Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The smell of a huge rat in Barnet - Councillor Jack Cohen exposes the sale of Hendon FC ground as sham

From last night's Cabinet resourses committee, we have details of the latest legal cock up to hit Barnet in regards to a land sale. Barnet Council spent £1 million on the inquiry into the cock up of Barnet FC's Underhill ground. It looks like they haven't learned. Councillor Daniel Thomas starts by explaining why the council are seeking to exempt the process from scrutiny. Jack Cohen makes a compelling case for completely re-examing the decision and exposes some highly dodgy sound shenanigans. Jack also explains that the preferred bid is not the highest and the company making it is not legally allowed to.

I suspect that the lawyers will be rubbing their the hands together (yet again). I should imagine that all connected with the Jewish community will be especially interested in why the Council has snubbed their offer for the site, for a lower offer from a property developer. Note must also be made of the intervention of Hugh Rayner, who quite correctly expressed his displeasure at the way the Cabinet resources committee were seeking to bully the scrutiny committee into backing off.

The Barnet Eye commends both councillors for their good work.

The Barnet Eye covered this subject back in February, full details here -

The more I hear about this case, the stranger it sounds. I fully support the efforts of the efforts of the London Jewish Girls High School to get to the bottom of the issue. Whilst I do not support the loss of the site to football, if the council is intent on selling it, then they should take the highest offer, especially since there is a clear community benefit to doing so.


Mrs Angry said...

I agree: regrettable though Barnet's lack of support for sport is, especially in this Olympic year, and its preference for property development, I think there is a clear need for the Jewish community girls' school and I cannot understand why the council is giving such preference to a lower bid than theirs. I think they have every right to demand a full and honest explanation for the circumstances behind this peculiar turn of events.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

When the Labour/LibDem Administration (of which Jack Cohen was a member) sold the Underhill site, the Conservatives were highly critical of the fact that the Delegated Powers Report had been exempted from scrutiny. Had it not been exempted, the errors in the contract could have been detected and corrected, thus avoiding a hugely expensive legal battle.

The Conservatives set up a committee to investigate the Underhill sale and DCMD recalls Jack Cohen getting very cross when the Chairman, John Marshall, referred to the sale as a scandal. Jack Cohen criticises the council for accepting a lower bid on the Hendon site. Where were his legendary forensic skills in 2002 when his chums were selling off 3.5 acres of land for £10,000 with no other bids invited?

Rog T said...

Jack has clearly learned from the Underhill experience. All I ever expect from intelligent people is that they learn. I would have thought that the more pertinent point is why John Marshall isn't giving the committee the benefit of his experience, as he clearly understands the issue and what happens next.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Intelligent people do, indeed, learn from experience. But is it asking too much for an apology as well? The silence from the last Administration over Underhill is deafening.

At the time, the council said that lessons had been learnt. Clearly, they have not. The council also said that it would never again conduct controversial land sales using delegated powers. Hollow words.

The Conservatives have, like the last Administration, tried to exempt something of great local importance from scrutiny. The whiff of hypocrisy is overpowering. But the reality is that none of the councillors can be trusted. Anyone who thinks that throwing the Conservatives out of office in two years time will improve local governance is, frankly, deluded.

Danny London said...

If the council allow the matter to go to Judicial Review,which the court have now granted permission for, they will simply be throwing tens of thousands of pounds of local residents' money down the drain, simply in order not to back down.

It is obvious that the schools's bid, which according to the paperwork on the web, was £700,000.00 higher than the developer's, should now be accepted in place of the developer's bid. I also understand that the school's bid was unconditional as opposed to the developer's bid, which wqas subject to planning being granted.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

@Danny London The school’s bid seems to be higher but if they cannot buy the leasehold interest from Montclare (or its bankers), then they have a problem. The Montclare bid included an overage provision. If the council has drafted the clause properly (ha, ha!) then it could provide a greater financial return long term. If the site is converted to residential use, the council will also receive council tax from the new occupants.

This is not as straight forward as it seems. Unfortunately, because many of the documents have been classified on grounds of “commercial secrecy”, we, the people who own the land, cannot scrutinise the transaction in accordance with Eric Pickle’s guidance on transparency.

Danny London said...

@Dontcall me dave. It was clear from the published report that the bank are in the process of taking the lease as mortgagees in possession and selling this on.

Aside from simply looking at the purely financial aspects of the matter, one would have thought that the council would have a thought about why the council needs money. One of those things is to make sure there is school provision in the borough for the residents.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

@Danny London

My reading of the report was that the school are claiming that the lease is about to be put on the open market, but that Montclare’s bankers deny this. It is difficult to tell when the council keeps so much of the detail secret (they don’t trust the public to read documents because we have a tendency to expose officer incompetence). However, even the lease is to be sold, there is no guarantee that the school will buy it. Someone might offer a better price.

At the end of the day it is for local politicians to deal with what is a political issue. Do they want more housing or a school on the land? The council does have to ensure there is adequate school provision in the Borough, but it also has to provide housing as well. Of course, by allowing yet more housing in an area that is likely to be over-run with rabbit hutches if the Brent Cross scheme goes ahead, then even more school provision becomes necessary.

Personally I agree with Rog and would prefer that the land be kept for football/sport use, but that seems unlikely to happen. The current Administration is just as anxious as its predecessors to concrete over every green blade of grass in the borough.

Danny London said...

The council have never stated that their motives in this, are anything but financial. They don't seem to care how the land is developed, even though they should.

This being the case, they should look at the bids in the cold light of day and sell to the highest bidder.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

S.123 of the Local Government Act 1972 requires the council to obtain the best price that can reasonably be obtained when selling land. However, the Act does allow councils to sell for less than the best price provided that they obtain permission from the Secretary of State.

In theory, a Secretary of State could give permission without asking the council why it wishes to accept a lower price. However, this would likely lead to a Judicial Review. In reality, the council has to argue the case for wanting to accept a lower bid. It could argue, for example, that the lower offer would generate more money for the council in the long term due to an overage clause. Or it could argue that the lower offer helps the council to satisfy one of its aims. If the council can demonstrate that new housing is more beneficial to the Borough than a new school, then it has a case. Whether one use is better than another is, of course, a subjective matter. Everyone will have their own opinion.

The crucial element in this case appears to be that the council is seeking to sell for the lower price, seemingly without having obtained permission from the Secretary of State. If it is so sure of its case, why did it not do this and avoid the legal case which is now unfolding?

Danny London said...

As you say, if the council had genuine reasons for selling to the underbidder, they were still wrong because they didn't seek the permission from the secretary of state.

What is far more worrying, is that Daniel Thomas stated quite categorically at the meeting on the 28th Feb when the decision was taken, that the reason Barnet decided to sell to Montclare was because this was the higher bid.

Below are verbatim quotes taken from the online recording from Thomas' recommendation to the committee on the 28th Feb, to pursuade them to agree the Montclare bid:

The school’s bid was “not financially superior”

“the bid received from Montclare is the highest bid and financially the best value for money”

The school’s bid “wasn’t sufficient”

By selling to Montclare “this council would receive significantly more money than the other bid”

If their reasons were because they preferred housing they should have said so.

hanlemic said...

DCMD said: "The Conservatives set up a committee to investigate the Underhill sale and DCMD recalls Jack Cohen getting very cross when the Chairman, John Marshall, referred to the sale as a scandal."

Jack Cohen got cross, as did a lot of people at the time, because Cllr Marshall described the sale as a "rape" of the borough. Or do you not have a problem with him using such language?