Jacob Williams
Thursday 17th November, 2016

Back in business

Back in business

There’s no link to be made between my long absence from the blogosphere and Donald Trump’s momentous victory across the pond.

But the thought occurred when I logged onto the Western Telegraph‘s website yesterday that the bullish businessman – who famously flipped a derelict central New York ice rink’s fortunes after city hall hopelessly haemorrhaged cash on it for years – might have a view on PCC’s latest regeneration proposals using public cash.

This was the revelation – leaked to the press – of plans being cooked up in County Hall to pump upwards of a million pounds into a Haverfordwest multiplex cinema and leisure complex proposal.

The article doesn’t mention any terms – or even if this alleged ‘seven figure’ sum is a loan – but an unnamed council ‘spokesman’ confirmed to the WT that the authority “has been involved in preliminary discussions” with the developer.

With the sort of speak you might expect of an anonymous visionary, he said that town centre regeneration is a “corporate priority” and that “The masterplan is being part-funded by a re-aligned council capital programme that will support projects which encourage a distinctive, sustainable and vibrant town centre.”

It all came as news to me.

This central riverside scheme, which hasn’t yet gone through the planning process, will be in a race with a very similar scheme, on the outskirts of town, whose application is in and awaiting approval.

Even according to council leader Cllr. Jamie Adams, quoted in the article, the out-of-town multiplex can be delivered “without external funding.”

A large number of reader comments have been posted on the WT’s website, overwhelmingly against the idea, wondering how the council’s found the money when everything else is being cut, and why it would spend it this way.

Unfortunately, those who criticise the criticisers tend to deem opposition to the council’s cash injection as opposition to the town centre multiplex itself.

It’s becoming increasingly clear how Pembrokeshire County Council fancies itself as a commercial force, stepping on the toes of private players who can’t all be fortunate enough to become the authority’s “chosen partners” or “preferred developers.”

With County Hall’s lineup – and their collective track record – you’d have to wonder if the best people are in the best place to do business with your money.

Who can forget Bluestone, where around £2m of taxpayers’ cash was “invested,” only to be converted a few years later, by a vote of cabinet members, to worthless shares. Their decision to forego the loan means there is no longer a debt, it’s been written off, we’ll never see it again.

Or the Pembrokeshire Timber Store – which the authority ultimately abandoned in 2012 after a damning report into its commercial operations identified such basic failures as no roadside signage advertising the premises.

Many examples of chancers abusing the good faith of our civic ambassadors were collated a year ago in two articles by Old Grumpy on his website: here and here.

PCC’s list of non-starters, flops and expensive “commercial” ventures includes some real beauties.

One of the more memorable turkeys was a factory scheme advanced by the chief chancer himself, a bloke who’d changed his name as a bet to Ramjam Delilah Funkyboogaloo-Smythe, who, the internet tells me is brother to the lesser-known chap in these parts: Koolandthegang Funkyboogaloo-Smythe.

If only the Nigerian sugar plantation inheritance scammers could get hold of PCC’s email distribution list!

Readers may be aware that I recently tabled a question on the council’s controversial intervention in the redevelopment of its redundant former Narberth school premises.

After a tender process in November 2013, the sale of this prime piece of real estate, earmarked for joint commercial and residential development, had already been agreed with a devlopment company referred to as “Abbeymore Estates/Knox and Wells Ltd.”

Three bidders had made the shortlist.

A sale price had been agreed in early 2014, but was not, we found out, legally formalised.

D’oh!

After sitting on it for over two years, the developer came back to the council, cap in hand, saying times were hard.

In their business wisdom, officers dreamt up a fresh deal – unquestioningly approved by cabinet members meeting in July this year – which not only gave the favoured developers a huge loan, but also a substantial reduction on their previously-agreed sale price.

The loan was very large, but, thanks to our open and transparent cabinet, they voted to exclude the public and press from the meeting and keep the figures and terms a state secret.

Unless and until the deal is done, this figure will, presumably, remain secret.

The value of the sale price reduction is also a secret, but JW doesn’t mind telling his readers that, on the advice of officers backed up by a newly acquired valuation report, your cabinet agreed to slash the Narberth sale price by a third!

Yes, a third – on top of the substantial loan – and this deal was exclusive to the one party. It was all conducted without putting the scheme, which was a vastly different proposal to that which all original tenders had applied for, back on the market.

At the last full council meeting I asked the leader if he would update us on whether the developers had accepted the cabinet’s generous loan and price reduction, and, if so, what work had been undertaken to meet any of the terms and conditions.

The meeting’s draft minutes record the leader saying, among other things: “negotiations had continued with the preferred developer” and “considerable work had been undertaken” by officers to make the scheme more attractive to prospective tenants, but that the loan hadn’t yet been “agreed or implemented,” and if no development had commenced by the 31st December cut-off date, “the contract would be withdrawn and the opportunity remarketed.”

My follow-up question asked the leader to confirm if any further financial support had been requested from or offered by the council in connection with the scheme, and whether he would give a commitment that no more taxpayers’ cash would be offered by loan, gift, or other arrangement.

Jamie said he wasn’t aware of any additional offer, but required assistance from an officer to answer me more fully.

Up stood Dr. Steven Jones, the council’s director of development.

Dr. Jones is the officer whose report to cabinet in July this year recommended slashing the previously agreed sale price and offering the developers the huge loan. He also recommended that cabinet members should conduct their business and approve this deal in secret session – with the public and press excluded – on grounds of commercial confidentiality.

In answer to my follow-up, Dr. Jones cautiously referred to “ongoing discussions with the preferred developer,” who, he revealed, “has indicated that the viability of the project still remains marginal, and is therefore exploring a range of opportunities and options in addition to the [council’s] loan to bring forward the scheme.”

He concluded: “We haven’t had a formal request for any further funding as yet.”

But I hadn’t asked about formal requests, so I added: “what about an informal request for further funding?”

Dr. Jones replied: “There have been informal discussions ongoing for a while, and those discussions will have included options for how the project might be brought forward.”

As Dr. Jones resumed his seat, Labour group leader Cllr. Paul Miller said to me across the chamber: “so the answer’s yes!”

Straight after the cabinet approved the loan and price-cut at their 4th July meeting, I initiated the call-in procedure, which halted the decision pending referral to a meeting of the economy scrutiny committee.

Unfortunately, Dr. Jones recommended that discussion of my call-in should also be conducted in private and confidential session, and, after a lively debate on whether we should, that’s what happened.

This predated the committee room webcam system but the Pembrokeshire Herald were present and filmed the part of the debate which led up to the exclusion of the press and public.

The video and the voting record can be seen here.

I – and other opposition members – suggested that, as the Narberth redevelopment was so much different to the proposal all original bidders had originally tendered for, then it would not only be commercially prudent to put the newly revised scheme back out to public tender, but the council had a financial and moral duty to taxpayers and also to be seen to compete in an above-board manner.

I told the committee that this could bring with it the benefit of redeveloping the site sooner than “Abbeymore Estates/Knox and Wells Ltd” might be able to manage, if they indeed managed to get the scheme off the ground at all.

Furthermore, if the “chosen one” couldn’t get it off the ground by the 31st December deadline, we would presumably be following my suggestion to openly re-market in any case, but with many more wasted months.

Narberth’s local member, Cllr. Wynne Evans, flipped his lid – only after the meeting was in private session, though.

Shouting, banging the table and using words that, had I used, would be frowned upon, Cllr. Evans stressed that progress needed to be made without delay.

His passionate plea worked, and committee members seemed to come to the view that, as PCC had gone down the path so far with the favoured redevelopment company, there was only one way they could continue – and it involved splashing the cash.

As council-watchers know, County Hall’s bonds with “preferred bidders” and “strategic partners” are thicker than blood. But even if “Abbeymore Estates/Knox and Wells Ltd” gets the scheme off the ground by the end of this year, progress could still be behind what it might have been had the scheme been put back on the market.

It’s also possible that no progress could have been made before December 31st in either scenario.

But what readers probably don’t know is that during the behind-closed-doors scrutiny call-in of the Narberth deal, after much probing of officers by Cllr. Mike Evans, councillors were told that, amid the media controversy of cabinet’s decision to offer the loan and slash the price – and my call-in of the decision – a separate, unsolicited expression of interest for the site’s redevelopment had been received by the council.

We weren’t told who it was, but if their name exudes the same sort of reassurance and aplomb as the auspicious Ramjam Delilah Funkyboogaloo-Smythe, they’d be well advised not to stray too far from their telephone on New Year’s Day.

Another committee discussion relating to the council’s commercial operations occurred this week. The corporate overview and scrutiny committee looked into the council-run Haverfordwest Airport, currently subsidised by taxpayers to the tune of £50k annually (but previously much more,) and how the commercial beneficiaries of the airstrip want the council to reassure them with a commitment to continue subsidising the operation for ten more years. Webcast here.


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13 Comments...

  • Flashbang

    Cllr Wynne Evans’ behaviour appears to confirm that the deals being done are not as legitimate as they should be. Why all the secrecy gentlemen? Just be aware that those involved must be held accountable for throwing taxpayers’ money into the pockets of developers.

    Is it true the much disgraced BPJ is a consultant for Conygar? Were they getting PCC contracts when he was in charge? Is he liaising with current council staff on developments?

  • Flashbang, I don’t know if BPJ is a Conygar consultant or how easily that could be verified.

    But the company was clearly a particular favourite of Bryn’s during his time at the council, and Conygar got all sorts of deals when he was PCC’s CEO – but I wouldn’t know if he still liaises with staff. Somehow I doubt it.

  • Keanjo

    I, and I suspect many other council tax payers, disapprove of the distribution of hard earned money in the form of write off loans or grants to developers and their doubtful schemes.

    It would seem that judging the commercial viability of the proposals is in the hands of Dr Steven Jones and it is not unreasonable to ask what experience he has which qualifies him for the task.

    If a company wishes to borrow money to finance a scheme, they should approach a bank not the local council.

    It is very worrying that council officers have taken to hiding behind a veil of ‘commercial confidentially’ and inform only a few members of their activities. This practice must be changed.

  • “It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.” (Thomas Jefferson).

    And I believe the same thing applies to business decisions.

    The problem is that there are too many PCC members and officers who fancy themselves as entrepreneurs.

    The difference between them and the real thing is that they are not risking their own money.

    Grantrepreneurs is my favoured description.

  • Goldingsboy

    Let’s have some balance here, Jacob, and bestow some focus on Milford Haven’s town centre “regeneration”, to wit the complete refurbishment of its bus shelter.

    Surely that provides further testament to what your unnamed council spokesman terms its “corporate priority”!

  • Ivor Whistle

    Can you explain Jacob who the commercial beneficiaries are with regard to Withybush Airport? I do notice that the search and rescue helicopter uses it regularly, as does the Air Ambulance.

    Surely, given the down scaling of Withybush Hospital, £50k is not unrealistic. Although, given their skills at creating a loss/profit (depending on who’s asking) it may well be that costs are being moved to areas to mask expenditure elsewhere.

    It is my understanding that the ‘investment’ promised by PCC with regard to the proposed scheme is in fact to sort out the shambles of the multi storey car park, and not actually a blank cheque to the developers (who are not Conygar).

    Anyone who is interested can see the accounts as submitted by Conygar at Companies House. You will see that their sole interest is not in developing sites, but to obtain planning on sites and sell off to the highest bidder.

  • Dave Edwards

    Corporate Regeneration is alive and well in Stackpole – the gully sucker came today!!

  • Phil

    Dave – is that a “sounds like” reference to your local member?!?

  • Brian

    I strongly suspect that within PCC, as elsewhere in the public sector, senior managers’ rewards are proportional to their budgets, not what they actually achieve with them.

    In my experience if a business plan relies upon public sector funding to get off the ground it is a borderline business case with a high probability of failure. The county is littered with examples of this.

    Anything beyond emptying the bins and fixing potholes is seemingly too difficult to get right!

  • Lesley

    You could be writing about Carmarthenshire as the council here seems to have the same attitude to vanity projects as the powers that be in Pembrokeshire.

    I should have thought that in these straitened financial times local authorities ought to concentrate on finding funds to educate our children, for the provision of services for the elderly, sick and disabled and for funding all the other basic responsibilities rather than providing secretive grants and loans for dubious projects.

  • Malcolm Calver

    Dr Jones seems to have become a leading light in the promotion of what some would describe as “dubious” schemes alongside the yogurt promoting farmer, Cllr Adams.

    Whilst acknowledging that Cllr Adams has a farming background what degree has Steven Jones been rewarded with and is it relevant to his role in such projects?

  • Timetraveller

    It doesn’t matter what commercial experience Dr Jones has, it is not his remit, period.

    Councillors would not have delved into these murky waters, or knowingly allowed officials to when they could have been surcharged.

    There are very few people who can genuinely make money in business, most have had a leg up and often fair winds (although good businessmen look for such winds.) They often work very hard etc. Public money removes any incentive to try too hard!

    On balance PCC’s overwhelming preoccupation with keeping the rates down, literally at the expense of all else, is a serious impediment to inward investment.

    They proudly claimed to “lead” in making planning applications pay, possibly even a revenue source. Businesses usually end up funding these costs, unless engaged in one of their dodgy deals of course.

    Banks lend money, if they don’t then they don’t see the proposition as a viable one, end of.

  • Chris Lawton

    Well Jacob we are now past December 31st and I have not heard anything about this since this article was penned, any updates? Will the site now be offered back to the market for its actual valuation?

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