Public deserves to know the facts of ‘secret’ pool deal

Irrespective of the spin certain people might like to put on it, the Dimensions leisure centre saga leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
One of the reasons people like myself get frustrated with the public sector is the sheer lack of transparency which pervades so many elements of its work.
The ‘settlement’ reached between Stoke-on-Trent City Council and multi-millionaire businessman Mo Chaudry in recent days is another case in point.
No wonder some councillors are up in arms about what they are calling a ‘secret deal’.
I suspect there will be a few Freedom of Information (FoI) requests winging the council’s way as a result.
Thanks to the settlement, Mr Chaudry has agreed to drop his long-standing threat of legal action against the local authority.
But just what does this agreement entail and has it cost the taxpayers of the city? Either way, surely they have a right to know.
It is more than three and a half years since The Sentinel’s front page revealed the planned closure of the splash pool at Dimensions.
It is more than two years since the police investigation into the proposed closure of the facility in Burslem was dropped through lack of evidence.
But I dare say most observers are still none the wiser as to what went on, who spoke to whom, or what exactly was being proposed back in early 2008.
What we do know for definite is that the Dimensions controversy led to the arrest of former city councillor Roger Ibbs and the then elected mayor of Stoke-on-Trent Mark Meredith.
Mr Chaudry was also arrested but no charges were ever brought against any of the men and the investigation was dropped.
All three men then spoke of their relief, said there should never have been a police inquiry and basically seemed to be blaming each other for what became the ultimate political hot potato.
The closure plans were abandoned after a huge public outcry and a council report which conveniently concluded that shutting the Dimensions pool would actually cost money rather than save it.
Talk about closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Initially, councillors had been told the scheme would save about £60,000 a year but a subsequent report found that the loss of visitor income and loss of income from services like vending machines would result in a net cost of £42,000.
Mr Chaudry says he had negotiated a deal with the city council to close the splash pool and have them pay him £100,000 a year to offer people discounted admission to his Waterworld attraction.
The city council has now finally admitted that discussions did take place with Mr Chaudry over the possible closure of the facility.
Now we can argue about whether or not any such contract would have represented a good deal for the taxpayers of Stoke-on-Trent or whether or not local authorities rather than private businesses should be providing such facilities.
But I can’t get past the fact that what we are talking about here is a leisure attraction – the number of visitors to which had risen consistently in the years leading up to its proposed closure.
This begs the question why anyone at the council – politicians or officers – thought there was merit in shutting the splash pool in the first place.
Sadly, we’ll never know who got the maths wrong and no-one will ever be named and shamed or punished over the affair.
But surely, given recent developments, we should be able to get to the bottom of the settlement brokered between Mr Chaudry and the council.
If the authority didn’t have a contract with Mr Chaudry then why have we never had a statement from them saying as much?
I’d like to know whether or not Mr Chaudry has been financially compensated for any breach of contract or perceived damaged to his reputation. I’d also like to know how much taxpayers’ money has been spent on solicitors’ fees dealing with Mr Chaudry’s threatened legal action.
How can the public possibly judge whether or not their money is being well spent or take a view on whether or not the council has learned lessons from this sorry saga when there is such a clear failure to communicate.
It seems obvious that mistakes were made when the Dimensions splash pool was being considered for closure and that senior figures at the council spectacularly misread the public mood when discussions were taking place with Mr Chaudry.
However, it appears that no-one is accountable and the long-suffering public is once again being asked to accept bland statements which attempt to gloss over what is a monumental PR disaster.


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.