Sunday, 28 January 2018

Lion Farm Fields - A Major Fraud?

The current Leader of Labour Sandwell Council, Steve Eling, has been on the Council since 1986. Unfortunately for the people of Sandwell he rose through the ranks to become the "money man" so that he was in a position to know about all significant deals going through the bent Council. He became joint Deputy Leader with disgraced Labour Councillor Mahboob Hussain, and then became Leader following the death of corrupt Darren Cooper. Throughout his tenure at the top of the Council Eling claims that he somehow failed to notice widespread fraud, cronyism, incompetence and bullying. He sat by whilst the Hussain family enriched itself courtesy of the taxpayer. He knows an awful lot, however, about the sleazy deal to destroy Lion Farm Playing Fields. If he is still in post in the next few days he needs to tell is what is really going on here (his position is under threat on many fronts not least because of his vicious suspension of seven workers whom he accuses of leaking details about a highly irregular secret meeting he didn't want us to find out about).

Many of Councillor Hussain's land transactions were facilitated by a bent and/or grossly incompetent employee called Dave Willetts who is no longer with the Council. The disgraced Willetts recently told a Council committee that before 2011 most of the property owned by the Council was the responsibility of individual departments. He described the system as "feudal" (although he is a proven liar and so we need to take everything he says with more than a pinch of salt.) His public evidence was that Cllr Hussain wanted to take more control over the property portfolio (or, more particularly, the disposal of Council property - OUR property) and so Hussain himself suggested the formation of the "Asset Management and Land Disposal Committee (AMLD). This would bring all land matters under central control.  Darren Cooper and Steve Eling thought this was a great idea (!) and the AMLD was formed in May 2011 with four high-powered members, Cllr Hackett (the one who urinated in a bus shelter, an event which Labour tried to, er, cover-up), Cllr Ian Jones (himself in hot water at the moment), Cllr Eling (yes, that man again - he was involved in everything) and, of course, Cllr Hussain. Eling and Co then voted Hussain as Chair to give him even more power over the disposal of our property. (At this time EVERYONE connected with Sandwell Council knew of the allegations that Cllrs Hussain and Bawa had benefitted unusually from a Compulsory Purchase scheme and the allegations concerning Mahboob's involvement with the Sandwell Muslim Organisation but, no doubt, Cllr Eling will claim he was the exception and knew nothing about them! Certainly no alarm bells were ringing or, if they were, the top brass ignored them.)

Hussain also had members of his extended family working for the bent Council including in the legal department. Regular readers will know that his son, Azeem Hafeez, "worked" for years as a lowly employee in the property and regeneration department whose head, Nick Bubalo, was deeply involved in the vast majority of the fraudulent transactions exposed to date but who also claims, like Eling, that he didn't know what was going on. These people were being paid six figure salaries from our money and at the every best were so incompetent as to miss the obvious.)

Willetts himself arranged for restrictive covenants to be removed to increase the value of properties belonging to Cllr Hussain's close associates. Toilet blocks were sold at an undervalue to a member of Hussain's extended family. The old Coroner's Office in Smethwick and a large plot of building land in Oldbury were sold to Hussain's son, Azeem Hafeez at low valuations. In a change from the usual activity, Azeem had land at Clifford Street which he bought cheap and then tried to SELL to the Council. Eling, the "money man" didn't notice anything wrong with any of these transactions - or at least that is what he says.

It is beyond the scope of this post today to deal with Hussain's involvement in council house allocations but that is another area of great public concern.

Cllr Hussain is said to have insiders working in his interests at Dudley Council too including at least one Councillor. Happily, he is a "special friend" of West Midlands Police (WMP) for "services rendered" and so he escapes "normal" investigation by them. I shall be mentioning "The Rickshaw Restaurant" further in this piece but when it "went on fire" a small cannabis farm was found there. Needless to say the local Cowards in Blue took no action over this.

Cllr Hussain has an unfortunate history, so it is said, with fire. Happily, investigations by WMP have completely exonerated him from any involvement in any of them so that's good. It is said a shop he owned in Smethwick/Bearwood caught fire many years ago. The Rickshaw Restaurant went up in smoke. His close associates were trying to take over the property at Farley House which suddenly "went on fire". Cllr Hussain was supposed to be having a meeting with local objectors about the disposal of the property the next day but gleefully called it off after the fire saying "there's not much point now is there?" A factory unit where his close associates were having problems getting planning permission to turn it into flats was subject to a conflagration. WMP know all about this since they immediately sent an officer to rouse the keyholder - a Mr Mahboob Hussain of 51 McKean Road, Oldbury!!!!

Hussain is also the co-owner of Five Star Taxis in Dudley (and his family have extensive interests in other taxi firms throughout Dudley and Sandwell.) Mahboob lied about his and his family's interests in Five Star in legal declarations to Sandwell Council at a time it was bidding for valuable taxi contracts from them. When this was exposed by this blog he told mainstream media that it had all been a mistake. Mr Jan Britton, the joke Chief Executive of SMBC "launched an investigation" into this very serious matter and he concluded too that it was all just "an oversight" by Hussain. The investigation was so all embracing and detailed that Jan Britton did not make a single written note about how it was conducted, his findings of fact and his decision. Zilch.!!! (Britton has been in post since 2010 and, like Eling, claims he was completely unaware of the fraud, corruption, cronyism and bullying going on under his nose even though he is very highly-paid to run the Council!)

Five Star operate from a taxi office by the bus station in Dudley which was also the location of The Rickshaw Restaurant. At some point a big shot property developer called Jeremy Knight Adams (pictured here holding the plan with the new Tory Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, grovelling to him) wanted to build a large Tesco store on the land and so must have had dealings with Hussain. Indeed, the Wragge Report said this was so.


For those not familiar with the story, WMP were finally forced to start a fraud investigation into Sandwell but Cllrs Cooper and Hussain at least were desperate to stop this. This blog has shown time and again that WMP are corrupt when it comes to Sandwell and so they were more than happy to "pull out" at the first opportunity. Thus Cooper had Jan Britton instruct Wragges Solictors (now called Gowling WLG) to do a report. Britton and Sandwell's then Head of Legal, disgraced Solicitor, Neeraj Sharma, had a very close relationship with Wragges and so decided not to put this important legal work out to tender and awarded the job to them at a cost of AT LEAST £185,000 (Eling and Britton are declining to tell people how much of our money they actually spent and a Freedom of Information request is in to force them to do so (so much for Eling's claims to be "Mr Transparency").

At least one corrupt senior officer at WMP immediately put the police investigation on hold pending the completion of the Wragge Report (which was many months later). This was criminal in all senses of the world. Wragges had no real investigative powers. They had documents handed to them by the Police and SMBC but no power to interview witnesses. As we shall see - this made the final, very badly written, report substantially meaningless.

In any event Steve Eling has let the cat out of the bag about what was really going on IN WRITING twice as disclosed by this blog. Writing about WMP interviewing Darren Cooper on a purely personal matter relating to harassment of a woman Eling wrote:

"Of course, by this time, relations between Mahboob Hussain and Darren Cooper were strained because Darren had not managed to get all the enquiries stopped, which provides motive for [Hussain] putting Darren under more pressure."

(Although the police station visit was nothing to do with SMBC, Jan Britton used our taxpayers' money to lay on the Council's chauffeur-driven limo to take him to Steelhouse Lane nick in Brum (and wait to take him back) and a senior SMBC solicitor represented Cooper throughout the interview. No disciplinary action has yet been taken against Jan Britton in respect of this.)

Cllr Eling also let slip the fact that the Wragge Report was an egregious waste of public money to stymie the WMP investigation and that it was not intended that us mere taxpayers and voters would ever actually see it. He wrote in an email on 21st April, 2016 (when he was acting Leader following the death of Cooper) which he hoped would remain secret:

"The [Wragge] Report is, or will not be a public document."

(This is email is now the subject of a standards complaint since Eling had no power to make such a statement as Jan Britton was forced to confirm at a hearing in the High Court!)

I am afraid that here there is no real alternative now but to read my blog of 18th June, 2015  entitled "More Hussain Memory Loss?" following the link below but before you do so please note the date of it. This was when the supposed police "investigation" was going on and yet it seems that they did nothing. I can personally say that DS Wayne Haynes of the Regional Fraud Team was fully aware of my concerns about this deal, the undeclared interest of Cllr Hussain in respect of his relationship with Jeremy Knight Adams and a tax matter.

http://thesandwellskidder.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/more-hussain-memory-loss.html

And so, from June 2015 Jan Britton and Steve Eling were also aware of serious concerns about this deal.

Let's go back to the chronology. This is partly taken from the useless Wragge Report who had no investigative powers and were unable to take ANY witness evidence from any party involved in this highly suspect deal.

In 2004, Hussains's son, Azeem Hafeez, purchased the Rickshaw Restaurant for £85,000 cash. I am not sure whether he was working for the bent Council then but he just had that sort of money down the back of the sofa. Wragges say he sold the land to "A37" - who must be Jeremy Knight Adams - for, wait for it, £470,000! A profit of just £385,000! By this time he was most definitely employed by bent Sandwell Council despite all his other many business interests and, seemingly, not needing the money. Perhaps it was a sense of public service that kept working in Bubalo's department?

DS Wayne Haynes told me the Regional Fraud Team had close connections with HM Revenue and Customs and so I asked him to also investigate the tax affairs of Azeem Hafeez and others. On the face of it he had made a massive capital gain on a commercial property held in his own personal name and so did he declare this and pay tax on it?

Wragges say the relationship between Hussain, his son and the property developer "caused us some concern." They pointed out (as I had in my June, 2015 blog) that Hussain's taxi office was right next door to the Rickshaw and also part of Knight Adams's proposed development so that, as Wragge's put it, "it is very unlikely that [Jeremy Knight Adams] would approach Mr Hafeez without also approaching the adjacent owners."

Whatever the relationship between Hussain and the developer Wragges state categorically - and this is vitally important:

"In any event Cllr Hussain introduced the developer to Sandwell Council as a potential property development partner for sites within the Borough. When he did so, he does not appear to have declared any interest or association with that developer to the Council."

The proven liar Willetts said in evidence recently that when the corrupt Cooper became Leader following the arrest for theft of his predecessor, he declared the Council "open for business". Cooper was as thick as two short planks and was in thrall to Hussain and Eling (I had a meeting with him once and his response to every detailed question was "ask Steve Eling"). Cooper and Co held a "roadshow" style meeting at The Hawthorns to trumpet this new approach. Staff were told that it was the Councillors in control now and they would call the shots (even though most of them are not professionals, have no business experience whatsoever and some are thick and/or corrupt). Cooper, Eling and Hussain promoted Jan Britton as Chief Executive even though his CV was very light and he appeared to have neither the track record nor the ability for the top job. As we have seen, the appointment has been disastrous for the people of Sandwell as Britton was totally unaware of everything bent going on in his council - or at least that is what he says. In 2012 he wrote an infamous memo to all staff bollocking them for questioning decisions of Councillors and making it perfectly plain who the "masters" were.

As Labour are a virtually complete dictatorship in Sandwell they have had no effective scrutiny of their own actions and have decided in many cases that they can ignore the law of the land (see, for example, Eling's disastrous and very costly decision in respect of the unlawful restriction of council tax benefit from some of the most vulnerable folk in the Borough.) This attitude seems to have crept into land deals even though the law has been settled and clear for a long, long, time ie that councils have a statutory duty to obtain "best value" for sold land. Cooper, Hussain and Eling seemingly decided the law did not always apply to them and their weak and ineffectual Chief Executive was, at the very best, powerless to stop them.

Thus, as this blog has shown, they started to attempt to do deals with any Tom, Dick or Harriet who happened to come along. Their modus operandi was to have a secret un-minuted meeting with a developer and then to do a deal with them locking out all potential competitors. You might wonder how this lack of any sort of competition ensured they obtained "best value" but they usually tried to cover themselves by doing in-house valuations - by the likes of Mr Willetts "lol" - or paying thousands of pounds to friendly "experts" who were already benefiting from other lucrative SMBC contracts and could be expected not to "rock the boat". The corrupt deal for the long-term disposal by lease of The Public building in West Bromwich is one example and another was the highly unusual deal Cllr Eling was so heavily involved with to bring an ice rink to West Bromwich.

In one case - which yet again has been reported to WMP - Cllr Cooper was involved in a deal with a developer which would lock-out competitors but  is said to have requested a £25,000 "donation" to his old mate Jim Cadman's private "Three Degrees Statue" scheme.

For those not familiar with Lion Farm Playing Fields here is a Google image. The area is a stonking 19 hectares very close to the dreaded Birchley Island and Junction 2 of the M5 - indeed on the Council website Eling and Co are concealing this "project" under "Junction 2 Regeneration."



Leaving aside for the minute, the rights and wrongs of building on precious green space (and it seems only 8% of grim, polluted, Oldbury is actually green space) members of the public usually imagine that if a Council has such a massively valuable plot for sale it might auction it or put the sale out to competitive tender. There are developers falling over themselves for such sites. If it could be developed it is worth a very considerable sum of money indeed which should, of course, be then used by the Council to deliver vital frontline services for the benefit of the benighted Borough.

And yet, here, Cllr Hussain bowls up with a developer he already knows (per Wragges) and a totally secret deal is prepared. At some point The Skidder can exclusively reveal that Hussain took a senior Councillor on an unofficial site visit to the plot to garner his support. As ever, this was never declared by him. Council staff then did what they were told and drew up a scheme to lock out any competitors. The matter was put to the AMLD that Hussain himself had asked to be formed and which he chaired.

Of course, there is no democracy within the Labour Council and everything is agreed at the top and imposed on the sheepish councillors. There are secret meeting of the Labour Group who agree all decisions privately so that the actual public meetings are just for show - hence why they are over so quickly. But even then, Jan Britton ensures that the public are excluded from meetings wherever possible and that only the bare minimum of documents are ever put in the public domain.

You will see from the Google image above that it is not just environmentalists and sports field users who are likely to be annoyed by this scam. There are other large retail developers nearby, Halfords, Dunelm etc. There is a large hotel. There are houses all around the site (though some are council houses and their residents don't count as far as Sandwell Labour is concerned.) Anyone who drives in this area will know what a nightmare junction Birchley Island is and the prospect of adding more traffic there must fill people with dread.

This is the first PUBLIC documentation released by Sandwell Council in respect of this huge deal - the AMLD agenda of 2012. You will note that there is no reference to Lion Farm Playing Fields but that the whole thing is hidden under "Junction 2 Development" at Item 8:

Please also note also Item 9. This was where Cllr Hussain and Hackett agreed to sell off the old Coroner's Office in Smethwick - which was then bought at a very reasonable price by, er, Azeem Hafeez, Hussain's son.

There are always a few seconds of formalities at these meeting but even leaving them on one side, Hussain and Hackett spend just seven minutes to get through 8 substantive land disposals including this massive deal ie just 53 SECONDS EACH.

You will see from the above agenda that all documents in respect of Lion Farm at Item 8 and 8(a) were not available to the public nor to other property developers. The only document Jan Britton permitted us morons to see was this:


And so the only document available to the public and other developers said absolutely nothing and just referred to private documents. Bizarrely, even this ridiculous document was marked IL2 Protect - the bent Council's "top secret" category!

To put the icing on the cake, Cllrs Hussain and Hackett opened the meeting with approval of the minutes of the previous meeting AND THEN SPECIFICALLY AGREED TO EXCLUDE THE PUBLIC FROM THE WHOLE OF THE REST OF THE MEETING!

This all stinks of collusion and cover-up.

When the minutes of this meeting were published they said this:

"It was reported that the Council had been approached by a property developer who wished to enter into an option agreement for a period of twelve months whilst they undertook additional feasibility work to develop a major regeneration scheme on lands owned by the Council off J2 of the M5. The scheme would bring forward for development 19ha of land that was currently used for recreational purposes."

So this is how it worked under Cooper, Hussain, Eling and Britton. Someone just says they want to build on a massive site and SMBC say fine. We won't market a multi-million site to anyone else. You can have a free run for 12 months for a fee. There is no declaration that the developer was introduced by Hussain himself nor of Hussain's unofficial site visit.

This blog has shown how, time and again, Cooper, Hussain, Eling and Britton delegated very major decisions to Mr Nick Bubalo who, as we have seen, was deeply involved in a series of bent transactions but who claims he had no idea what was going on in his name. Here the same pattern was repeated. Hussain and Hackett resolved to do the deal giving Jeremy Knight Adams two years run at this excluding all other property developers:

"Resolved: that [disgraced Solicitor Neeraj Sharma] be authorised to prepare and complete an option agreement for a period of twelve months from the date of the agreement with Jeremy Knight Adams of Hampton Properties in relation to Lion Farm Playing Fields on terms and conditions to be agreed by [Nick Bubalo]."

Bubalo was also given authority to extend the agreement "for a further 12 months". Hence why I say Knight Adams had a clear run for two years.

The Cabinet received the AMLD minutes without objection at its meeting on 9th January, 2013. Those present nodding this massive deal through were Cllrs Cooper, Hackett, Hussain, ELING, Badham, Linda Horton, Ian Jones and, significantly as he is now trying to force this deal through, Cllr Paul Moore (an employee and puppet of Tom Watson MP.)

I kid ye not but these eight Councillors got through the WHOLE agenda that day in 2 - YES TWO - minutes. That in itself shows the utter contempt of Eling and Co for any sort of proper process.

West Midlands Police must investigate all this immediately. The frightening thing is that Jan Britton did not refer the question of the option to Knight Adams to the Police and to the Wragge investigators. They said the whole matter was "a cause of significant concern" but then, unbelievably state with regard to the option deal "we have not investigated that option." And it seems no-one else has either.  Why the hell not - there is a multi-million pound deal involved here? What a truly shocking state of affairs - but it gets worse!

The Skidder admits to taking his eye of the ball on this one. Having seen that the option was for 12 months with a 12 month extension and that had expired he assumed the difficulties in building on this site were insurmountable and the whole idea had been dropped, particularly as there are legal restrictions applying to the site in favour of The National Playing Fields Association (now called "Fields in Trust")

The Skidder missed that this scheme is now being championed by Cllr Paul Moore and that it came back to Cabinet last November 2017 (I am indebted to the SMBC employee who tipped me off.)

It now transpires that Knight Adams was able to keep renewing the option though I have not yet been able to find the details of approval of these extensions and why the option was continually extended (a Freedom of Information Request set out under the subscription below requests the relevant information.) Paul Moore recommended that the option now be varied and extended to allow Knight Adams the chance - still with all other competition locked out - to develop the playing fields as a designer shopping village.

Moore claims that there are no brownfield sites suitable in Sandwell for such a development  and pushes the old Sandwell Labour bullshit about job creation. Despite the fact that this wretched scheme will destroy 19ha of precious green space Moore claims that the scheme will have "environmental benefits" "lol"! It will also enhance "leisure" facilities presumably meaning that it is better to waddle round a shopping centre than playing sports there!

One has to ask if this is such a viable scheme why nothing much has happened for over five years... There are huge retail developments close to this intended scheme notably Merry Hill and The Birmingham Bull Ring. There has been the New Square Shopping Centre development in West Brom and there is the large Gallagher Retail Park in Wednesbury. Last week The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors reported that the requirement for retail space is dropping dramatically as shoppers move online. But if this last bit of green space in the area goes under concrete and the whole concept is a white elephant your kids and grandkids will never have the opportunity to use the green space for what it is intended for. Once its gone, its gone forever.....

HERE IS THE CON HOW SMBC ARE TRYING TO FORCE THIS THROUGH:

Moore is now crying that Knight-Adams has acted on the original option and spent a lot of money on the scheme. Despite the fact that the whole site (which I have visited) is surrounded by buildings and roads (see Google image above) Moore has now claimed in a public document that Knight Adams has incurred significant expenditure in securing adjoining land to develop the scheme without saying which land. The implication here is that SMBC will be forced into agreeing the deal because one developer has been given a special deal and has spent money on the basis of a deal. The Police have to examine the original option noting Hussain's involvement, the involvement of at least two disgraced employees who were implicated in many more dubious transactions and the "significant concern" expresses in the Wragge Report. (I am referring this to WMP and hope that you will do so too but given the corruption to date I am also pressing for an independent police force to be brought in.)

The Cabinet duly authorised a further option to Knight Adams. The Councillors concerned were Khatun (inseparable from ex-Mayor Derek Rowley who is himself under  current investigation), Carmichael, Costigan (ironically close to millionaire Gallagher of the eponymous Retail Park), Hackett (yet again), David Hosell, Moore, Shackleton and Trow. The person authorised to do the deal is the highly controversial new Monitoring Officer, Surjit Tour.

I spoke to a number of Councillors before the last full Council meeting on 16th January, 2018 about Lion Farm. Most I spoke to said it wasn't in their ward and so they couldn't care less. Those that I managed to ask a supplementary question to about whether there had been fraud here shrugged their shoulders or said it was none of their business!!!!! These are your elected representatives.

I was unlawfully excluded from the meeting (which is the subject of ongoing legal action) but as far as I can tell (the minutes are not on the website yet) the whole Council nodded this through without objection. The Playing Fields are in Langley Ward as I understand it, and all three Labour Councillors from that ward made no comment against this scheme at the meeting. They are Cllrs Sharon and Yvonne Davies and Bill Gavan.

As with places like Black Patch Park SMBC fails to maintain them properly and then says there must be new development as surprise, surprise they are in a poor state! They claim the Lion Farm pitches are poor but I walked the whole site on a dismal January day and they were in good order. There is a patch of land to the side which is in a poor state (but would make a good nature reserve or similar) and there is a boggy patch right at the bottom end (the Birchley Island end). 

Sandwell Labour are sports mad and have spend multi-million pound sums on new Leisure Centres etc as vanity projects to boost their status. But here are the costs for using Lion Farm:


Thus if a couple of pub teams want a match they have got to shell out £100 quid!

I have documentary evidence that Cllr Hussain was also keen on selling the playing fields at Bason's Lane and now Eling and Co want to blast millions of pounds they claim they haven't got on destroying the Londonderry Fields for another vanity job - the swimming pool (which will be built on vital green space and mean that two existing pools are shut.)

A group of concerned locals have formed an ad hoc group to fight the Lion Farm project per se and to demand a full investigation into how the original deal was done and how Labour say they are going to achieve best value having excluded everyone bar Mr Knight Adams. The acting Chair is local man, Pete Durnell (pictured). We need to get the word out as to what is going on here and so please help the group by joining the campaign and tell your friends. The group are also anxious to have some fun and so please sent your photos and memories of Lion Farm generally and the Fields in particular.



PLEASE JOIN THE TWITTER AND/OR FACEBOOK SOCIAL MEDIA SITES:

TWITTER:   @LoveLionFarm   (the group will be using the hashtags #savelionfarm and #fighttheknight

FACEBOOK GROUP:  Save Lion Farm Fields

Contact:   savelionfarmfields@gmail.com

The group wish to hear from users of the Fields. The plan is to have a public meeting as soon as possible to agree an action plan.

I note that Cradley Heath Speedway Supporters attempted last August to have the Playing Fields registered as an asset of community value but were rebuffed by SMBC. Could they please email savelionfarmfields@gmail.com as soon as possible regarding this?

THE SANDWELL SKIDDER - COMMUNITY NEWS - READ THE SKIDDER, KIDDER!

Facebook:   Julian Saunders                      Email:  thesandwellskidder@gmail.com

This is the Freedom of Information Request that has gone into bent Sandwell Council:




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