Britannia deal was a huge missed opportunity

Last March I was slated for writing a column which suggested that for years the city council has favoured Stoke City over Port Vale.

As a result I received a couple of phone calls threatening to ‘sort me out’ (the language was slightly more colourful).

There was an independent fans’ website thread devoted to calling me all the names under the sun and we received a number of letters here at Sentinel HQ from people who had simply missed the point of the article.

It was, at the time, supposed to be a precursor to the publication of a report detailing the findings of the Audit Commission’s investigation into the controversial sale of the council’s stake in the Britannia Stadium.

I was convinced councillors hadn’t been properly consulted over the deal and that it wouldn’t have gone ahead had they been aware of the full facts.

As it happened, that report wasn’t to see the light of day for another nine months.

However, now that we know what’s in it, I’d just like to say: ‘I told you so…’

You see, I never had any axe to grind with Stoke City Football Club regarding this deal.

The Potters are fortunate, in Peter Coates, to have a shrewd, successful and extremely wealthy businessman as chairman.

Executives at the club negotiated an extremely good deal with the local authority and good luck to them.

No, my beef was and still is with the city council.

In December 2007 the then elected mayor Mark Meredith and council manager Steve Robinson agreed to sell the city’s 36 per cent stake in the Britannia Stadium to Stoke City Football Club for £4.5 million, five months before promotion to the Premier League.

Councillors who voted for the deal were not told that the purchase of the stake in the stadium would be paid in three instalments rather than one lump sum – which meant the council missed out on £180,000 in interest payments.

Of course, as the Audit Commission report points out, under the council’s constitution as it was, neither Mr Robinson nor Mr Meredith did anything wrong.

They didn’t have to tell councillors the details of the contract, although Mr Robinson says key councillors and group leaders such as Roger Ibbs and Mike Tappin were told. Both Mr Ibbs and Mr Tappin deny this.

They can’t all be right, can they?

The extraordinary length of time it took the Audit Commission to complete its report means, of course, that this is all old news.

Supporters may say that Stoke City are now in the Premier League and going great guns so why should we care about a piece of business conducted more than two years ago?

I believe we should care for a number of reasons.

Firstly, no-one in their right mind can possibly argue that this was a good deal for the taxpayers of Stoke-on-Trent.

Former elected mayor Mike Wolfe tells me that during his time in office the then Icelandic owners of Stoke City wanted to buy out the council’s stake in ‘the Brit’, but talks never got very far.

Why? Because he refused to discuss anything less than an offer of £6 million. He had also insisted on a clause being inserted in any contract stating that if the club were to be promoted to the Premier League the council would have received a dividend.

As it was, his successors sold the council’s stake in ‘the Brit’ for just £4.5 million – to be paid in three, interest-free instalments.

I am also bemused as to why the council hierarchy felt it necessary to complete the deal at that time.

Why the rush to offload this community asset?

Granted, Steve Robinson and Mark Meredith didn’t have a crystal ball, but you don’t have to be a financial whizz to realise to potential benefits if you’re a stakeholder in a football stadium and the resident club makes it into the Premier League.

I’ve read the Audit Commission report and it reveals the huge power wielded by extremely well-paid, unelected, untouchable officials within local authorities.

The report states: “It would have been good practice… to report back to full council regarding the final payment terms.”

That didn’t happen.

Councillors voted the deal through and the rest, as they say, is history.

If the elected members had have seen the small print, so to speak, I dare say they wouldn’t have approved the sale.

Indeed, both Roger Ibbs and Mike Tappin both told investigators they would have objected to the deal had they been aware of the devil in the detail.

The truth is the city council’s involvement with ‘the Brit’ was, from start to finish, a huge missed opportunity.

It never became the community stadium it was intended to be and, in my opinion, by agreeing to this bargain sale price for the city’s stake in the venue, the council’s hierarchy ensured the taxpayers of the Potteries were significantly shortchanged. Again.

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