#22. A garage sale of council assets, someone’s chance for a bargain?


A recent Shropshire Star headline announced Shropshire Council’s intention to sell off more of its assets. The word that immediately came to mind was “oversight”, a word that can have two meanings, one good, one bad, depending on whether it is used in connection with anything to do with Shropshire Council.

Whilst “oversight” is good if the reference is, say, to a committee having oversight of an organisation’s dealings because it means scrutiny is in place and working, it is a bad thing if the reference is to a failure to spot a problem because a developing situation was overlooked, it was an “oversight”, known to those familiar with the case of the last Leader of Shropshire Council who attributed his breach of the Council’s Code of Conduct to an “oversight”.

There is growing evidence that, due to a failure on the part of the Council, Shropshire taxpayers have not benefited from any subsequent uplift in the value of disposed assets despite a commercially standard clause anticipating such an uplift in the asset’s value being included in the contract of sale!

It often happens that a plot of land is sold for its ‘basic’ value without planning permission to a buyer prepared to accept the risk of applying for planning permission because the granting of Outline Planning Permission – OPP – will see the value of that land increase by anything from ten to a hundred times its selling price. It is of course a gamble as to whether OPP will be granted, but as the buyer stands to gain more than the seller from the ultimate development of the land, as long as the buyer has done their homework it’s a gamble worth the risk.

In the course of the investigations into the Keith Barrow Code of Conduct case, I was helped by a number of people, primary amongst them were two individuals, Len Evans and Steve Mulloy. Subsequent to those initial investigations wider issues came to light involving the sale and development of land that involved Shropshire Council, either as the seller of an asset or as the potential beneficiary of any subsequent increase in the value of that asset as a result of planning permission being granted by Shropshire Council. A lot of money was made as a result of those deals, and in our view not enough of it came back to Shropshire Council as a benefit to its taxpayers.

I don’t think anyone needs to be told how complex some of those land and property deals can be, nor how complex are the relationships involved in those deals, relationships that can be commercial and personal – and political, given the political sympathies and consequent constituency connections of the individuals involved. Uncovering the often complex connections took time and a lot of research, using a combination of material gleaned from local intelligence connections and material that was only available through Shropshire Council. The former was often unsolicited, offered informally by individuals, “in the know” through personal connections, but the only way that information could be corroborated was to cross-check it against formal documents, sight of which could only be obtained with a series of formal Freedom of Information requests to Shropshire Council.

At some point in any detective series on TV the main character stands in front of a whiteboard covered in notes and photographs with lines running between them, trying to work out what links, if any, exist between various incidents and individuals on the board. We all appreciate that the only way the case can progress is by amassing information on each player in a deal, dismissing some until two stand out as significant with a third player whose potential is unclear, despite albeit tenuous links to the other two, nothing substantive to connect them. What’s needed is a link between two of them to that third apparently unrelated party? It will come as something as random as a chance find in a newspaper, a report of a local golf tournament showing a photograph of all three smiling in triumph at their team’s win. Result. Link established and the investigation can move to a close.

Well, almost. In our case, there is a need to dig further to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the connection is sound and ‘historic’, in the sense of it having been established long enough for them to have known each other well enough for a reasonable assumption to be made that “whilst a deal could be struck with a phone call or conversation over a pint, a paper trail is needed to establish a case”. Which means another Freedom of Information request. And so it goes.

Steve Mulloy is brilliant at this kind of deductive reasoning and therein lies the cause of our problem.

Someone at Shropshire Council decided they had had enough of meddlesome, time-consuming requests for information concerning stuff that couldn’t possibly be of value to anyone, regardless of whatever “excuse” the inquirer came up with. Thus has Shropshire Council cut off these investigations at a stroke using the simple expedient of formally declaring Steve Mulloy “vexatious”. No appeal, a cabal of officers decided Steve was a pain in the ass they could do without, and anyway, the Council is perfectly capable of auditing its own affairs. Allegedly.

In this context, ‘vexatious’ isn’t just the archaic word used by your old auntie to describe the noisy kids next door, it’s actually a legal term applied to someone who is getting to be a bit of a nuisance to a Local Authority, the label is usually applied to multiple requests relating to the same subject, applying it to the individual making the requests is exceptional. It means any request for information by Steve is not just completely ignored but not even acknowledged. He is persona non grata.

Even more extreme is the power Shropshire Council has assumed in treating ANY request by any other individual for information concerning ANYTHING related in any way to earlier FoI requests as suspicious, enough to insist that the individual making that request must attend Shirehall in person and prove their identity by producing their driving licence and a utility bill. Now that is exceptional, the “power” only ever having been used twice since FoI was introduced at Shropshire Council. The second time was a recent test run by Len Evans to gauge the extent of the Council’s determination to block off inquiries relating to any aspect of Steve Mulloy’s investigations.

I am trying desperately hard to avoid wondering who has had a quiet word with whom because this has had to go pretty near the top, for advice if not for the actual decision.

What is particularly galling is that as a direct result of Steve’s digging, an instance of Shropshire Council’s failure to watch the front counter of the shop has the potential to cost Shropshire taxpayers quite a few tens of thousands of pounds.

Now compare and contrast Shropshire Council’s action with this case, as reported in the ‘Rotten Boroughs’ section of the latest edition of Private Eye (No 1420) 10 June – 23 June, 2016. It’s a section of Private Eye that Shropshire Council is no stranger to.

A NORTH London resident has cast some light on the fate of hundreds of thousands of pounds of missing public money after a three-year campaign.

Nick Tiratsoo submitted dozens of Freedom of Information requests to Waltham Forest council in an attempt to disentangle the alfairs of North London Ltd (NLL), a company which worked with London councils on business start-ups. It went bust in 2013 with £440,000 unaccounted for.

(Private Eye (No 1420) 10 June – 23 June, 2016.)

No comparison is there? And the contrast is stark and startlingly obvious.

The people who stand to profit from Shropshire Council’s allowing their attention to wander are hardly likely to drop them a note offering to put a cheque in the post, so it fell to Steve to drop the note to the Council pointing out that the prospect of a few grand extra in the Council’s depleted coffers was there for the asking, giving precise details of the what, who, and where of the case. A courteous thank you was received for the information with an assurance that the matter would be followed up.

I left it a few weeks before asking how far Shropshire Council had progressed their “negotiations” – apparently it’s “ongoing”. Obviously someone is busy elsewhere. That’s alright then, after all, despite having it all handed to them on a plate they can’t be too careful.

Despite being mightily pissed off whenever I think about Shropshire Council’s crude attempt to stop our investigations, silly old soft-hearted me keeps reminding himself that Shropshire Council has had a lot of years to get used to their particular way of doings things – or not doing things, depending on your point of view – and I know how difficult it is to change the culture of an organisation, especially when the same people are at the top, because an organisation’s culture filters down. It’s called a rut.

Given Steve’s incredible forensic investigative skills I did suggest in the letter just alluded to that, together with an officer from Shropshire Council, a ‘Taxpayers Oversight Committee’, to include Steve, be established with the express task of looking closely at previous deals entered into by Shropshire Council because there are substantial reasons and pages of evidence indicating that Shropshire taxpayers could be missing out to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds that, totted-up across a number of schemes, could amount to more than a million pounds.

Granted that I already knew what the answer was likely to be, but hey nothing ventured nothing gained, I had also asked the senior Shropshire Council officer we’d been dealing with whether (as a gesture of goodwill and thanks for the heads-up) they could help get that ‘vexatious’ label lifted to make our ongoing investigations less of a chore and reach a productive outcome sooner.

The suggestion was summarily dismissed.

I must make a note to attend the next meeting of Shropshire Council’s Audit Committee to see how they tot up columns of numbers.

Ah, it’s a grand life.