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Heeley Road - The Endgame?

Heeley Road - The Endgame?Readers have probably noted recent problems in the Heeley Road Hostel story - the developer's delay in making the final payment. The company who made the offer seemed to be keeping a low profile, so the news coming out was from Council Leader John Coombes.

He had a good deal to say about it.

Even before the Cabinet had considered the position, he wrote about it on his blog and emailed a statement to the media about what had and should happen.

Making a statement before the Cabinet had met and debated the matter struck us as being a bit premature - unless, of course, our Commissar is now so power-deluded that he sees himself in Napoleonic terms as our absolute ruler and Emperor.

However, on his blogsite he says

"Yet again we have been left frustrated and with serious concerns about the sale of council owned land on Heeley Road, St Annes, after the property developer, set to buy the land, has failed to make the payment deadline. "

In what appears to be a remarkably similar, personally written, letter to the media (as opposed to a Council press release) that found its way to us by a tortuous route, Cllr Coombes says

"Fylde Conservatives have been left frustrated and with serious concerns about the sale of council owned land on Heeley Road, St Annes, after the property developer, set to buy the land, has failed to make payment."

That change of opening is interesting. We think he's sailing quite close to the wind. He ought not to be mixing his party political comments with those of the Council in a press statement sent using his council email address. Very bad form really. It might even be considered by some to be 'Misuse of council equipment or internet connection' not dissimilar to an allegation made about colleague of his recently'

He goes on to quote himself (Yes, really. The Napoleonic influence must be strong with him) saying: My latest position is that; "A completion date in May had been agreed between the council and Town Manor after strong assurances by them and local campaigners that the funds were in place, but for some reason the company seems unable to complete the sale. The company has once again requested an one month extension of time prior to completion of the sale"

What he doesn't tell you is that it was only the previous week that the developer was made aware of contamination issues on the site that would have to be cleaned up, and that the council are arguing about the boundary of the land they claim is involved in the sale.

We heard that the developer is willing to address all these issues, but they will take more time to resolve.

As the Heeley Road Opposition spokesman put it: "If the Council had offered the land on tender in the first place - as we said they should have done, all these items would have been sorted out before the contract stage"

Cllr Coombes blog continues "The Council had made arrangements to sell the land to the Muir Housing Group to develop a much needed supported housing facility, in accordance with the Council's homelessness strategy...,"

No they hadn't.

The Commissar wanted to give it away by offsetting his estimated sale price of £250,000 with a grant of exactly the same amount.

That's a zero net income.

Rather like the Prime Minister's recent spending increase of "zero percent"

Furthermore, as the hostel group showed last September, it isn't a "much needed" facility at all.

Homelessness in Fylde is going down at such a rate that if it continues on its present trajectory there will be no homeless people by 2012/13. Last year the Council only had 11 homeless households they accepted as being in need of temporary housing.

It's not "much needed" its a gross and stupid over-provision that was done just to get a tick in the box from the Government's housing QUANGO.

But you don't have to take our word for it. Only last weekend the Mail on Sunday ran an article showing how homelessness was going down nationally. They reported that in the last year, the number of homeless people plummeted by 26%.

From Jan to March 2008, the total number of homeless people nationally was 15,430. By the first quarter of this year it had fallen to 11,350.

In Brent, the number of homeless people went down from 894 to 488, and Harrow has actually closed one of its hostels because of a 66% fall in homelessness.

Readers will no doubt think this sounds odd.

In a time of economic depression, credit crunch, re-possessed homes, rife redundancies, and all the other problems that beset folk today, how can homelessness be going down?

The answer seems to be that a serious reduction in the number of people wanting property to rent, falling property prices, and an extremely depressed buy-to-let market, have forced down the price of rented properties to more affordable levels. So more people can afford to rent, and fewer people now need to be homeless..

Curious isn't it. Boom times caused an increase in homelessness and bad times are having the opposite effect.

But the Commissar doesn't seem to have cottoned on to this yet.

He goes on with his blog statement "....(readers should note that the principle of why we need such a scheme is agreed universally, even by Lib Dem Councillor Howard Henshaw - whom misled voters in the recent County elections on this issue. He failed to tell residents that he was all for the scheme - but not in his ward!! he wanted it moving over the boundary to either Ashton, Central or Heyhouses ward!)"

Universally is a bit of a strong word here. We certainly don't agree, and we think anyone who takes the trouble to look open-mindedly at the figures will come to the same conclusion. We don't know Cllr Henshaw's views, but he's usually pretty good with figures, and alone amongst St Annes Councillors, he led the charge against the financial lunacy this scheme represented. (And his electorate thought enough of him to elect him to the County Council over the Commissar's choice).

Cllr Coombes continues "After an 11th hour offer for the site from Town Manor which was £150,000 more than the original valuation! it was obvious that we could not ignore this offer. "

It was only an 11th hour offer because: firstly, although the Commissar and his supporters had described it as an "Asset Disposal" he refused to sell the site by open competitive tender (which is the standard way of disposing of land at Fylde).

In fact, they had to formally vote to waive their own rules so as not to be able to sell it in competition.

How could anyone else put in an earlier bid if the land was never advertised for sale?

The second reason it was late was because Fylde sat on their hands and ignored the offer for at least two weeks after it was submitted by the developer. We suspect they didn't want to upset their plans and have to accept a higher offer from the private sector. In fact, it was only discussed by councillors after the Hostel Group made a big fuss about it in the press.

That's probably also the reason for the exclamation mark ending his first sentence. He simply can not believe anyone would be so stupid as to offer £150,000 over the valuation he got.

He's wrong of course. If you restrict the use of a site, the value will be very different than if it is sold on the open market. Just as land for agriculture is around £5,000 an acre, but with planning permission for residential use, it becomes worth millions per acre.

His second sentence ("it was obvious that we could not ignor (sic) this offer.") also betrays his previous desire to ignore all earlier offers. That corroborates our argument about not wanting to sell it in competition to get the best price for it.

When the man at the top is thinking like this, is there any wonder Fylde has sunk to the depths of financial incompetence it now displays.

He goes on: "As previously mentioned a lot of misinformation was put about by Lib Dem Cllr Howard Henshaw on this issue and his assurances that the money was immediately available have now been shown to be false..."

We don't actually recall any misinformation. It was Cllr Henshaw who called for a special scrutiny committee meeting to review the financial arrangements, but the Chief Executive refused point blank to call such a meeting.

Furthermore, we don't recall hearing any assurances that the money was immediately available. How would Cllr Henshaw know anyway?. The way the Commissar keeps other Councillors in the dark, its amazing they get to hear anything. Several tell us they hear what's going on in Fylde more through these pages on counterbalance than from their agendas.

There may be a problem getting the money, we don't know all the developer's details. But when you can't get a straight story about the boundaries of what you're buying, and half-baked contamination reports appear a few days before the deadline for payment, it wouldn't surprise us if people thought the Commissar was deliberately trying to make the deal fail - in order to permanently trouser the £40,000 deposit.

The Commissar continues "...It has always been a concern that the offer from Town Manor was way over the market value and therefore potentially unrealistic. That is why we insisted that a non-refundable a deposit was given for the site...."

Another whopper. Fylde did not "insist" on a non-refundable deposit, the developer offered it in their first letter, (the one that the Council took no action on). They subsequently re-stated that commitment, then paid the £40,000 into the Council's bank account.

"...The deadline for this was missed but as the money on offer was too good to miss we allowed an extension and the deposit was eventually received...."

Again, this is a demonstration of how not to run a council. What it really says is we didn't really want to do this but were caught out being financially incompetent and had to change tack.

For someone with policies and strategies coming out of his ears, this is blatant opportunism. His much vaunted - 'finance follows function' policy is in tatters.

He concludes the paragraph with "Although this further extension is unwelcome we have agreed to this final delay as the finiancial (sic) benefit to the Borough in such uncertain times will brings (sic) about improvements that could not otherwise be realised."

Says it all really doesn't it. - I've busted the Council's finances and we need this cash to stay afloat.

Finally, he says "Although we are in no doubt of the benefits of the orginal (sic) scheme for Heeley Road, we have listened to residents views and quickly came to the conclusion that we needed this windfall to help achieve our desire for local improvements. We have been considering where we might be able to invest the additional funds that the sale would bring in, such as the refurbishment of additional public toilets at Fairhaven Lake and the funding of a rescue plan for St Annes Pool, I hope we do not have to go back to the drawing board after placing our faith in Town Manor. It is really frustrating to have everyone's time wasted in this way, it puts an unnecessary extra burden on the already scarce time of our officers who have been pushing to complete the deal for several weeks".

Well there's a turn up for the books. Let's just have a look at what is being said here.

(Apart from the George Bushism about "refurbishment of additional public toilets" )

When he took over, he had enough public lavatories to meet demand. But because they didn't comply with disability legislation he decided to close them (on the basis that if you have non-DDA compliant ones you can be criticised, but if you don't have any loos at all you can't). When St Barbara Pagett and the public made a big fuss on the closures, he backed down and entered into a contract with a firm called Danfo (we're having a look at that at the moment, and there are some surprising things in it). So now we have some modern DDA-compliant facilities, but nowhere near enough of them.

As for the rescue plan for the pool, we can just see the delight on the faces of the Heeley Road Group if they think they had saved the pool as well as scotching the hostel - but hang on a minute. The reason the pool closed was that there wasn't enough customer income to keep it going, and he was telling us it cost half a million a year just to keep it open, so a bit less than half a million's not going to do much into the longer term is it?

As for an "unnecessary extra burden on the already scarce time of our officers" who does he think he's kidding?

The tiny bit of time spent on this pales into insignificance alongside the enormous waste of time and money he has personally pushed for in trying to redevelop the Town Hall. This white elephant scheme has already cost (we estimate) £750,000 in completely wasted expenditure on consultants, planners, architects, surveyors and the like whose plans have now been aborted. And that's even before you start to take staff time into account.

He finishes his blog posting with "So in conclusion the Cabinet has not written off the sale to Town Manor but, we are now starting to consider all other available options and approaches as we are determined to use the funds from the sale of this site to further improve local facilities."

Absolutely, and about time too. If he has any doubt about Town Manor's ability to find the money, he should do what he ought to have done in the first place. Drawn up the scheme of disposal, prepare all the contract documentation, then advertise the site for competitive tenders.

If he wants to give Muir a subsidy to build the Hostel, fine, but let them compete with other bidders for the land. That way we know we are getting the best value for it.

That concluded his blog posting, but in the separate press statement he issued, he added two further footnotes. The first said:

"The failure to secure the payment from Twon (sic) Manor will mean that the original investement (sic) of 1.8 million pounds will be lost."

No it won't.

Firstly, this isn't Fylde Council's money, it is taxpayer's money that Government has channelled through the Housing Corporation. The money will either stay with the Housing Corporation and be used in another scheme, or it will be returned to Government. It won't be 'lost' at all. It might even be classed as a saving to the national purse - but that's something our Commissar evidently doesn't understand.

His view also seems to conflict with the view of the Chief Executive who said in his newsletter to Councillors "If the money doesn't materialise there is a chance the deal with Muir Housing could be resurrected. It will no doubt bring with it the return of the conflict with the hostel group campaigners."

We expect they're looking forward to that.

The Commissar also said " Heeley Road Action Group with the help of Cllr Henshaw assured residents and the Council that they had been given cast iron guarantees that the money for the site would be handed over within days of the Cabinets original May decision."

Do you remember seeing any such guarantees? We don't. He is talking absolute rubbish of course. But it's difficult to work out whether this is just a porkie, or whether he has really deluded himself into believing it.

We also wonder whether, if his statement is the fabrication we believe it to be, we might see something further develop from it. If it had been said about us and it was untrue, we would not be very happy.

Thankfully, a week or so later, an urgent item was put on the Cabinet agenda about the delay, and a proper debate took place.

Whilst his bouncer/whip Cllr Albert Pounder made a speech that railed against the developer, Cllr Roger Small - who at last appears to have seen the light on this matter - proposed they accept a delay of a month whilst the issues were sorted. He added that if at that date the developer had not concluded the deal, "the asset is placed on open sale".

His recommendation was also "That the supported housing scheme is desirable in principle and will be supported provided that an alternative site can be found."

We almost cheered.

At last, a semblance of common sense from the Politburo Cabinet.

We have no issue with asset disposals that use competitive bids. There is even common sense in the bit about the supported housing plans for the future. The use of support "in principle" and the use of words like "provided that" to condition future plans leave them the flexibility then need to adapt to changing market conditions.

The proposition was seconded by new member Cllr Cheryl Little and supported by everyone except Cllr Pounder. Even the Commissar voted for the delay - which in itself speaks volumes.

Dated:  4 July 2009


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