Sunday, 29 June 2014

Lessons From History?

In 2002 a local Council was in dire straits and The Audit Commission was forced to provide a report on Corporate Governance. Here are a few gems from the report:

11 We found significant weaknesses in Council X's corporate governance

12 The Council does not have a corporate vision for X and as yet has no
community strategy. There are pockets of good practice in relation to local
community involvement but no strategic approach to community consultation and
involvement. There is cynicism about council politics in X and mistrust of
local politicians.

Standards of Conduct:

25 The Council has made little progress in ensuring transparent governance and
high standards of conduct. This may have contributed to the passive approach of
officers and their acceptance of the way in which business is done in X.
Basics such as codes of conduct and descriptions of roles and responsibilities
have not been developed and procedures that exist are not used to ensure
proper practice or to challenge unacceptable conduct. The relationships between
officers and councillors are often unacceptable and the poor relationships
between councillors are not conducive to effective governance. There is a
culture of fear and mistrust at senior levels.

26 External stakeholders believe that politicians bring the Council into disrepute and
they expressed sympathy for officers trying to work in an intolerable context.

27 We saw no signs of anyone being able or willing to challenge poor conduct. No
internal plan or capacity exists to deal with these longstanding problems about
relations with councillors, decision making and standards. Without major change
the Council will continue to be held in low regard by local people and key
partners. We saw no sign of any movement to address the fundamental
underlying problems of X's political management.


30 We do not have the confidence that X can address these serious issues on
its own, therefore the key recommendation of the Inspection Team is that of a
voluntary option of supervision that the Council can commit to. This is an
innovative step that seeks to develop a contract with the council to tackle the
deep-seated problems that we have found.


104 We identified a culture of fear amongst officers in the Council and were told on
several occasions that officers were afraid to question or challenge. This
behaviour towards officers by members is unacceptable and is a barrier to
effective working. Partners told us that officers have to constantly defer to

Councillors and are treated in a way that they find offensive.

105 External and internal stakeholders spoke of a culture of bullying from Members.
Despite this no priority has been given to setting standards or improving conduct.

189 The Council has made little progress in ensuring transparent governance and
high standards. The team witnessed examples of inappropriate behaviour by
members who were aggressive, bullying and insulting as well as hearing such
behaviour described by internal and external people.

190 This may have contributed to the passive approach of officers and their
acceptance of the way in which business is done in X. Basics such as
codes and descriptions of roles and responsibilities have not been developed and
procedures which exist are not used to ensure proper practice or to challenge
unacceptable conduct.

Well the Council in question was Walsall. Who was the "Head of Corporate Policy" at the time before she departed for those bright sunlit uplands of freedom, liberalism and democracy at, er, The Kremlin? Step forward one Neeraj Sharma..........


e                 t   @bcrover  (Vernon Grant)

Confidential phone no: 07599 983737

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Guest Post No. 1 - Robert "Bob" Woods

Council meetings are, generally, public affairs – EVEN in Sandwell! I should qualify this immediately by saying that large sections of such meetings are held in private for various reasons and the great unwashed are kicked out at the appropriate time. Of course, in Pyongyang/Sandwell all policy is agreed beforehand in private meetings by “The Labour Group” and simply rubber-stamped by “the sheep” at sundry council meetings which are over and done with in a matter of minutes (see Private Eye piece via my post “Skidder Shorts No. 7 Sandwell Council – Rotten Boroughs piece”).

You do not need to know anything about me – I’m just a silly old thing – but to those who do not already know him, may I introduce you Dear Reader to all-round “good egg”, Mr Bob Woods. (Incidentally, you should also follow his excellent – though “leftie” – Twitter account @brummytaff).

Bob is a gentleman of a certain age who has spent his life fighting for the rights of the underprivileged and against discrimination. He is avidly pro-union (he was presented with an award for his work from Gordon Brown no, er, less) and fiercely pro-Labour. He still represents the Workstress organisation at conferences around the country (see and twitter @workstressuk). But Bob has a brain of his own and, it is fair to say, has become disgusted at the way Labour in Sandwell conducts its affairs. This apostasy apparently makes him fair game for attack from the Kremlin “High Command”. Here is his account of events in April when the two of us had the temerity to attend the public part of a Sandwell Council "Cabinet" [sic] meeting. Now read on:


After that illustrious introduction, and blushing furiously, here is what happened on 9th April, 2014 when Jules and I decided to exercise our democratic prerogative and attend a "cabinet" meeting of Sandwell Council.

When we arrived at The Kremlin in Oldbury the helpful gent at the reception desk was so surprised that anyone would be attending a cabinet meeting that he questioned whether we actually meant the planning committee but he kindly ushered us through. Of course, we were the only two members of the public present. The public part of the meeting managed to deal with 7 agenda items in just under 20 minutes and we were then asked to leave so that the cabinet could deal with "private" ie "secret" matters. Off we went for beer and badinage.

I was anxious to send a tweet describing my experience of open democracy in action but noted that certain members of the Labour hierarchy had blocked me including Councillors Cooper, Moore (Who he? Ed) and Sanders together with Tom Watson MP. As a person "of the left", an active trade-unionist and a Labour Party Member (though not just a blind "keeper of the true faith") for some 35 years I tweeted my surprise at this.

Cllr Darren Cooper passed my tweet on and got this response from Cllr Sandars who apparently thought it newsworthy enough to continue copying in Cllr Moore and MP Watson:

"I hear you had some guests at 3 today. Sorry I missed it".

This in turn led to the following tweets all within MY original twitter stream and continuing to copy in Moore and Watson:

Cooper: " You didn't miss much Paul. It was like little and large or 2 grumpy old men lol"

Sandars: " But Little and Large would be funnier?"

Cooper: "Yeah lol Could have been Dumb and Dumber as well".

Cooper then directly insulted me: "Your [sic] just a nasty piece of work like your mate Jules Bob" before replying again to Sandars: "Nasty pieces of work both of them".

Jules has come to expect this sort of stuff from Darren Cooper having dared to investigate the goings-on at Sandwell Council but I was aggrieved to be insulted in this manner (especially being a Labour Party member of long-standing). Accordingly I made an official complaint which was dealt with by SMBC's Head of Legal and Governance, Neeraj Sharma. Needless to say the complaint was rejected in the following disappointing terms:

1. Darren Cooper uses the twitter account @sandwellleader (linked to his Council website/blog) in a purely personal capacity. This is, of course, the old argument that is trotted out whenever he is challenged. Here, his remarks were only possible because he was present at the meeting on official Council business. It is ridiculous to say that his twitter feed is purely personal - perhaps he should drop the word "Councillor" from the title and change the name then I might start to believe it!

2. I was not, according to Ms Sharma, identified  in the tweets and am simply making an "assumption" that the references were to me. This is clearly incorrect as the insults were made in MY twitter stream and I am specifically named ie "Your [sic] just a nasty piece of work BOB like yr mate JULES"! This is patently a personal insult directed at me!

3. Darren Cooper's other derogatory reference were simply "references to comedy" and would only be seen as inappropriate by someone who was "particularly sensitive". Well I have have been used to the rough and tumble of trade union politics for over 30 years (including a ten-year stint as a Unison Branch Secretary) and do not see myself as being overly "sensitive". Being openly abused in a public forum by an elected Councillor (indeed, Leader of the Council) is, however, new territory for me. I should add that in my trade union activities I am familiar with the "comedy defence" being used to excuse a multitude of sins but thought such an approach was a thing of the past. Clearly not!

4. As I use twitter I must expect "some challenge back". This twitter stream started with me - a loyal Party member - asking why certain Labour people had blocked me - I do not see why that should mean that I am open to abuse and attack! Incidentally, having been blocked by those named-above they have tried to ensure that THEY cannot be "challenged back"! The fact is that the abuse arose solely because I attended the public Council meeting.

5. The tweets were not, according to Ms Sharma, bullying, a breach of equality rules nor intimidating. They did not show a lack of respect or courtesy to me nor bring the office of leader of the Council into disrepute. Well judge for yourselves. I believe the tweets were obviously directed at me and were an attempt to ridicule me so that I stayed away from further public meetings.

Like the other recent formal complaint about Councillor Cooper and his tweets, this matter was once again dealt with by highly-paid employee Ms Sharma and so at least I can be assured of her complete independence! The real issue here is that if you put your head above the parapet and choose to comment of the doings of Sandwell Council, or attend meetings, you may well be attacked in very personal terms by the Leader of the Council and there is very little point in making an official complaint about it.

Cllr Cooper attacks those of twitter who attempt to scrutinise his exploits and accuses them of "doing Sandwell down". Nothing could be further from the truth.

I am "left" and loyal and it takes an awful lot to make me even think about not supporting the party I have been a member of for decades...... After the elections in May Labour has 70 of the 72 seats on Sandwell Council and Councillor Cooper quotes this as his mandate to do what he will. It is effectively a one-party state and so there is a responsibility upon them to be open and accountable. They should welcome scrutiny instead of trying to keep matters secret and doing all they can to stifle dissent.

 But one thing is certain - power can corrupt and absolute power can corrupt absolutely. Now that is something that should give everyone pause for thought.


e         t @bcrover (Vernon Grant)

Confidential phone no: 07599 983737


I am looking for interesting people of an independent frame of mind to supply a guest blog post to “The Skidder”.

The “rules” are pretty simple:

1. ANY subject/theme but with some sort of relevance to Sandwell (so politicians need not necessarily write about politics unless they want to!). Not just about you unless a story has a wider resonance. Obviously nothing illegal, libellous or too rude;

2. You MUST supply an e-mail which can (and will) be publicly-published with the blog (so that folk can contact you direct with any complaints etc rather than me). If you cannot do that, I am afraid that is, literally, end of story. You can always set up a new account so that your main account remains private;

3. I will take a “light” editorial view and make suggestions if applicable. I do not intend to interfere if I disagree with your views but only to make suggestions, correct possible errors etc. I will not publish any amendments unless they have been specifically agreed with you first.  Thus if we cannot agree, that is the end of it and the piece will not be published. As, ultimately, I am responsible for the blog I am afraid I have to reserve the right to reject any piece submitted.

The piece should be fairly short and definitely not longer than would fit on one ordinary page (unless you have something VERY special to say).

A one or two line “autobiography” will be helpful (as long as it is true!)

The blog must be your own work (so that rules out one prominent local figure!)

“Vernon Grant”.


Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Technical Post - The Public - Complaint to Information Commissioner

Once again, we are indebted to Darryl Magher for his work trying to discover the secrets of Sandwell's "brilliant deal" - so good that Sandwell Council and the avaricious College won't tell us, the people, about it!



e               t  @bcrover  (Vernon Grant)

Confidential phone no: 07599 983737

The following document was sent my mail to The Information Commissioner with copies to SMBC and Sandwell College on 25th June, 2014:

25th JUNE, 2014

Concerning matters relating to the former arts centre known as The Public, West Bromwich and FoI Act requests to Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council (1) and Sandwell College (2)

History of the Requests:

1.  In respect of Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council (“SMBC”) (all via
(a) Request 15/01/14;
(b) Reply 27/01/14;
(c) Request for Internal Review 14/03/14;
(d) Response following Internal Review 11/04/14.

2. In respect of Sandwell College (“SC”) (all via
(a) Request 15/01/14;
(b) Reply (incomplete) 27/02/14 (enclosures finally disclosed 17/03/14);
(c) Request for Internal Review 16/03/14;
(d) Reply 11/04/14

The above together with all other correspondence relating to this complaint via forms part of this complaint. In particular, I would refer you specifically to the points raised in my Request for Internal Review addressed to both parties although that document related to my state of knowledge at that particular date and certain points require correction, amplification and further explanation. Also, with the passage of time, some new information has come to light and this is set out below.


Save where specifically stated below the following is generic information in respect of the complaints against both public organisations.

The Background to the Requests:

The Public was a large, bespoke, arts and community centre in central West Bromwich designed by an internationally-renowned architect. It was principally funded by the taxpayer via The Arts Council, The European Regional Development Fund and Advantage West Midlands (“AVM” - now defunct and whose legal responsibilities are believed to now lie with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills - “BIS”). The project had a difficult gestation and birth and was mired in controversy. Eventually SMBC stepped-in to “rescue” the project although there is some social media evidence that suggests the political leadership of SMBC had ulterior motives in taking this action. It seems that the funding bodies effectively washed their hands of the project at this point although there is a suggestion that there may be either (1) a restriction against a disposal of the building without the consent of AVM and/or (2) a restriction against change of use of the building without the consent of AVM, its successors in title. Certainly the restriction (2) is contained in the freehold title WM711428 but there is also reference in SMBC documents disclosed to date which appear at least to show that restriction (1) is also in play. I am attempting to make further investigations concerning this aspect of the matter.

As with most matters concerning this case everything has been kept secret by the parties save where they have been forced to provide information via FoI requests or they have deliberately leaked information to the media via their “spin-doctors”. Suffice to say here that from “day one” of the “rescue” of The Public by SMBC they set about a series of rolling reviews as to the future of the building. This culminated in them wasting £39,000 ex vat of taxpayers’ money in Spring 2012 on two ludicrous reports from expensive property consultants, Jones Lang LaSalle (“the JLL reports”) which they then declined to publicly disclose. I am not privy to the secret instructions to JLL but it is clear that their brief – whatever else it included – was to consider other uses for the building without it be converted for any other purpose (which JLL themselves recognised would be a costly matter). There is no need for me to go into too much detail here but two of their £39,000 conclusions were that the building was most definitely NOT suitable for use as either a college or a school.

It is also relevant here, as far as Freedom of Information is concerned, that SMBC fought tooth and nail against disclosing the JLL reports and specifically refused to do so pursuant to a FoI request dated 2nd September, 2013 from Mr Brian Crockett (via “The Public – commissioned reports” - SMBC reference INT1-338051304). SMBC’s contempt for FoI law was shown by the fact that despite refusing to make disclosure via the Act they later deliberately leaked information from the reports to the local Express and Star “newspaper”. (You will encounter this same modus operandi again below).

In the meantime, SC were having a brand new £77m campus built for them by Interserve plc (see again below), also in  central West Bromwich. There are media quotes from the time that SC were dissatisfied with the size of their proposed new building and, for reasons unknown, the “leader” of SMBC, Councillor Darren Cooper, also complained to the press with regard to this although, of course, SC is not funded by, and is (allegedly) independent of, SMBC. Accordingly, we are told that in September, 2012 – at the precise time that SC were moving into their brand new building – they decided they wanted to grab The Public too and so approached SMBC to take the multi-million pound building and change its usage. It appears to be implicit in everything that has come to light thus far that, having just received a £77M building, there was no way that SC could get central government funding for a second multi-million pound site in West Bromwich and nor did they have the capability to borrow the money to acquire the Public site. For reasons unknown, SMBC took it upon themselves to borrow the money to convert the building for them.

Both SMBC and SC are publicly-funded bodies and their spending should be susceptible to public scrutiny. The former is, of course, a local authority and the latter is a college, funded almost entirely by the Skills Funding Agency and other government bodies. Nevertheless, they have both taken every precaution to keep their dealings secret and, in the case of SC, they have redacted all minutes relating to The Public from the minutes of the meetings of their Board of Governors (although SOME of these have now come to light via other FoI requests and further requests are pending). Accordingly, the events between SC’s grab for the building in September, 2012 and May, 2013 are mostly still secret. On 9th May, 2013 (and this date is important) SMBC and SC held a number of press briefings announcing to the world that The Public would be closed as an arts centre and that the building would be converted for use as a sixth-form college/school opening in September, 2014 thus giving the impression that apart from the legal niceties, this was a “done deal”. SC were to be given a 25 year “lease” of the building (possibly with break-clauses although that is still secret 6 months after the “deal” was signed). I believe that many of the “problems” which are slowly emerging in respect of this still-secret deal is that there was no, or no adequate planning, involved and the parties created a very tight timetable to complete the project. Thus the planning has proceeded on a “back of an envelope” basis and everything has been done retrospectively to “fit in” with the he pre-ordained political decision by the SMBC “leadership”.

Thus it has now been established that there was no formal appraisal of the proposed scheme before the press conferences and the public announcements on 9th May, 2013 as one would obviously have expected. SMBC hurriedly arranged such an exercise (for what it was worth) at a meeting on 22nd May, 2013 some 13 days after the “deal” had been announced. Unsurprisingly the college deal was chosen as the way forward but, even though this so-called meeting was held after the event, there are three very important matters arising therefrom:

1. It was recognised that the proposal at that time, ie for SMBC to grant a 25-year lease to SC, could be seen as a “disposal” and with reference to what I have said above, there is a specific minute from the meeting which reads: “NB – SMBC is not allowed to dispose of the building”. There was clearly some concern with regard to this and at this meeting (if not before) it was decided that although there would be a 25 year lease which would be registered with HM Land Registry (again see further below) they would simply call the whole deal a “concordat” and that would solve the “problem”. The minute specifically reads: “Concordat rather than lease ensures that a change of use is not viewed as a disposal”. Obviously one of the whole purposes of the FoI request was to consider the legality of the whole transaction and it is vital for this (and for many other reasons) that I can see both the “concordat” and the lease and take suitable legal advice.

2. It was perfectly possible for SMBC to employ a contractor direct for the conversion works (even Interserve Construction Limited) yet at the meeting on 22nd May, 2013 it HAD ALREADY BEEN DECIDED that the multi-million contract for the conversion of the arts centre to a college would not be put out to competitive tender (when Interserve Construction Limited could have tendered if they so wished) but would be gifted to Sandwell Futures Limited (“SFL”) in which SMBC itself has a 10% shareholding. The two other main shareholders in SFL are Interserve-related companies and Dalmore Capital (as successors to Barclays Private Equity). As will be seen, SFL themselves  then sub-contracted for Interserve Construction Limited to actually do the fit-out work since SFL are just a “special purpose vehicle” used for channelling BSF monies to various parties and who state in their accounts that they have “no employees”. It is not clear at this stage who within SMBC had already made the decision to gift the contract to Interserve Construction Limited via SFL (more below) but it would appear to be the political leadership of SMBC, in the full knowledge that SFL could not do the actual work but would sub-contact it to Interserve Construction Limited. There has been no suggestion to date that SFL had exclusivity in respect of this work but rather, as we shall see, it just happened to be convenient to use them under an existing procurement arrangement. As above, at this stage, the announcement had ALREADY been made for the college/school to open in September, 2014 and so it would have been an impossibility within that timescale for SMBC to properly put the matter out to tender and to comply with the timescale that it, itself, had devised and imposed upon itself. In those circumstances, it is particularly incumbent on SMBC to show that they have secured best value for the public purse in such a peculiar arrangement but they have refused to disclose all material terms of the various contracts as requested in my original FoI request. I should add that, at this stage, the precise business arrangements between SMBC, SFL and Interserve group companies are opaque but those employees meeting on 22nd May, 2013 were somehow of the view that awarding SFL the contract (rather than Interserve Construction Ltd direct) and to the exclusion of all Interserve’s competitors was in some way beneficial to SMBC – the actual minute reads (my emphasis): “Sandwell Futures would be appointed by SMBC to undertake the work required (opportunity)”. It will be shown below that when SMBC and SC purported to disclose the “concordat” etc. they did so in a way whereby all operative clauses were redacted and only the “boiler-plate” clauses disclosed. One of the reasons given for this is said to be commercial confidentiality but clearly there is a public interest, not least to other potential contractors with SMBC, if there is some sort of existing “side-deal” between SFL and SMBC whereby it is advantageous and “an opportunity” for SMBC to contract solely with SFL and exclude all others. There is an obvious potential conflict of interest here and a very real risk that the public may not get “best value” from such an arrangement. Accordingly the public interest for full disclosure outweighs the rights of the parties to any, or any alleged, “commercial confidentiality” and the full contracts should be disclosed as requested. Incidentally, the figures leaked by SMBC to the media in respect of the conversion costs range from £5.5M to £6.72M which seems an extraordinarily wide “range” and seems to give the especially-favoured contractor considerable leeway to charge above the minimum figure. Yet again it is clearly in the public interest to ascertain whether the overall contract constitutes “best value”.

3. Although SMBC has its own large legal department it regularly outsources work (at considerable cost to the public purse) to private firms of solicitors. It has sought to formalise this by coming to a more specific outsourcing arrangement with Ashfords, Solicitors, based primarily in the South-West of England. At the meeting on 22nd May, 2013 SMBC had one of its own lawyers present and, for reasons unknown, also had a senior partner from Ashfords come up from Exeter to Sandwell to participate. As above, the political decision to close The Public and change it into a college had already been made and announced but the meeting was asked to “objectively” score the college deal against another option ie keeping The Public open. Whatever the merits of this exercise, a decision in favour of the college deal was the only one that was likely to lead to substantial work and, therefore, fees for Messrs Ashfords and to the lay person there appears to be a clear conflict of interest in Ashfords being present. The minutes of the meeting – which have not yet been corrected despite local publicity – appear to show, however, that the Partner from Ashfords was not only present at the meeting but actively participated in the decision-making process which again, to the lay person, appears to be a clear conflict of interest situation. As things turned out, Ashfords were given the legal work by SMBC and were paid a very substantial sum ie £43,230.40p excluding VAT. (I will return to Messrs Ashfords further below in respect of the contractual clauses designed to thwart FoI disclosure).

In my Request for an Internal Review which I have specifically referred you to, I wrote at length about the (now defunct) BSF programme with all its bureaucracy and checks and balances which appears to be the antithesis to this “deal”. Further information does appear to show that SMBC originally advertised the particular BSF contract by OJEU notice 2007/s 154 – 192270 although I have not been able to see this via the internet. It is, however, referred to in the actual BSF contract award notice 2009/s 149-217829. SMBC keep referring to the 2007 notice as being their authority for gifting the contract to Interserve Construction Limited via the artificial “device” of SFL but have yet to disclose a copy nor explain why or how it takes precedence over the 2009 award notice. Even so, and I am not a lawyer, the 2009 Notice does appear to have been drawn in exceedingly wide terms - - for example, it even permits Interserve company Environments for Learning Limited to build crematoria under the Building Schools for the Future programme (!) but the fact is that the anticipated work under the OJEU Notice was to be done UNDER THE BSF scheme which was stopped in 2010 (except for some residuary work under the Priority Schools programme). SMBC are apparently attempting to continue to use it for all educational capital spending for the immediate future even though it is clearly not BSF work and to avoid open procurement (see further below) They may also be purporting to use the scheme for matters which may not be connected with BSF at all. That is not of concern to this complaint (unfortunately) but it is relevant that I should see all the contractual documents related to the college deal to ascertain, with legal advice if applicable, that SMBC have acted within the purported authority provided by the OJEU notices.

 Further, it is in the public interest that the parties disclose the costs and cost-calculation process since the public needs to be satisfied that it is getting “best value” from this non-tendered “deal”. As I will return to below, from the little information in the public domain, it does seem that SC are to pay little or even no actual rent under the lease. Rather, allegedly cash-strapped SMBC are borrowing the money for the conversion costs and then SC will repay this over 25 years (seemingly plus interest at Public Works Loan Board rates). It seems that SC were naturally concerned (despite the cushy deal they appear to be getting) to keep the conversion costs to a minimum and, astoundingly, they sought assurances by letter FROM INTERSERVE that they would get “best value” – somewhat akin to turkeys seeking assurances from the farmer that they would live to see Christmas morning. Of course, the redacted documents disclosed pursuant to this process may show some other form of payment mechanism but this appears to be contradicted by references to the appointment of “costs consultants” who, no doubt at considerable cost to the public purse, are apparently to report on the monies expended. From new information it appears that SC wanted to employ their nominated costs consultants but were over-ruled on this by SMBC who, for reasons as yet unknown, insisted on their own choice. Once again, it is public money at stake here. There is also the question of who pays for the costs consultants, the local taxpayer via SMBC or the taxpayer at large via SC.

In recent documents disclosed by SMBC pursuant to a different FoI request SMBC say that the original BSF contract was capped at £425m. Despite the fact that only a small number of BSF scheme schools were actually built the Council’s records appear to show very considerable sums of money being paid to Interserve-related companies. The actual (very widely-drawn) OJEU award for the BSF programme was to an Interserve-linked company called Environments for Learning Limited but there was a facility to set up “special purpose vehicles” to “deliver” aspects of the projects and we are told that (no employee) Sandwell Futures Limited is one such special purpose vehicle. The records show, however, that sums are also being paid to other Interserve-linked companies such as Environments for Learning PFI One Limited, Environments for Learning Sandwell PSP Limited and Building Schools for the Future Investments LLP. There will shortly be further FoI requests as to the extents of the payments but a single FoI to date has shown that SMBC paid out £103M  to SFL over 4 years from the “Street Scene” (ie not ostensibly an educational) budget alone. Huge sums appear to have been paid out via other SMBC budgets too. I maintain the argument in my application for internal review document that this particular contract has nothing whatsoever to do with the BSF programme so that any attempt to claim that it does makes the contracts null and void together with any “confidentiality clauses” contained therein. It is also in the public interest to know the total cost of this contract to see whether the £425m cap has, in fact, been breached.

Because this strange arrangement is patently nothing whatsoever to do with the BSF programme there is no exclusivity provision for Interserve companies, including Sandwell Futures Limited to be awarded this multi-million pound contract (even SMBC have not claimed this to date simply saying awarded this multi-million pound contract (even SMBC have not claimed this to date simply saying that they had the legal authority – if they wished - to instruct Interserve Construction Limited via the artificial device of SFL pursuant to the OJEU notice/contract). Accordingly, it was a political decision not to put the fit-out contract out to tender but to gift it to Interserve Construction Limited (“ICL”) via SFL and, therefore, it is incumbent upon SMBC to show that they secured best value. How they can do that having excluded all others is a moot point which is not strictly relevant here but the starting point simply has to be full disclosure of the costs and cost-calculation mechanism in the redacted parts of the documents disclosed to date. There is also the question whether the taxpayer is paying a higher cost to channel the money via SFL rather than simply instructing ICL direct and, if so, why this should be and why this is in the best interests of the taxpayer. It also raises a conflict of interest question in that SMBC has two of its own employees on the board of SFL. One would imagine their responsibilities are to the taxpayers of Sandwell but they also owe a fiduciary duty to the shareholders of SFL too and they are primarily Interserve-related companies and Dalmore Capital. (There is a separate FoI request pending about “firewalls” and how these individuals are prevented from acquiring information which may give rise to further conflicts of interest but that is not strictly relevant here). Clearly all the costings need to be disclosed so that expert advice can be obtained.

(There is a rumour – which being a rumour may, of course, be untrue - that the works are running late. It seems that the “concordat” provides an indemnity from SMBC (ie the taxpayer) to pay taxpayers’ money to the taxpayer-funded SC in the event of delay in the contract. This appears to be implicit in SMBC’s own “Notice of an Executive Decision” dated 10th December, 2013 whereby SMBC were unable or unwilling to give 28 days notice of a “key decision” to set aside allegedly sparse resources as a “contingency” for late completion FROM SMBC taxpayer funds. (Incidentally, this “decision” is further evidence of the “back of an envelope” way the project progressed and how significant decisions were still being made very late in the day). Clearly this is potentially a very serious matter indeed and the public is entitled to know the extent of the potential indemnity and why the local taxpayers of Sandwell is apparently at risk of these costs when funding of SC is not their legal responsibility.

 If there is late-running SMBC may be tempted to throw additional taxpayers’ money to Interserve to speed matters up which then begs the question whether such amounts will be paid for by the taxpayer directly or indirectly through the loan repayments by SC. The public is entitled to know the position and, again, whether the local or national taxpayer may end up paying for this. (There is also the question whether Interserve will face penalties for late completion and, if not, why not?)


With regard to what is known of the “deal” itself (such disclosure having been heavily redacted by BOTH SMBC and SC):

1. It is known that SC wanted to insert break clauses into the “concordat”/lease but it would APPEAR that such clauses are not operative. This must be ascertained, however. If there are break clauses then this raises serious questions as to the reasonableness of paying Interserve Construction Limited multi-million pounds of taxpayers’ money on the current conversion. If there are no break clauses (save the usual in respect on one party being in breach of the lease terms etc) then that brings us back to the question whether the 25 year is, legally, a disposal and, if so, whether such a disposal is lawful – a question of clear public interest;

2. It APPEARS that SMBC have taken a highly-unusual step in that, despite having allegedly granted a 25-year lease THEY have retained a very expensive maintenance liability. They have mentioned the considerable figure of £300,000 PER ANNUM which is an extraordinary sum. Clearly if SMBC are receiving no or no actual rent on a huge publicly-owned building (just repayment of a loan) then the question must be what other steps they took to seek alternative options for the building. Once again it appears they decided on the college deal without marketing the property in any other way. The grasping SC has played hardball and the local taxpayers of Sandwell are to pick up the tab. On the same subject this is a massive building of some 122,891 sq ft. Even the useless JLL reports stated that a rental of £10.75 psf could be achieved and this is, of course an historic figure and one that did NOT take into account the –now- fact of a multi-million pound conversion. And so, notwithstanding the repayment of any “loan” the College should be paying a minimum commercial rental of £1.3M per annum (£32.5M over the 25 year lease period). Clearly it is in the public interest to know whether the College has avoided paying any real rent so that the question can be asked as to why this should be. This may, of course, be part of the reason the parties are so anxious to hide the details. I should add here that SC has currently taken some other office space in central West Bromwich – allegedly for the short-term – and is paying net rent of £9.11p psf. Luckily, the Landlords are Labour Party Properties Limited!

3. It appears that the aforementioned Ashfords Solicitors were also called upon - very late in the day & just before signature of the agreements (more evidence of retrospective action fitting the political will) to advise whether the “cushy” deal being given  by SMBC to SC constituted unlawful state aid. I am not a lawyer but Ashfords appear to have advised that lo and behold, the deal was all legal apart from a query concerning the café (see below). It seems that this was primarily on the grounds that SC is an educational institution and, therefore, non-commercial. I believe this was also an important factor used in persuading the European Regional Development Fund not to seek recovery of the large sums they had paid into the arts centre project and also persuading the legal successors of AVM to lift the restriction on change of use. However, in a minute of SC’s Board of Governors which was originally redacted and only obtained via a separate FoI request the College states that their own lawyers had advised: “The College could have the option to use the building for purposes other than a sixth form centre”. Clearly IF such a clause is contained in the still secret parts of the “concordat/lease”, this would appear to undermine the entire publicly-stated raison d’etre for the project. Further, if there is a clause permitting SC to change use to what are actually commercial undertakings then the question of unlawful state aid becomes pertinent once again and it is in the public interest that these matters are open to scrutiny.

4. Even Ashfords were slightly exercised by the question of the café at the building. The arts centre ran a café and SC are stated to be retaining it for college and public use. Ashfords opined that as the operation of the café by SC would be via arms-length franchise/concession this did not constitute state aid (even though one imagines that SC is likely to receive rent or some other franchise payment?) Clearly it is again a matter of public interest to see what precise arrangements for the operation of the café have been made in the “concordat/lease” as between two publicly-funded bodies and to ensure that a third party is not to profit thereby at public expense.

Turning to the actual “concordat”/lease documents and more specific questions of confidentiality I would start by saying that this is very much a one-off transaction. It is hard to imagine that another such bespoke building will be destroyed in this way or that a local authority will give anyone such a “favourable” deal for such an extended period (25 years). It is hard to imagine that a local authority would try and resurrect the Building Schools for the Future project and apply it to something like this. It is hard to see that a contractor will hold such sway over two public bodies and be given carte blanche to dictate the costings without appropriate checks and balances and/or proper tendering or competition competition. Given the highly unusual terms of the “concordat”/lease insofar as they are known (eg SMBC retaining a massive liability for 25 years for maintenance/repairs; little or no actual rent etc.) it is hard to see that this type of deal is likely to be repeated by anyone let alone the parties to this transaction. It is a real one-off and does not set a precedent in any way. Accordingly, I submit that it cannot be argued that anything related to this “deal” is likely to affect the future relationships between the parties. It should also be noted here that SC in principally funded by the taxpayer at large via central government and that it is highly unusual for a local authority to take it upon itself to borrow money on behalf of a college and to provide it with other significant financial assistance as is the case here. Most local authorities other than Sandwell are facing financial pressure and difficulties in respect of fulfilling their own statutory obligations without taking it upon themselves to fund third parties to whom they owe no responsibility. Accordingly, any disclosure of allegedly commercial information is unlikely to affect the future relationship between SMBC and SC. I will use the shorthand “one-off” where applicable.

The parties have referred to various reasons why the redacted information and other undisclosed information should not be released. There are a couple of minor matters:

1. Non-disclosure of execution signatures. I have dealt with this in the request for an internal review ie I have no wish to see the signatures unless any of the signatories are Kerry Ann Bolister and/or Sarah Melanie Dudley who are both employees of SMBC and Directors of SFL – another contracting party;

2. I do not need details of the joint bank account.

Dealing with the more substantive matters:

Section 21 – Information accessible by other means. Apart from some mainly irrelevant matters the bone of contention here is in respect of the Lease. As long ago as February, 2014, and as part of the original FoI reply in this process, SC stated that they had the lease and that it would be publicly available via HM Land Registry “shortly”. I am informed by a colleague that as at 17th June, 2014 registration had NOT taken place. Thus the document is NOT accessible by other means even though such leases should normally be registered within two months of execution.

Section 41 – Confidential Information. I repeat the argument that if the contracts are unlawful then any confidentiality clauses fail. I repeat the “one-off” argument. There should be no commercial information concealment where the two main parties are both publicly funded bodies.

I am aware that there may be confidential discussions prior to the execution of the agreement documents but submit that once the agreements are signed then any arguments as to the expectations of the parties as to confidentiality are otiose as the provisions of the agreements themselves prevail. Having said that, it cannot be correct that a local authority can seek to gift a contact to a private company, Interserve Construction Limited, without tender and to keep the contents confidential simply by channelling it via the artificial device of third party company – SFL – in which it holds a 10% shareholding. That is inequitable and wrong. Interserve Construction Limited are not a SPV within the meaning of the OJEU notice and so the direction of the multi-million pound contract to them via SFL is a sham. It follows that the parties should not be able to invoke confidentiality where they could have asked Interserve Construction Limited to bid for the work direct but chose instead to use SFL merely to try and “fit” the contract into the defunct BSF scheme and avoid a competitive process (and the time that would have taken).  If the contract had been tendered then it would have had to have been advertised and so “public” at least to that extent.

It is also inequitable that some of the contractual documentation should include confidentiality clauses designed to thwart the operation of the FoI Act as between two publicly-funded bodies. It is particularly objectionable that some of the agreements have been prepared by Ashfords Solicitors who, as above, apparently saw fit to involve themselves in the actual decision-making progress that led to this bizarre “deal” in the first place. The two public bodies must have been aware that the public would wish to see details of this odd transaction for the reasons set out above (and others) but have deliberately sought to keep the information secret. As between the two public-bodies there should be no confidentiality from the outset, but certainly none from the time that the agreements were executed and became legally-binding ie late December, 2013.

If the Information Commissioner is not with me on this there is the question of waiver of confidentiality. SC have stated in this process: “The Council and the third party contractors have gone to great lengths to try to protect their confidential information…”. It is said by SC that there was an expectation of confidentiality pre-contract so that to disclose the contract details would be an actionable breach of confidence. Alternatively, there is an equitable obligation of confidence pursuant to the "Coco test". There is even a suggestion that some sort of obligation of confidentiality arose from correspondence between the parties post contract (?) Finally the parties rely on the contracts/leases etc. themselves. The fact of the matter is, however, that as in the case of the JLL reports SMBC have shown total contempt for FoI law and – apparently unilaterally – leaked some of the redacted information, again to the Express and Star “newspaper” who were happy to print same. I submit that the parties cannot pick and choose what allegedly confidential information can be publicly leaked and then seek to maintain confidentiality otherwise. By its actions of partially disclosing some of the redacted information I submit that confidentiality has been waived in its entirety. SC and SFL/Interserve have their remedy, should they choose to exercise it, in respect of what SC itself calls “an actionable breach of confidence” against SMBC.

S41 Trade secrets etc.: It is said that there are a number of trade secrets in the “concordat” etc. that require protection. I repeat the bizarre nature of this transaction and again refer to the “one-off” argument, it is hard to imagine how such an unusual project would have any bearing on future contracts or give future competitors a competitive advantage although SMBC may have ulterior motives here (more below).
SC is seeking to avoid state aid considerations on the basis that it is a publicly-funded educational institution and yet it makes spurious claims that disclosure of its “bespoke financial projections” (ie for spending taxpayers’ money) or the “degree of risk the College has assumed under the concordat” would provide their competitors with a competitive advantage. It is difficult to imagine that an organisation that is wholly reliant on taxpayer funding has “competitors” who would benefit from knowledge of this unique “deal”.

If the Information Commissioner agrees that channelling the contract to ICL via the artificial device of SFL was a sham to avoid a proper procurement process then there is no “absolute exemption” from disclosure.

Section 43 & 43(2): The Parties appear to accept that the public interest test applies in respect of commercial information purportedly redacted pursuant to these provisions. As part of this process SC have produced a detailed “Appendix A” and pointed out each provision where they say the public interest test applies. In each case they argue that the test should be applied in their favour. It will be no surprise that I contend the precise opposite!

There is a specific allegation that disclosure of the redacted information would prejudice or impede the viability of the ongoing project but this is nonsense. The contracts cannot now be changed. They could, of course, be amended by the parties but that is altogether different. The fact that the lease was to be filed at HM Land Registry is indicative of the fact that the arrangements were completed and operative from late December, 2013. There will also be mechanisms within the agreements in respect of cost and time overruns (for what they are worth given the unusual facts). It is now mid-June and Interserve Construction Limited has already substantially destroyed and/or damaged the original interior. Like it or not, the project will have to proceed but that does not mean that other legal remedies may be available in respect of the sordid affair including the possible liability of councillors for losses to the public purse.

It is clearly in the public interest to ascertain how much of the local taxpayers’ money is being used to fund a college which is not the responsibility of SMBC (even if the taxpayer at large will still end up picking up the costs). It is the public interest that those in central government and its agencies who are granting funds to SC should be aware that they are receiving huge financial assistance elsewhere via a third party (SMBC). As the work could not be gifted to Interserve Construction Limited either via the defunct BSF programme or the OJEU Notice the public needs to know the exact financial nature of the sham arrangement to direct the contract via SFL when there is no obvious reason for this apart from avoiding a proper procurement process. It is in the public interest that Interserve Construction/SFL are providing “best value”.
It is not just financial considerations that apply. The public are entitled to know the facts so as to understand them (particularly as this whole “deal” is so bizarre) and, if relevant, to challenge them.

It is said that disclosure of the commercial interests of the parties would affect their ability to participate competitively, be effective in negotiations and successfully enter into transactions with other commercial entities. I repeat the “one off” argument. I also refer to the possible ulterior motive of SMBC trying to keep all this secret since despite the huge payments that have gone to SFL/Interserve already and the £425M “cap”, SMBC have stated in their Medium Term Financial Strategy: “The LEP (ie Sandwell Futures Limited/Interserve) was formed in Spring 2009 and will assist the Council in managing the transformational change to be bought [sic] about in learning through support of £370M in new school facilities”. In other words, SFL/Interserve are apparently already lined up to receive a colossal amount of public money – apparently without tender or competition but under the OJEU Notice – and so is hard to see that disclosure here will cause them any competitive disadvantage (unless, of course, these arrangements turn out to be unlawful).

I will not rehearse all the other ridiculous claims that commercial confidentiality  trumps the public interest in disclosure as I think I have made the point but again refer to SC’s Appendix 1 and ask the Information Commissioner to apply the public interest test in each specific case rather than disapply it.

I reserve the right to amend this complaint if further information enters the public domain.

Darryl Magher

25th June, 2014

To: Information Commissioner’s Office

      cc Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council & Sandwell College

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Skidder Shorts No. 13 - SMBC & The Baggies

West Bromwich Albion Group Limited have only filed one set or accounts - for 2012 - but these showed a small profit of £1.5m on a record turnover. Not too bad in the crazed world of football finances. When all said and done, however, it is a private enterprise and not one - surely- which should be receiving funds from allegedly cash-strapped Sandwell Council in these austere times? Further, it may come as a surprise to the political High Command that some people in Sandwell don't actually care for football. Whisper it softly, but there are even some who support Wolves (like the infamous "Ian Crow")!

The Baggies have also set up their own charity which does some very good work - The Albion Foundation. This also receives considerable sums from SMBC - nearly half a million pounds in the last 3 financial years and continuing (£476,719.27p to be exact plus another £17, 184.66 in the last two months). Whether they are better at providing services than other charities is subject to further investigation at this time as is the selection criteria applied by SMBC when doling-out this substantial funding.

Going back to the private enterprise that is the football club, my recent FoI request shows that in the last 3 years, and despite austerity and cuts, SMBC has forwarded them £50,593.50p of taxpayers' dosh plus another £2,000 last month. Of this, a small sum of  just £385 was in respect of some tickets for some disadvantaged folk (which apparently could not be provided by the Club itself) but that still leaves over £50K from you and I for what Ian Crow  used to call "the Tesco Bags". The Club has also directly benefited from the closure of The Public by SMBC in respect of additional conference bookings etc.

SMBC has also forked out at least £15k so far which was intended for s106 infrastructure spending on the, er,  proposed "Celebration Statue"......... (This is not a WBA project as such).

On the subject of the Baggies, enter Labour's moronic "leader", Darren Cooper aka "The Turdfinder-General". He has been a bit reticent on his allegedly "personal" twitter account recently but he has had a right strop on about WBA's choice of new manager and is even threatening to show up at the proposed demo at The Hawthorns and throw his toys about. In his envious little way he has had another go at the Chairman's wealth. He also retweeted this - potentially libellous - gem:

"The xxxx xxxx regime is corrupt! #wba is no longer a football club for the fans but a cash cow with the sole purpose of personal gain"

If this is not "an endorsement" of the tweet from #Turdy what does he mean? He has a reputation for not having the cojones to deliver attacks personally but to do so via retweets eg. the infamous Thatcher "rot in hell" attack. If he does believe it then why the hell is his Labour Council paying the "corrupt regime" over £50k of our money - just when he is culling a third of the SMBC workforce?

Finally, there was an interesting vignette arising from all this. The megalomaniac Turdy has his band of brown-nosers in the mainstream media who are prepared to do his bidding in respect of political "news" but when Alan Irvine was appointed he tweeted sports hack Steve Madeley at the Express and Star and ordered:

"Steve ring me for a quote I am so angry".

This resulted in the curious tweet from our Steve, "Sent you a DM".

Addendum 18/06: And so it came to pass - the grovellers at the E&S were quick to obey Their Master's Voice and give Turdy extensive coverage in an article published yesterday. It also appears that Cooper is using his Sandwell Council iphone (paid for by the taxpayer) for some of his twitter campaign against the WBA heirarchy and to organise a "peaceful demonstration" which I am sure you will agree is an excellent use of a public asset! Hope we don't have to pay for any policing of this "demo".

Back to original text:

Maybe, Turdy thinks that with SMBC paying WBA & the Foundation so much of (our) money this entitles him and his inflated ego to a greater say than other fans but at least this all shows there is at least one person in West Brom who is his own man and who is not beholden to the Pyongyang regime!

I write this looking at my much cherished Cyrille Regis autograph and, if you don't mind strong language, respectfully refer you to this brilliant You Tube clip showing another crazed leader's demented behaviour as he hears of the Irvine appointment and as he faces his downfall surrounded by sycophants.......


e                 t  @bcrover (Vernon Grant)

Confidential phone line: 07599 983737

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Public - The Plot Thickens.....

On 22nd May, 2013 Sandwell Council (“SMBC”) held a meeting at Haden Hill House Museum to “appraise” whether to gift the multi-million pound taxpayer-funded Public to grasping Sandwell College or to permit it to stay open. Now read on….

The taxpayer – you and I – funded the construction of The Public but via The Arts Council, The European Regional Development Fund and another public body which has since been disbanded, Advantage West Midlands. There is a myth at large that SMBC paid for the building but they did not.

The Public went into administration and was “rescued” by SMBC – talk about out of the frying pan into the fire! Unfortunately, the Arts Council was under heavy political flak in respect of the project and simply walked away in 2006 without insisting on any legal safeguards to protect the future of the building. They later piled Pelion on Ossa by rejecting The Public’s first bid for National Portfolio funding.

Enter SMBC including Hussain and the laughable “leader”, Darren Cooper, aka “The Turdmeister”. This blog has contended all along that Labour had no intention of keeping The Public as an arts centre. From day one they insisted on an almost constant stream of “reviews” culminating in the ludicrous waste of £39,000 ex Vat on the Jones Lang LaSalle reports (plus the other £11,500 ex vat they paid them to report on the crappy Town Hall offices where some of The Public tenants were forced to move). The problem with the JLL reports (see posts passim) was that they were based on other uses for the building as it was (ie a purpose built arts and community facility) and NOT what uses it could be put to if the inside was destroyed and a multi-million pound sum borrowed to reconfigure it – which is what has actually happened. It is noteworthy, in passing, that the £39,000 reports specifically stated that the building was NOT suitable for a school or college.

Another problem for Turdy and his followers was that New Square was going to be a game-changer for The Public in terms of visitor numbers which did, indeed, start to increase substantially as the shopping centre opened and so there was a “rush” to kill the building off.

Let me, if you will, scroll back to the question of Labour’s motivation in taking the building on. I have mentioned this in an earlier blog but, to date, Turdy has refused to say whether the following tweets to a protected account (so that I am unable to see the other side of the conversation) relate to The Public:

05/07/13 “Backed for the money from other partners. Who’d say no to a £50m investment in one or our towns #westbrom “; and to the same person in the same conversation:

05/07/13 “Not Council project Baggie. Was a Council rescue and indeed a waste of money”.

Ask again Cooper – does this relate to The Public and, if so, was the “rescue” simply a cynical attempt by SMBC to grab the building from the original funders?

Back to Haden Hill. For some bizarre reason the meeting was “chaired” by a facilitator – Robin Powell - who is described in the minutes as “Risk Management Adviser, Transform Sandwell” ie the multi-million pound SMBC disaster & emerging scandal! (Honestly, I have not made this up).

In my earlier blog, “Ashfords Solicitors – Part One – The Public”, I pointed out that a senior partner and head of projects was brought up all the way from Exeter to Haden Hill House and, if the minutes are accurate, felt able to participate in the actual decision-making process which would lead, in due course, to Ashfords receiving very substantial fees in the College deal!

The other attendees from SMBC were: Jim Wells, Frank Caldwell, Garry Morris, Nicola Leavy, Steve Smith, Stefan Hemming, Paul Piddock, Martin Fox, Steve Harrison and Melanie Brooks (a SMBC solicitor). (I have not named one junior employee who appears to have been present for note-taking purposes only). Note that no-one from The Public was invited to attend, even simply to address the meeting.

Prior to the meeting at least three of the above had been vocal OPPONENTS of The Public but, happily, they felt able to put their personal views to one side and to appraise the proposed closure objectively.
At least two of the above have very strong Labour party connections. The Turdmeister and his Labour followers on the Council are shortly to cull 36% of the workforce and so one would imagine that a third of the above will shortly be departing The Kremlin. We shall see. I am already aware that one of the above has, apparently, been “spared” the cull.

There is another very important point to make about the attendees. In earlier blogs I pointed out that SMBC are pumping up to £425 million into Interserve and other associated companies purportedly under the defunct Building Schools for the Future programme. There is a whole web of companies involved in all this but much of the money is ploughed through Sandwell Futures Limited in which SMBC have a 10% shareholding. The other 90% is mostly owned by Interserve-related companies and Dalmore Capital (who bought out shares previously owned by those notorious socialists, Barclays Private Equity). The Independent newspaper mentioned recently that some major shareholders of Dalmore Capital are based in the, er, Cayman Islands……

The curious thing here is that before the Haden Hill meeting took place IT HAD ALREADY BEEN DECIDED to do The Public refurbishment [sic] via Sandwell Futures Limited and, far from this being a cause of concern to the Haden Hill Mob, they specifically minuted this as being a good thing and described it as an “opportunity”. The actual minute reads “Sandwell Futures would be appointed by SMBC to undertake the work required (opportunity).” Well it’s certainly an opportunity for Interserve and Dalmore Capital!

Further, on this subject, I have a Freedom of Information Act Request in with SMBC about the potential for conflicts of interest to arise as two employees of SMBC are also Directors of Sandwell Futures Limited. I have had a very unsatisfactory response to date and have applied for an internal review. In short, however, SMBC have said that the two employee/directors – Kerry Ann Bolister and Sarah Melanie Dudley are kept away from any involvement in major projects involving Sandwell Futures and/or Interserve. In the case of The Public this seems surprising since Melanie Dudley specifically signed the Fundamental Review [sic] document which sealed the building’s fate! At this meeting, where it was already decided that Sandwell Futures would secure a multi-million contract if the college deal went through, two members of Melanie Dudley’s team – Steve Smith and Steve Harrison were actually involved in the decision-making process! We are asked to believe that no-one mentioned any of this to Mel back at the ranch – again, we shall see…..(Incidentally, the SMBC website still shows Melanie Dudley as being the Director in charge of the Transform Sandwell train crash!)

Some miscellaneous points from the meeting:

1. The only protection for The Public was a legal clause whereby the successors to Advantage West Midlands had to give permission for disposal of the building. Of course, SMBC and the greedy College are still fighting to keep the whole deal secret but there was clearly concern at an early stage that giving the College a 25 year lease could, legally, be classed as a disposal. The Haden Hill Mob found a neat “solution” ie call it a “concordat”. The minute reads: “Concordat rather than lease ensures that a change of use is not viewed as a disposal”. Crafty, eh? (This is a “con” alright and I am still investigating this aspect of the matter – more anon). The minute also reads “NB – SMBC is not allowed to dispose of the building”!

2. A curious minute and interesting given the identity of some of the attendees: “Arts Council England may fund future arts in Sandwell but not at The Public.(Opportunity)”.

3. It now seems certain as this blog has said all along that SMBC have borrowed the money for the conversion costs (as Sandwell College would not have been able to) and the avaricious College is to repay this over the term of the lease. Although all this is still being kept secret this payment is being dressed-up as “rent” when it is no such thing. It seems that the College will pay very little rent for a massive building paid for by you and I and, possibly, NO ACTUAL RENT AT ALL. For some inexplicable reason the Haden Hill Mob did not view this as an opportunity but as a “golden opportunity”!

4. Interestingly in this supposedly objective appraisal, the creation of some jobs by the College is mentioned as a reason to proceed but there is no opposing comment about the 60 people who would (and did) lose their jobs with closure of The Public. Nice people at this meeting!

5. The Public was being very-well managed (by my wife I hasten to add!) but was free to enter. The Mob could not see any way of increasing income and therefore deemed it a “non-performing asset”. If that fallacious reasoning is applied elsewhere SMBC will have to shut the libraries and museums tomorrow!

6. The Haden Hill Mob stated that The Public did not have Arts Council National Portfolio funding and so would not attract new funding from the Arts Council. This is thoroughly misleading (deliberately so?) since NP funding is decided every 3 years. Although The Public did not get NP funding it did get strategic funding for the period of 3 years which mirrored NP funding and directly anticipated that The Public would apply again. The Public staff were already working on a bid for 2014 and if they had remained open the bid would be in now awaiting a decision on 1st July. Of course, the bid may have failed but who could say that from those attending the Haden Hill meeting (and staff from The Public were deliberately excluded)? Further, the Arts Council were actually funding various specific projects at The Public on an ad hoc basis.

Ok, you might say - this lot still went through an “appraisal” of sorts although there are certainly questions to be asked concerning the actual information that was available to them - particularly in respect of the College "deal". The problem with this is the date. You would think that most organisations would conduct such an "appraisal" BEFORE taking the actual decision but not Socialist SMBC. This meeting was on 22nd May but SMBC had ALREADY announced the closure of The Public and the College plan at a big press "session" on 9th May, 2013! Clearly all those attending the meeting knew that to vote against the College "deal" would be to defy The Turdmeister and their other political masters. Indeed this was even twisted as a reason to press ahead as they minuted that an “about face” on the College plan would reflect badly on SMBC! Happily again, they managed to put all such considerations to one side and everyone present, including the lawyer from Ashfords, felt able to objectively "score" the College "deal" as a good thing and keeping The Public open, a bad thing.



e      t  @bcrover  (Vernon Grant)

Confidential phone number - 07599 983737

Monday, 9 June 2014

Skidder Shorts No. 12 - Sandwell College Finances

The rapacious folk who run Sandwell College are very happy to shaft the taxpayer and the good people of Sandwell in respect of The Public* but they don't seem to like it when they don't get exactly what they want and are clearly upset at not receiving funding they applied for recently from the Education Funding Agency.

They are still desperately trying to keep everything connected with The Public secret (eg still redacting information from the May meeting of the Board of Governors) but the May 2014 minutes do make interesting reading.

The College is acknowledging the need to acquire quality staff - particularly to teach GCSE Maths & English - and acknowledge some recruitment difficulties but this is hardly likely to be helped by this:

"The Deputy Principal informed members....the College was not in a position, at this time, to recommend a staff pay award (ie pay rise) for 2103/2014."

And worse:

"The Director of HR presented a report informing members of issues (eg a formal dispute letter from the unions) that had arisen as a consequence of the non-payment of (pay) increments, which had been withheld on the basis of affordability." In other words they are screwing the staff they have got!

In an effort to "cook the books" they resolved to hold over all money they had actually spent in respect of The Public this year until their next financial year (I have done an FoI request about some of this via!

It gets worse! In February it was agreed that the Board's consideration of the purchase of new computers for students and new laptops for staff would be deferred but in May the Board decide to "withdraw" from any further consideration of this. And so the vain College is anxious to acquire its second £70 million building in two years but, in the internet age, can't afford vital new computers for staff and students! Warped priorities?

Happily though, the grasping College has decided that it does not need to accept the lowest quote for the new computers and infrastructure costs at The Public** but can afford (via the taxpayer) something a bit racier to "show off" when it moves in.

And, lest we forget, the College can also afford to pay a net £3,000 per month to Labour Party Properties Limited, the non-taxpaying property company owned by the, er, Labour Party. Of course they say they will be moving out of Terry Duffy House in July (?!) but that they will kindly be leaving Labour brand new carpets which have cost the taxpayer (ex-Vat) £4,300.00p! We shall see.........

* It does appear, despite the secrecy of the College and Labour Sandwell Council, that what we have guessed-at all along is correct. The College are only going to "repay" the conversion costs of The Public to Sandwell Council who have kindly borrowed the money which they would not have been able to borrow themselves and spent it on their behalf. Whilst the lie has been put about that this is rent IT IS NO SUCH THING! When the truth comes out you will see that the Council has given away a massive publically-funded building for 25 years for little - or even no - rent at all. Watch this space. (Note also that the College is involved in the new "technical university" project which will be occupying the proposed "Clap Clinic" building when it eventually rises from the ashes on West Brom High Street and so there will be further pressure on its finances to come).

** Some folk have had a moan about the costs of Sandwell Council et al replying to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests but the problem is that organisations routinely fail to put information in the public domain. Sandwell College have gone to great lengths to keep The Public deal secret even though they and SMBC are both public bodies funded by you and I. Here they have tendered for the equipment costs and awarded the contract to a company which has NOT submitted the lowest tender. There may be perfectly good reasons for this but we, the people, need to know. I formally request the College by this blogpost to make the details public as soon as possible but please rest assured good folk that if the facts are not forthcoming a FoI request will surely follow. No good moaning then Sandwell College!!!



e      t  @bcrover (Vernon Grant)


Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Ashfords Solicitors - Part 1 - The Public, West Bromwich

Sandwell Council ("SMBC") has 26 solicitors according to The Law Society website. This number has gone done from at least 28. The Head of Legal receives a package in excess of £124,000 per annum according to the SMBC accounts. One would imagine that this veritable army of lawyers could handle the legal affairs of SMBC on their own but, no, they have a history of outsourcing large contracts to outside firms at huge cost to the taxpayer.

In 2012, SMBC decided to formally outsource some (not all - just some) of its legal work and despite the lip-service the Labour High Command pay to outsourcing locally they contracted yet again outside the Borough - this time to a firm based in the South-West of England (!), Messrs Ashfords.

Ashfords announced the deal in September, 2012 but the first payment to them listed in the SMBC payments over £500 list was a minuscule, er, £72,500 on 16th January, 2013.

I will be posting again soon about The Public and the events at Haden Hill House in May, 2013 but suffice to say here that I will seek to persuade you that by then The Turdmeister & his cronies had already decided to axe The Public and were "going through the motions". If the plan was for Sandwell College to start teaching at The Public in September, 2014 the clock was already ticking. Indeed, as I will show in another post, it had ALREADY been decided that Sandwell Futures Limited (yes, them again) had been lined-up (without tender or other competition) for the multi-million conversion contract.

Anyway, a meeting was convened at Haden Hill House on 22nd May, 2013 with various members of SMBC staff to conduct what was laughably described as a "Risk-based Options Appraisal" on whether to keep The Public or go with the College "deal". As one would expect, there was Solicitor from SMBC present, Mel Brooks (great name!) but, strangely, there was also present, Elizabeth Gibson of Ashfords. And Ms Gibson is no mere junior note-taker. She is described on The Ashfords website as a "Partner" and "Head of our Projects Team" based in, er, Exeter.

As I will show in a later blog the decision-making process was a farce but for present purposes there were 4 choices:

1. The College deal:
2, 3 & 4 - Keep The Public open with differing levels of subsidy.

Sharp readers will notice immediately that only Option 1 was likely to generate fee income for Ashfords and so might reasonably question whether Ms Gibson's mere presence at the meeting might constitute a "conflict of interest situation". But according to the meeting notes, not only was Ms Gibson there but she actually PARTICIPATED in the "risk-scoring" process.

I am sure to have got where she is Ms Gibson may be a very competent lawyer but why she should be able to "score" matters related to arts provision in West Bromwich and the perceived reputational issues of SMBC from her Exeter office I am sure she will be happy to advise (and I will be happy to publish). Nevertheless, the record shows that her "conclusion" of the appraisal was in favour of Option 1 - surprisingly a unanimous decision (!) (This is all a matter of public record and if, Ms Gibson, the record is inaccurate please contact me so that I can correct).

And so there was, seemingly, no conflict of interest in Ashfords participating in the actual decision-making process to close The Public even though there was an expectation of considerable fee income in that scenario. And so it came to pass that Ashfords were paid by you and I, the taxpayer, just £43,230.40p plus Vat for The Public legal work. You would have thought they could have not the 40p off wouldn't you!

(More on Sandwell Council & Ashfords to come.....)


e            t   @bcrover  (Vernon Grant)

Confidential phone: 07599 983737

Info on Sandwell Council, Sandwell College and Interserve always welcome.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The Public - The Battle to Destroy Love Our Public Petition and Campaign

Here in the plan drawn up by Sandwell Council's spin doctors last summer to bull up the crap College deal (more anon) and shaft the Love Our Public campaign last year. Chilling stuff!


e           t  @bcrover (Vernon Grant)

Confidential phone - 07599 983737