I’ve written elsewhere about how relaxed Shropshire Council is about “standards”, although in most of the cases I’ve written about, by standards I’m referring to the ethical standards that are supposed to govern behaviour in public office, not necessarily the professional standards that govern (or guide) the way in which an official function is carried out – in other words, the function not the form.
Back in 2015, once I’d been identified as the mover of the Code of Conduct Complaint against then-leader of Shropshire Council Keith Barrow, my phone and email system started filling up with messages. It was mind-blowing to someone who still retained (although by then more in hope than expectation) the idea that local government was about public service.
And the phone calls keep coming, even now, one of which had me looking at the phone in disbelief, such was its potential to blow a hole in some comfortable lives over an incident that some people are probably still hoping has been consigned to historial loss of memory.
What I was hearing started alarm bells ringing – very loud alarm bells – alarm bells that wouldn’t switch off because current events in a certain part of north Shropshire were, as a result of that telephone call, taking on a significance beyond what you’d gather from bland newspaper reports of otherwise mundane activities at a certain parish level.
Investigations are ongoing. (Love that phrase.)
But where were we? Oh yeah, standards, professional competence, whatever, or rather professional incompetence compounded by a refusal to accept that a mistake has been made, pride having come before what would have been a fall big enough to teach even the most arrogant that had they only swallowed that pride, neither they nor the innocent parties their actions have impacted on would find themselves being written about here.
AN ASIDE: It is usually a case of Shirehall protecting its own, which is more the pity because there are so many council officials who don’t need the protective ring of silence that characterises the Shirehall Establishment upper-echelon response to reports that most “decent people” find shocking when they learn about them. The lower ranks just get on with the job they’ve trained to do – and usually do it bloody well.
TNS. What about it?
Well, talking about professional competence, or lack of, Oswestry’s TNS (‘The New Saints’ Football Club) is the flagship case in this instance, where an otherwise well-intentioned public sector initiative (run by people engaged in activities well beyond their level of competence) created the conditions for a cock-up that handed a local businessman an opportunity that he’d have been an idiot to ignore.
It was a complex case, rendered unnecessarily complicated by the refusal of Shropshire Council’s legal department to discuss it with the group who had amassed box-files of background information, both formal in terms of the EU legislation (State Aid) covering such financial transactions and the internal emails that were so revealing of the faulty reasoning that those responsible for the transaction had depended on, creating a situation that could only go one way – down!
Rather than stop that downward spiral into an even bigger mess, the old staples of commercial confidentiality and ‘an ongoing court case’ were rolled out (plus a few lies).
I was actually offered the chance to “view” the material that Shropshire Council was relying on to reclaim the £80,000 of public sector money it had given out in something called a ‘legacy grant’, but as the offer to view was conditional on my not talking about what I’d seen, and as I knew how complete our own investigations had been, it was likely that what I’d be reading in those ‘confidential’ papers was stuff we already knew. Had I then published ANYTHING, and had that contained even a hint of the same material in both dossiers, then how could I defend against a charge of breaching that confidentiality condition? How do you prove that you already knew about what the official files contained, and how do you prove that you already had more information than the official version contained? That last was particularly annoying given that we had offered all that material (gathered and collated without the constraints that official channels are, errr, constrained by) to Shropshire Council’s legal department and had the offer turned down!
So I declined the offer to view. (Although I did, subsequently, read the official Audit Department report and commended it to other councillors as a very good read – given the constraints the report’s author had had to work around – but it said only what had happened without speculation about why or more importantly how. That I had to read it in a locked room (really) with a member of the audit department sitting alongside me was pretty strange, but at least I wasn’t frisked when I went in.
It’s not worth going over all that detail again, suffice to say that it was obvious from the most cursory of readings that the people involved in the scheme simply didn’t understand what they were dealing with. Shropshire Council’s legal department possibly did, but because of the high level people dealing with the grant (councillors – both Shropshire county and Oswestry Town Council – as well as Shropshire Council service directors) they seemed to have chosen not to take oversight of the scheme. That’s where the ultimate failure lay, subsequently compounded by a series of high-level deflections from the truth by people who don’t care what anyone thinks of them, and who in fact don’t HAVE to care because they’ve got away with it for so long thanks to the comforting ring of steel known as a constituency association. I wrote about it in ‘#27. The power of patronage.’
Patronage plays an incredibly important part in the formation of the power groupings, it’s power magnified by the social cohesion created by political party constituencies exercising their power and influence. It isn’t just about financial and back-office support, it’s the moral support they offer through the social functions that draw like-minded people together, confirming bias, the groups thus created forming the bonds that bind; break the bond and you threaten the cohesion of the group. Dare to do that and you’re dead – politically and socially. To a member of any mainstream party that’s the end of the civilised world.
There had been a lot of shuffling of feet when the TNS matter was raised at a meeting of Oswestry Town Council (OTC) by Cllr Duncan Kerr’s submission of a report by Private Investigator Paul Wiseman, the subject having been made an open agenda item against the wishes of many of the town council, including its leader, Cllr Vince Hunt, but to his credit the OTC town clerk held on to the principle of openness and transparency and it all came out. One of those “STOP THE PRESSES!” moments. Sweet.
I was at that meeting, having been in Oswestry anyway for a meeting of our informal investigative group who, having heard that this particular agenda item was scheduled and as the subject matter sort of resonated with those of us who had been so closely involved in the Morda ransom strip saga*, we trogged across to the town hall and sat and listened – spellbound.
*See: #24. When the burden of proof is on trial.
This was big stuff and we didn’t have to look hard to see the same faces staring back at us and hear the same names cropping up. And that made us start wondering.
It was actually the deafening silence that descended on the whole thing that grabbed me because, as the saying goes, people seemed to be getting away with murder, so time to rattle a cage or two.
I was incredulous that when Paul Wiseman’s report was presented to OTC and the matter entered the public domain and direct questions were asked of the then CEO of Shropshire Council (Clive Wright) and the (by six months, relatively) new Leader of Shropshire Council Peter Nutting, who dismissed concerns over the revelations as “old news”, saying that it had been on his desk since he’d taken over as council leader six months before. So what, his innocent face said, is all the fuss about? It’s all in hand, no need to make a fuss.
Hmmm. I wasn’t convinced and this was my submission to Standards.
That Cllr Peter Nutting, Leader of Shropshire Council, deliberately withheld information regarding the unlawful circumventing by others of Regulations in relation to state aid and acted, with others, to forestall independent investigation of serious breaches by Members and senior Council officers of Shropshire Council’s Code of Conduct..
I was made aware of a potential financial scandal involving The New Saints Football Club of Oswestry (hereafter referred to as ‘TNS’) at a meeting of Oswestry Town Council (OTC) on the evening of 29th January 2018, having travelled to Oswestry for a meeting of the (informal) Taxpayer’s Oversight Committee in connection with other matters. On learning from others present that one of the items on the OTC agenda was “a loan made to TNS”, the decision was made to attend the OTC meeting where we were handed details by the Town Council Clerk of an investigation by Mr Paul Wiseman relating to the non-repayment of an £80,000 loan to TNS by Shropshire Council.
Listening to the subsequent debate by members of OTC, the seriousness of what had happened was brought home to me, especially as Members and officers of Shropshire Council had been closely involved from the outset and I was curious to know to what extent, to which end I submitted a two-part written question to the full meeting of Shropshire Council due to meet on 22nd February 2018.
Despite the written question being sent before the deadline for Member’s Questions, it happened that the question was not received by Legal & Democratic Services in time for inclusion in the agenda because it had somehow been retained in the Shropshire Council email system ‘Outbox’, clearly date- and time-stamped with the actual date and time of sending. (I subsequently learned on impeccable authority that such occurrences are not as rare as originally thought).
When that situation and the circumstances that had caused it became apparent Claire Porter, Head of Legal & Democratic Services, offered me the choice either of having the question added to the agenda as a loose-leaf inclusion or to have the question passed directly to the person best able to answer it, I chose the latter in the hope of getting a speedy answer. At this date, 19h March 2018, I have yet to receive an answer, let alone the common courtesy of an acknowledgment.
BASIS OF MY COMPLAINT
Subsequent to the above, in an interview with BBC Radio Shropshire on the 26th February 2018 (MP3 file attached), Councillor Nutting admitted that he had been aware since taking office as Leader of Shropshire Council on the 15th May 2017 of the issues surrounding the setting up and non-repayment of that £80,000 interest-free loan to privately-owned Oswestry-based company TNS in May 2012.
That interview suggested the possible reason my question to Council had not been acknowledged, despite having been personally forwarded to whoever was thought best to address it by the Head of Legal & Democratic Services, Claire Porter; it was not because the answer was not known but because the decision had been made to ignore it by whoever Claire Porter had sent it to.
The difficult-to-ignore conclusion was that that would only have happened to avoid embarrassment to the Council and to those departments and individuals involved in what had all the ingredients of a major scandal that dwarfed anything ex-councillor Keith Barrow had been found culpable of back in December 2015.
Whilst Keith Barrow’s failure to disclose DPI could arguably be explained as the “oversight” claimed by him in interviews to the Shropshire Star following his resignation, this current “TNS case” had all the indications of, at best – given the individuals involved – incompetence on a major scale possibly involving a subsequent cover-up.
NOTE: I personally read nothing into Keith Barrow’s being one of the principle players in the case (he was Leader of Shropshire council at the time and a member of Oswestry Town Council), despite the initial loan application having been instigated by him, because he sought legal advice on avoiding issues concerning the law governing State Aid to commercial organisations and had proceeded on the basis of that advice.
The loan was made under the guise of a grant known as a Legacy Grant on advice from the Legal & Democratic Services of Shropshire Council, as evidenced in an email (attached) dated 21 May 2012 from Shropshire Council Community Action Manager #### ###### to an individual whose name has been redacted on the email, which states:
We have received further advice from colleagues in legal and can now confirm the details of exactly how we should proceed with how this grant should be approved and made to ensure that there are State Aid issues to consider.
The email, one of a series of exchanges between #### ###### and the Legal & Democratic Services, then advises:
Within the application form can you state something along the lines of ‘TNS would like to apply for an 80K grant and will consequently voluntarily make grants of £?p.a. (conﬁrm)? years (conﬁrm) to Oswestry Town Council for purposes to be agreed by the Joint Economic Partnership’. This will show that the ‘repayments’ are being made voluntarily by TNS and not as a condition (which will lead us back into loan territory).
The form of words was used to hide the fact that a taxpayer-funded interest-free loan was made to a privately-owned company contrary to State Aid rules, the latter being circumvented by the use of the financial device known as a Legacy Grant, the change of its legal status from a “loan” to a “grant” being wholly dependent on repayments being made not directly to Shropshire Council but to a third party, Oswestry Town Council, through a separate entity, Oswestry Joint Economic Board, established with the sole purpose of accepting repayments of the loan, the first repayment being due on the 1st January 2013.
All of that based on…
‘…further advice from colleagues in legal […] of exactly how we should proceed […] to ensure that there are State Aid issues to consider.’
NOTE: the syntax of that underlined section, whilst confusing, in no way alters the tenor of the message which advises the recipient that potential “issues” over the use of ‘State Aid’ should be avoided by using a financial device specifically established to create the impression that the taxpayer monies paid did not constitute an interest-free loan to a commercial entity.
Councillor Nutting’s description of the issues as “complex” (ref: BBC interview) is disingenuous. A simple, plain-English, explanation of the terms of the loan was readily available to him from the first day he assumed his position as Leader of Shropshire Council when, as he testifies in the interview with BBC Radio Shropshire’s Joanne Gallacher, he checked the papers sitting on his desk. All he had to do was ask the Speaker of his Council, Councillor Vince Hill, who, as a member of the Oswestry Joint Economic Board at the time of its establishment and subsequent dissolution, could have unravelled the “complexity” by giving him chapter and verse.
He could also have asked Shropshire Council’s Director of Place and Enterprise, George Candler, who was also a member of the Oswestry Joint Economic Board at the time of its establishment and subsequent dissolution, who could also have unravelled the “complexity” and given him chapter and verse.
He did neither.
The question Councillor Nutting chose not to ask when he found this issue sitting on his desk almost 12 months ago was why, just eight months into the term of the loan, in January 2013 when the first repayment was due to be made, the Oswestry Joint Economic Board, set up to administer repayments of the Legacy Grant, was dissolved. It ceased to exist.
There was nothing to which the repayments could be made and Oswestry Town Council received none of the monies it was entitled to under the explicit terms of the Legacy Grant, the legality of which was wholly dependent on the explicit terms of the repayment schedule being met.
That TNS, Oswestry Town Council, members of the Oswestry Joint Economic Board, Executive Councillors and Cabinet Members (including ex-councillor Keith Barrow, then Leader) of Shropshire Council, together with senior officers of Shropshire Council, knew of the removal of any means of the loan being repaid and knowingly did nothing to recover the monies paid (illegally once the mechanism that circumvented the legal “issues” of using State Aid to support a privately-owned commercial venture had been dismantled) clearly renders them severally and jointly culpable for whatever offence may have been committed.
On the basis of Councillor Nutting’s own admission, his was not a sin of omission driven by ignorance but a clear sin of commission driven by a deliberate decision to ignore the facts when he became aware of them almost twelve months ago.
On that basis, my formal complaint against Councillor Nutting is that contrary to Shropshire Council Code of Conduct, his decision to ignore the facts to avoid having to address the case outlined above is not consistent with maintaining public confidence in this Authority.
His actions ran contrary to the explicit principles of Shropshire Council…
[End of submission.]
“Explicit principles?” The Nolan Principles:
The Code of Conduct Complaint was submitted to the Standards Committee and there was found to be “No case to answer”. No surprises there then.
Lots of similar examples since, including the one where a Shropshire councillor was found guilty of having seriously abused theIr position to try and influence a planning decision in favour of a friend. Significantly, for the protection of the council’s self-image, as a matter of course, whilst the outcome of that Standards Sub Committee meeting was published, the offending councillor wasn’t identified, begging the question: whose reputation was that supposed to be protecting?
ANOTHER ASIDE: A few years ago, I was in conversation with a member of the Conservative group talking about the chaos that surrounded the TNS case and he – a principled man, which is why we were friends – said: “Dave, when we stand for election and get in, we hand our reputations to Shropshire Council and we have every right to expect them to look after it and every right to complain when they don’t.” Never forgotten that.
Out of pure bloody-mindedness I still ask what happened to ‘openness and transparency’, but I often wonder if my regular readers still bother because they know the answer – to question what happened to something implies that it did once exist but remains now only as a distant memory to be treasured.
Are somethings best left to quietly die a noble death, only to be remembered on the anniversary of their passing? Bugger that, our Establishment would love that to be the case.
MORE OF THE SAME?
Depends where you look and who you have doing the looking for you because there has been nothing to compare with Shrewsbury Town Council selling off part of the Greenfield Recreation ground in October 2017. The mayor back then was (Labour’s county and town councillor) Jane Mackenzie. but the deputy mayor was Peter Nutting, who of course was by then Leader of the Local Planning Authority – Shropshire Council.
Shropshire Council and Shrewsbury Town Council are joint defendants in ongoing court cases brought by local residents opposed to the sale of the recreation ground, Shropshire Council for granting planning consent, Shrewsbury Town Council for selling while the land was held in trust.
Now, whilst the residents have to find the costs of fighting the case themselves, Shrewsbury Town Council and Shropshire Council’s costs will be met by Shropshire council-tax payers.
As an elected Member of Shropshire Council, in the event of the ongoing case going against them, I’d like to ask Councillor Mosley if (with his Shropshire Council hat on) he intends to challenge Shropshire Council about how much the ongoing legal action has cost Shropshire Council taxpayers and in the event that Shrewsbury Town Council did not conduct the sale correctly will he be lobbying for full restitution of the cost incurred by Shropshire Council?
That would indeed be something to watch.
Our major investigator has personal experience of buying land off Shropshire Council which the council didn’t own, so if a council that has a ‘specialised’ team can’t get it right…
Well, it begs a few questions, not least of which is whether the same thing happened as happened over the TNS case, where those who would otherwise have exercised “due diligence” let their guard down because the sale and subsequent permissions were taking place with the knowledge of powerful local politicians who gave the impression that they knew what they were doing – and why, indeed, would anyone question (let alone challenge) such powerful personalities?
PS: The claim against TNS for recovery of the £80,000 “grant” was subsequently dropped by Shropshire Council CEO Clive Wright when the prospect of getting the monies returned would be something of a phyrric victory given that the legal costs would probably exceed the £80K claimed. Can’t say I didn’t warn him, based on the two hour (open and frank) meeting I’d had with Mike Harris, the owner of TNS and his managing director, when the “other side of a messy story” was explained in considerable and very revealing detail.