Thursday, 17 June 2010

Asco: Council's response on Cushman & Wakefield contract.

The Virtual-Lancaster special report, "Bending Lancaster City Council to Its Will: The Asco File" posted on 24 May asked the City Council to answer 5 questions about its involvement with property consultants Cushman and Wakefield and their client Asco. The Council has replied this week in an unattributed response. The questions and the council's answers are as follows:

1.Q. When did Lancaster City Council contract with Cushman & Wakefield to find a trader to occupy the market hall?
A. Following the council’s resolution on the 9th December 2008.

2.Q. What were the broad terms of the contract?
A. In broad terms they followed the remit provided by the resolution made by the Council on the above date.

3.Q. Can you confirm that Cushman & Wakefield was paid at least £30,000 for its services, as suggested by the publicly available documents presented to City Cabinet on 23rd March 2010?
A. No payment has yet been made

4.Q. Can you confirm that the contract now been terminated/completed and state what Cushman & Wakefield has been paid in total for its services under this contract?
A. To all intents and purposes the contract has been terminated following the resolution not to pursue the single retailer proposal as all the work commissioned is no longer required.

5.Q. How was the cost to the taxpayer of the 'white box' refit to be capped at £500,000?
A. This information forms part of an exempt report under section 12A of the Local Government Act 1972 and as no resolution has passed to remove this exemption this information remains exempt from publication.

A further question was put to the council later:
6.Q. If the contract was terminated, when did that happen?
A. By implication after the decision made on the 31st March to retain the market.

The Lancaster Council Cabinet's resolution on 9 December 2008, referred to above, resolved:

"that approval be given to Officers to negotiate directly with retailers to try and procure a single retailer for the Market Hall on the basis that the preferred option would be that the current deficit is reduced to zero or, as an alternative, to report back to Cabinet should a single retailer be prepared to take up occupation of the Market Hall on the basis of the Council contributing an amount that is less than the deficit currently being faced by the Council."

In here, the council states, lies the remit to offer a major Council project management contract, specially made exempt from competition rules, to a company promoting a heavily over-extended retailer with a history of mismanagement, misrepresentation, bad debt and barely two months' of actual retailing in whose prospects said company had a self-evident financial interest.

Given the track record of Asco's founding director Ted Ward, detailed in the Virtual-Lancaster report; "Lancaster Market: Who are ASCO and who backs it?" it is unlikely that his venture would have got off the ground had he not engaged the world's largest property consultants, Cushman and Wakefield, to represent him, coating the running sore of his trail of ruined dupes with their prestigious gloss.

So polished was this gloss that:
even after all the local press had published details of Ward's horrendous history;
even after Ward's other company, Blackhurst and Ward, had gone into liquidation owing £600,000 obtained through misrepresentation;
even after news of the legal case being brought against Asco by its unpaid creditors reached the national business press; and
even after Cllr Thomas resigned from his post as leader of the Cabinet on 1 March saying, ""Publicly available evidence highlighting the risks involved in this proposal was not included in the exempt report delivered to Cabinet",
the council's chief executive, Mark Cullinan confidently declared:

Proposals of the sort involving Lancaster Market are put before Cabinet only after they have been rigorously scrutinised using professional means by the council’s officers, including the taking of external expert advice where necessary.

“These officers have years of experience in dealing with such matters and rumour and innuendo from the internet do not form the basis for providing sound alternative advice," he adds. “To enable them to make their decision, Cabinet members were presented with details of the company involved and a full analysis of the benefits and risks, both financially and legally, to the city council of letting the building to this single retailer.
"

And Council Director of Regeneration Heather Mcmanus was inspired to submit a report to the Council Cabinet dated 25 March 2010 dismissing the public outcry as 'speculation' and stating "the company has already entered into legal arrangements to develop four more stores besides Lancaster. The company now has credit ratings with major suppliers."

A month later Asco was put into administration and legal proceedings set in train, with criminal proceedings due to follow.
Meanwhile a stream of creditors, major and minor, who supplied goods and services to Asco to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds (and counting) has come forward. Asco's credibility came from the news that Cushman & Wakefield were negotiating around 30 new sites for for their stores, mainly with Marks and Spencers and the Coop. Each deal seemed to be validated by the others, creating a bubble company that drew investors in.

But Ted Ward was a financial black hole. He obtained loans and 'inducements' similar to the undisclosed sum that Lancaster City Council planned to offer Asco, ostensibly to run his business. Then he strung his suppliers along with empty promises. Where did all the money go? The Official Receiver is still trying to find out.

As if this wasn't enough, Ward had another property development company. Blackhurst & Ward went into liquidation in January owing over £600,000. Creditors of that company told how they had invested their life-savings in property deals that didn't exist and lost everything. In March 2010 he was disqualified from being a company director, but he must have seen it coming throughout the previous year and throughout his involvement with Cushman & Wakefield.

We don't know what Cushman & Wakefield got paid (or promised) by Asco for their prestigious escort service, or if they worked solely for the consultancy fees and contract brokerage commissions they may have negotiated from Asco 'partners' such as M&S. We have tried to contact them but haven't received any reply.

The McManus report for the council budgetted £60,000 over two years for their contract management fee with an additional £500,000 for them to disburse on refurbishment of the Market Hall for 'the proposed single retailer'.

We still can't get to the bottom of how the council officers' procedures repeatedly failed to protect them from a bubble investment scam already being exposed by reputable business and local news sources on the internet.
Exempting deals from public scrutiny and avoiding the rules for competitive tendering certainly helped. Ignoring Cushman & Wakefield's clear conflict of interest would have had something to do with it.

And doubtless that whole global megacorps thing comes across as really sexy. Nobody wants to hamstring the council in their efforts to enter into delicate soundings of potential opportunities. But their partnership is first and foremost with Lancaster.
Dismissing legitimate public and business warnings as 'innuendo' and 'speculation' served to indicate just how far out of the loop and into the bubble the council executives had been drawn.

What did stop it was public disclosure, public scrutiny and a deferment to a better-informed full council, who put a firm foot down on the hose of taxpayers' money that was about to be showered on Asco.

Lancaster may have dodged the bullet, but North West businesses extended Asco credit on the strength of their trumpeted deal with Lancaster City Council. That money is unlikely to be recovered and those businesses are suffering from their losses.

Gagged Councillors can't say 'Asco'.

Lancaster City Councillors are afraid to say the word 'Asco' for fear of being dragged before the Standards Committee. The Committee met today to determine the fate of Cllr Jon Barry, who referred to the store by name in a press release on 2 March, days after it had been discussed at a public meeting between Market Traders and Council Officers and Members, published on this blog, in the Lancaster Guardian, the Visitor and confirmed in a press release by Asco itself. The Committee's adjudication is yet to be announced.

However, in spite of the name having been common knowledge since last February, at yesterday's meeting of full council Councillors were still having to refer obliquely to 'the proposed single retailer' for fear of reprisal.

Meanwhile creditors of Asco Warrington and more recent creditors who supplied goods and services for the proposed new Asco Store in Formby have been hung out to dry by the company which was wound up in May as creditors took legal action.

The Asco Formby premises belonged to Marks & Spencer and the multi-store contract between M&S and Asco, set up by US-founded global property consultants Cushman & Wakefield, was trumpeted in the March report to council from Director of Regeneration Heather McManus, as a sign of the 'proposed single retailer's' health. She added that Asco had established credit with major suppliers. We now know that, sadly, none of them are likely to see payment for goods and services supplied over several months.

Concerns raised over how a company with no trading history and a director with no capital and a history of badly-failed ventures and unpaid debt behind him could seriously be opening up to 30 new stores simultaneously in a recession were dismissed as 'speculation'. Instead, the Council Cabinet decided to award Cushman and Wakefield an exclusive, non-competitive contract to deliver the Lancaster Market building up to Asco.

But our councillors are not allowed to talk about it. Nor can they commiserate with M&S who, as a result of the deal brokered for them by Cushman and Wakefield, are left with at least 4 empty stores in various stages of refurbishment and a host of desperate local Asco creditors, whose debts total in hundreds of thousands of pounds, some of whom are claiming that Asco told them their payment for work on the buildings would come directly from M&S, when M&S had already paid Asco - who can no longer be contacted.

Read the Virtual-Lancaster report from Tuesday 8 June, updated 15 June 2010
Green councillor accused of Lancaster Market 'leaks'

Cty Council launches Air Quality Consultation in Carnforth

Lancaster City Council is inviting comments from members of the public on its draft Air Quality Action Plan for Carnforth.

This follows the declaration of an Air Quality Management Area in the centre of Carnforth. The declaration was made after the council monitored air pollution levels in Carnforth to deal with high levels of nitrogen dioxide caused by exhaust emissions from road traffic.

Copies of the draft Air Quality Action Plan are available for viewing on the council’s website, www.lancaster.gov.uk/airquality and also at Carnforth Library and Lancaster and Morecambe Town Halls.

The Air Quality Action Plan contains a shortlist of actions that the council believes will improve the air quality in Carnforth. Questions that are of particular interest to the council are also on the website or can be sent on request.

Councillor Jon Barry, cabinet member with responsibility for the environment said: “We would welcome the views of residents, businesses and motorists on the actions that have been shortlisted and on further actions we could take to reduce pollution in Carnforth."

Any comments about the actions can be sent by email to airquality@lancaster.gov.uk or by post to Head of Health and Strategic Housing, Lancaster City Council, Town Hall, Morecambe, LA4 5AF. The closing date for feedback is 31 August 2010.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

County Councillor Resigns After Winter of Discontent

Lancashire County Councillor (Conservative) Keith Young has resigned from the LCC Cabinet, where he was the Member for Highways and Transport, just days after news that the Department for Transport (DfT) has ordered the council to stand down its preparations for the proposed Heysham M6 Link road. Read our report here...

The new coalition government's Spending Review has meant that all major road-building schemes have had their approval withdrawn for reconsideration. The LCC policy of making any attempts to tackle Lancaster's congestion problem, such as Park & Ride, conditional on acceptance of the Link Road scheme was hugely unpopular with local transport groups, who say that traffic studies show the congestion as being mainly due to traffic between the sister towns of Lancaster & Morecambe, the school run and inadequate public transport for commuters. This, they say, would not be solved by a motorway link intended to serve Heysham motorway traffic. Lancaster City Council declined to support the £140 million scheme.

The Council also faced severe criticism for its policy (or lack of it) on gritting pavements during the icy weather last winter, when for the most part pavements were left untreated and there was a huge rise in falls resulting in injuries and deaths because of the icy conditions, as reported in Virtual-Lancaster in January this year. Read more..

Cllr Young told the Lancashire Telegraph, "Things were getting unsustainable. My wife and I decided it was time to ease off, and the only way I could do that was by giving up my cabinet job.
“I am the wrong side of 70 and I shouldn’t be charging around the way I do.”

Champion Gymnast Beth Tweddle to Visit Heysham High

Elizabeth Tweddle MBE, The most successful British gymnast of all time is to visit Heysham High School for a morning of inspirational talks with the students.

Beth was 2009 World Champion on the floor and 2006 World Champion and European Champion on the uneven bars and she will give an assembly to the Year 8 students when she will show a promotional video and give an inspirational talk on how to manage exams, hard work and ambition and aim for success.
She will then take part in activities with students from various primary schools which are partnered with Heysham High School Sports College.

Beth will then move to the sports hall where she will close the morning session and hand out trophies to team winners from the primary schools.

Beth Tweddle says: “Its great going into schools and seeing what they are up to! If I can inspire one pupil during the day then I have done my job”

Gareth Finney, Heysham High Partnership Development Manager, says: “At a young age, Beth was juggling school life with intense training for Olympic standard and has done our country proud.”

He added, “I am delighted that we have got Beth to come to the school and hope our students can really feed off her inspirational story and advice. We want to motivate out pupils by presenting them with the best of the best. It should be a really exciting experience for all of us.”

Body cams and dedicated police car tackle World Cup domestic violence

Local police will be using special body cams to record evidence that will help bring domestic violence offenders to justice during this year’s World Cup.

The cameras, which attach to an officer’s uniform and can record both video footage and sound to secure convictions at court, are among several tactics that are being used to tackle domestic violence during the tournament.

As a result of increased alcohol consumption and heightened emotions during games in the last World Cup, reports of domestic violence increased nationally by approximately 30 per cent.

Officers in Northern Division are committed to tackling the issue of domestic violence and are working with partnership agencies to offer victims support.

As well as the body cams, there will be dedicated officers on patrol in a special police car that will respond to reports of domestic violence in Northern Division.

Officers will also be visiting known offenders and high risk victims throughout the tournament in a bid to prevent incidents by directing them to agencies who can offer support to avoid offending.

Superintendent Richard Spedding said: “Where a crime of domestic violence has taken place we will actively seek to bring the offender to justice.

“Our message to victims is that they don’t need to suffer domestic violence in silence -  across Lancashire all agencies work together to provide support for victims of domestic violence and we will work to protect you and your family.”

He added: “People who feel they have committed domestic violence, or fear that they might, should seek help now as there are no winners where domestic violence is concerned.

“If you don’t seek or accept help and you commit domestic abuse you will be dealt with robustly.”

Monday, 14 June 2010

McGuinness denied Senior TT glory

mcguinness_TT_2010_06.jpg


Morecambe's John McGuinness was denied a 16th win at the Isle of Man TT Races on Friday when he was forced to retire from the Senior race, the final race of the 2010 event.

The HM Plant Honda rider was leading the initial race before it was stopped due to an accident and was lying in second in the re-start just half a second shy of eventual winner Ian Hutchinson. However, an electrical problem on the second lap meant he had to stop at Glen Helen and, for the first time since 1996, the year he made his debut, he failed to grace a TT podium.

The initial 6-lap race got underway at 12.30pm and John led at Glen Helen on the opening lap but by the end of the first 37.73 miles he was back in fourth with less than four seconds covering the leading quartet. On the second lap, John really got into his stride and a lap of 131.135mph saw him take over the lead although it was still very close, his advantage over second placed Guy Martin just under a second. However, on the third lap, Martin crashed heavily at Ballagarey, fortunately escaping serious injury, but his machine set fire to the protective hay bales and the race had to be red flagged, ultimately declared null and void.

The race was re-started at 3.00pm but cut to four laps and it was almost a carbon copy of the first race, John, Ian Hutchinson and Conor Cummins running at an almost identical pace, only Martin now missing from the equation. Hutchinson led on the opening lap with John in second as the gap between the two fluctuated at each timing point, Hutchinson leading by 1.25 seconds at Ramsey. A lap of 131.410 mph by John saw him cut the gap to 0.61 seconds but as he swept through Glen Helen on the second lap, the bike cut out and he coasted to a halt just past the first timing point, the problem later diagnosed as a broken kill switch.

Speaking later, a disappointed John commented: "The bike was running faultlessly throughout but as I took the last left hander through Glen Helen, the bike just stopped like someone had switched the engine off. I started pressing buttons and clicking things but it was all to no avail and it's probably a 10p wire that's broke and cost me today. I've had no luck at all at this year's TT and I've now been forced to retire from the last three Superbike races through no fault of my own, so I'm gutted that I haven't been able to take a win this year."

"The pace was red hot and there was nothing between any of us but I felt really good out there and the conditions were getting better and better so it was going to be a fantastic race. It wasn't meant to be for me this year I guess and I feel for the team as they've all worked so hard to give me a bike to do the job. That's the TT for you though and, as we all know, anything can happen so I'll move on and look to put it all right next year and get back to winning ways."

It's now back to short circuit action for John with the next round of the National Metzeler 1000cc Superstock Championship taking place at Silverstone next weekend, June 18-20.

• Picture by Mark 'Wally' Walters

Partners’ goal to tackle domestic violence during World Cup

Partners in Lancaster and Morecambe are making it their goal to tackle domestic violence throughout the World Cup.

Nationally, previous World Cup tournaments have led to a rise in domestic violence incidents, often fuelled by alcohol and the heightened emotions caused by football games.

The Lancaster District Community Safety Partnership (CSP), which includes agencies such as the City and County Councils, Lancashire Police and the local NHS, is working together throughout the World Cup to bring offenders to justice, while showing victims where they can get the help and support they need to move forward.

A poster campaign, urging offenders ‘don’t go on the attack’ will be displayed in pubs and community venues throughout the tournament. The posters include numbers for both victims and perpetrators to call if they want advice or help.

CSP member, and chair of the Domestic Violence Forum, Lyn Hall (Lancashire Probation Trust), said: “There is no excuse for domestic violence or abuse and perpetrators must be clear that the World Cup does not give them any justification.”

Chief Inspector Copley added: “By joining together with partners we have an opportunity to encourage victims to report attacks, provide them with support and take positive action against offenders. Together we will look at how to support families in a time of crisis.

“If anyone is worried that they are at risk during the World Cup then don’t wait – contact the police or Lancaster District Women’s Aid, who will help you.”

• If you are suffering from domestic violence or know someone who is you can contact Lancashire Police on 0845 1 25 35 45 or 999 in an emergency. Other agencies who can offer help include Lancaster District Women’s Aid on 01524 383636; National Women’s Aid on 0808 2000247; Men’s Advice Line on 0808 8010327; Respect (for those who carry out domestic violence) on 0845 1228609 and Broken Rainbow (for the LGBT community) on 0300 9995428.

Petition the Council to get what you want...

Lancaster City Council has recently adopted a petitions scheme to provide its residents with another way of letting it know what local issues concern them.

Any petition submiitted must be signed by at least 10 persons who live, work or study in the council’s area and all petitions sent or presented to the council will be acknowledged within 10 working days, setting out what the council plans to do with the petition

If a petition receives 1500 signatures or more (or 200 where it relates to a local matter which affects no more than two wards), it will be scheduled for a council debate.

Paper petitions can be sent to the Head of Democratic Services, Town Hall, Lancaster LA1 1PJ, or presented to council personally.

Anyone who wishes to present a petition to the council, or would like their councillor or someone else to present it on their behalf, is asked to contact Democratic Services on 01524 582065 or email democracy@lancaster.gov.uk at least 10 working days before the meeting and they will talk you through the process. Meeting dates are listed on the council’s website

Later this year (from 15 December 2010), the council will have facilities on its website for the public to create, sign and submit petitions electronically.

• Full details of the scheme and the process is available to view on the council’s website at www.lancaster.gov.uk/petitions

Heysham 3 Reactor Proposals Fall into Black Hole

With a £4 billion 'black hole' recently discovered in the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (DCA) budget, the chances of a third nuclear reactor at Heysham are becoming increasingly remote.

In a report by The Guardian on Tuesday 1 June, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne was quoted as saying, "what we are effectively paying for here is decades of cheap nuclear electricity for which we have suddenly got a massive postdated bill.

"A lot of it is spent fuel, and was not dealt with at the time. It is a classic example of short-termism. I cannot think of a better example of a failure to take a decision in the short run costing the taxpayer a hell of a lot more in the long run."

The Liberal Conservative Coalition agreement states that Lib Dems will abstain from voting against new nuclear reactors provided they receive no further overt or hidden public subsidy.

French energy company EDF has relied on its PR chief Andrew Brown (brother to Gordon) to sell its scheme to the UK but this strategy may not wash with the new government.

For new build reactors to go ahead would require a massive hike in electricity prices to cover future decommissioning costs. It isn’t clear how much decommissioning the current generation of reactors will finally cost (as the deficit is only calculated for the next 4 years but the costs will run indefinitely) but the bulk of the current liability falls to the taxpayer.

Private Eye in its current issue (1264) notes that in Germany changes in the coalition structure of Angela Merkel’s government have led to an indefinite postponement of their plans for a nuclear revival. This pattern is likely to be repeated here in the UK as the real costs for nuclear energy start to bite.

Morecambe & Lunesdale MP David Morris affirmed his support for the Heysham 3 proposal during his election campaign. Currently running an anti-Heysham Wind Farm campaign on his website (on aesthetic grounds) he has frequently extolled the beauties of Sunderland Point whilst perhaps failing to notice the potential impact of a third reactor on its coastline.
Virtual-Lancaster has asked him for a comment on the likely consequences of the 'black hole' deficit discovery but he has not replied.