The quality of the exhibitions was being recognised nationally and who is to say that, after initially running away under political pressure, the Arts Council (and other funders) would not have made further grants in the future (particularly as Sandwell is such a culturally, as well as economically, impoverished Borough). Five thousand two hundred people petitioned SMBC against closure and they, and the taxpayers generally, have been treated with utter contempt by Cooper & Co.

Contact: Vernon Grant, Box 374, 27 Colmore Row, Birmingham B3 2EW

Twitter: @bcrover









Monday, 6 January 2014

Leak of JLL Reports - Part 1

The first thing I should say is that I am merely an amateur Kremlin-watcher and do have to try and scratch a living. This blog is solely about the leak of the JLL reports (or at least ONE of its conclusions) and a further blog about the reports themselves will follow asap (hopefully within 48 hours).

The JLL scandal is important as it illustrates everything that is wrong with the modus operandi of the Labour Group of Sandwell Council (SMBC), their capacity to waste public money, the secrecy surrounding their doings and, finally, their contempt for freedom of information. Add to that the craven behaviour of the local media and a sorry tale emerges.

THE JLL REPORTS

Determined Kremlinologists are referred to my blogpost "Nice Work if You Can Get It! JLL & The Public" dated 23rd November, 2013. Suffice to say here that the leadership (sic) of SMBC, were,in Spring 2012, casting around for an excuse to axe The Public and the "cabinet" thought it would be a jolly good idea to appoint expensive commercial property consultants, Jones Lang LaSalle ,to produce a report - seemingly at the "low" cost of £10,000 ex Vat - as to possible ways of reducing or eliminating public subsidy to the building (as an arts organisation largely reliant on subsidy this was, in reality, the preparation of a death warrant).

A report was formulated by JLL but for reasons known only to "Councillor" Hussain and his "cabinet" chums, the report was unsatisfactory. Seemingly without getting alternative quotes or costings JLL were asked to report further (this time creating extra costs for architect's plans etc) and when this was done the final bill to the taxpayers of Sandwell was a paltry £39,000 - nearly 4 times the alleged initial "quote".

One can only assume that all this was sanctioned by the Chief Executive of SMBC,Mr Jan Britton (annual pay etc just £165,659) since the £39,000 ex vat WAS duly paid to JLL.

In their report JLL mentioned that SMBC had some space in 3 old town hall buildings and that they would be delighted to assist in reporting about them. These are crappy old offices in decrepit buildings and SMBC has its own in-house property department. I am not sure what they are paid to do but seemingly they were incapable of advising the "cabinet" about use of these spaces and so "cabinet" paid a further £10,500 ex vat to JLL to report on these.Again the CE must have sanctioned payment since JLL got the dosh. Of course, the reports have been kept secret again. Interestingly, so far as West Brom Town Hall is concerned, some of the tenants from The Public were forced to move there and so one wonders why "reports" were needed at all.

NON-DISCLOSURE OF JLL REPORTS

The second JLL report was dated July 2012 but the reports are still not in the public domain. SMBC decided to keep them secret - even from non-Labour Councillors (ie elected representatives)! For several months myself and others have been attempting to force disclosure. I personally have been in communication with most local media organisations but they showed no interest whatsoever. On 2nd September, 2013 UKIP put in a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to SMBC for disclosure. This was refused on the basis that (a) the reports were commercially confidential from SMBC's point of view and, even more bizarrely (b) that disclosure would damage JLL's commercial interests! Unfortunately, UKIP did not ask for a review of this nonsense or appeal to The Information Commissioner.

I don't want to go into the meat of the reports here but have said for months (mostly via @bcrover on Twitter) that the reports are not commercially sensitive - they may be embarrassing to SMBC but that is something different all together. In particular, the reports are, in effect, inconclusive and they also do not deal with any proposed use of the building as a college (although they DO pooh pooh the idea of converting it into a school!)

The ludicrous other argument was that if consultants knew their reports were going to be made public they could not comment freely. But this is PUBLIC money that is being used to pay them! If they don't want to do public work then get out of that market!

Enter stage left SMBC's motor-mouth leader,Cooper. He said via Twitter on 13th October, 2013:

"The so-called JLL report (sic). I want it out there it adds further evidence to my case. It will be in the public domain next week."

The reports were still not forthcoming (once again I pointed this out to several local media organisations but they took no interest). I followed this up on Twitter (as did others) and on 17th October, 2013 Cooper (apparently under the impression that I am someone called Dan) said:

"Scraping the barrel again,Dan you should know better only officers can release the report not members."

THE LEAK

Just before Christmas SMBC and Sandwell College apparently signed the multi-million deal to steal The Public from, er, the public. At the time of writing the "deal" is, of course, secret. Press releases were put out and then everyone ran away on holiday but campaigners remained active via Twitter. Maybe the leak was some hamfisted way of getting back at them? Sooner of later, SMBC and the equally secretive College are going to have to supply details (surprising that they haven't already as it is such "good" news). Incidentally, there has been no apparent activity from local media as to this aspect of whole shoddy affair. They have just spewed out the press releases without question.

Somehow, either the JLL reports or information therefrom found its way to the Express and Star who, despite previous lack of interest, laughably hailed this as a scoop (they had ignored the heavy hint about possible demolition in my blog of 23rd November,2013).

The E&S were aware from the UKIP FOI request that the report was confidential but sought a quote from rent-a-gob Cooper. Interestingly, he did not apparently say they could not run the story or provide "no comment" on a leaked confidential report (standard practice) but was happy to provide a quote that the report(s) somehow "vindicated" him (see also Twitter quote above).This begs the question, who leaked the report? The @loveourpublic Twitter a/c asked Cooper directly if he had been responsible for the leak and I have also done so. He replied to me, "How do I know" and so we must assume that it was definitely NOT him that leaked (and so query his political judgement in commenting on it to the press).

This leak is serious particularly noting that disclosure was specifically refused via the FOI request. It can ONLY have come from a council "member" of officer. Cooper himself has pointed out (as shown above) that members are NOT permitted to make disclosure and so either a councillor broke the rules of an officer is guilty. I am sure UKIP in particular will wish to make a formal complaint to the SMBC Chief Executive and to demand a formal enquiry. They may also wish to write a letter of complaint to The Information Commissioner, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, SK9 5AF.

You may also wish to complain to the SMBC Chief Exec via jan_britton@sandwell.gov.uk I am sure he will be anxious to hold a leak enquiry and to take appropriate action against the culprit.

Unbelievably, the reports are still not in the public domain - again even to non-Labour Councillors (I have checked via Councillor Mick Davies). Presumably the non-Labour Councillors will at least receive their copies prior to tomorrow night's full Council Meeting.

Readers of a sensitive disposition may want to look away now. You will have to wait for Part 2 to decide for yourselves whether the reports were "commercially confidential" either in respect of the college "deal" or otherwise and whether they "vindicate" Cooper. I will be saying that on both counts this is "bollocks".

Contact via post - Vernon Grant, Box 374, 27 Colmore Row, Birmingham B3 2EW

Twitter: @bcrover