Just before the full Lancaster City Council meeting that discussed the future of Lancaster Market, Asco Stores Ltd finally confirmed via the Morecambe Visitor what had long been rumoured: that it had been approached by the Council to take over the building, whose costs are rapidly becoming prohibitive.
ASCO was, apparently the suggestion of real estate brokers and consultants Cushman and Wakefield, who reported earlier this month that over 10% of shops on the UK’s high streets are now vacant or available to lease according to their latest Retail Availability survey.
(At the Council Cabinet on 16th February, part of the proposal made by Conservative Councillor Thomas and seconded by Liberal Democrat Council leader Stuart Langhorn included the "appointment of Cushman and Wakefield to undertake the design/project management work on the Market Hall building.”)
SHOW US THE MONEY...
The exact terms of the deal between ASCO, owned by property developer Ted Ward, and the City Council are considered commercially sensitive, but at a meeting of Traders and other parties last night (Tuesday) it would appear the idea of the "single trader" option is very attractive for the Council. Once it began paying rent, traders report the Council will apparently expect to net at least £500,000 a year in income - about the same as the costs of the building.
It should be noted, however, that as yet, Council officers have yet to present any evidence of potential cashflow for the single retailer option. Although the proposal passed at Cabinet regarding the Market required any subsequent report to Full Council to include a cashflow forecast it did not, from which we infer that the original report presented to Cabinet on 16 February did not include a cashflow forecast, either.
This is important, because, as Councillor Roger Mace tells us, "movements of cash are not susceptible to distortion by the application of accounting rules and conventions.
"The cashflow statement thus makes it easier to visualise and assess the risk inherent in any commercial proposal - in this case the potential consequences for the council in the event that an incoming single trader taking a sublease of the Market should default, or terminate a new lease earlier than had been anticipated.
"It was in consequence of such analysis that the final paragraph in the Conservative amendment to the Budget resolution at Council on 3 March was ... that Council 'resolves that no offer be made to an incoming single trader unless such offer includes safeguards to protect council tax payers against the possibility of default or early termination of any new lease'."
The concerns are obvious: it's believed ASCO has been offered the building on generous terms in the Council's effort to rid itself of the building, so that projected income may not necessarily begin to benefit local taxpayers for at least the first year, if, for example, ASCO had been offered a rent free sweetener to take on the building.
(We would like to point out that this is pure conjecture, but the Council has used similar 'sweeteners' like this to attract and encourage business before, such as its successful attempt to persuade the Apollo Cinema to upgrade its venue in Morecambe in 2006, as noted by former council leader Ian Barker).
ASCO DEAL STILL 'SECRET'
While the terms of the proposed deal remain secret, in a press statement issued before full Council voted not to close the Market, Lancaster City Council, assured the public: “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.
“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."
Lancaster City Council is right to take professional advice on such matters and of course, the Internet is sometimes both a boon and a curse in terms as an information source. We understand that council officers did indeed provide some indications of the risks involved in any potential deal with ASCO and its chief shareholder Ted Ward at the Cabinet meeting on 16th February, when the proposal to investigate the handover of the Market building to a single retailer was first mooted and back by all Cabinet members present except the Greens and Coun Evelyn Archer, who abstained on the vote.
However, we are surprized Council officers did not present result of a search on ASCO Stores Limited at Companies House (where all publicly available documents on the company can be purchased for about £10). We also imagined they must have run a credit check using, perhaps, UK Data, which indicates that although the company has taken advantage of exemptions under the Companies Act such that the accounts have not been audited or examined, its credit rating is poor, and perhaps oddly for a relatively new company, it has two County Court Judgements against it, totaling £6860.
Despite the huge potential costs to local taxpayers involved, Councillor John Barry, who voted against the proposal at Cabinet, tells us that such easily-sourced credit information was not presented to Cabinet.
Coun Blamire also tells us that she had seen some, but not all of the information we have researched.
"Even if it had been, I don't think it would have helped much as it is difficult to quantify a number auch as that," Jon argues. "What was available was [ASCO's] overdraft limit, which basically told you the same thing -- that they had no margin for error and could easily go bust.
"My view is that it was totally obvious that this was a very risky company from the information available," he adds.
"We were told by officers that it was a risk. Even the literature from the company looked second rate and somewhat tacky.
"Councillors who voted for ASCO are now falling over themselves to say they didn't know enough information. I think this is untrue. They had enough to know that it was a dodgy company and they were told by officers that it was a risk and it was up to them to make a decision."
WHO IS TED WARD?
Strangely, cabinet members seemed unconcerned by the involvement in the ASCO project of Ted Ward, reported in January as being a "business consultant" for the company and one of its founding directors, and, although he has since stepped down, remains the company's only shareholder.
(NB This paragraph updated 5/4/10 - originally, Jon told us council staff had made the Cabinet aware of Ted Ward's past): Jon Barry tells virtual-lancaster council officers did not make councillors aware of Ted Ward's history. For the benefit of taxpayers, we have conducted our own research, and present it below.
While virtual-lancaster is delighted that all parties are now meeting to discuss the future of the Market, with a decision set to be made on 31st March, we remain concerned at how a decision was reached to proceed with discussing a deal with ASCO.
"The responsible officers have to be held to account," says one angry local taxpayer in a letter to virtual-lancaster, also sent to other local press. "At Overview and Scrutiny committee last week, Coun Gilbert said that a number of councillors shared my concern. I believe that it is time for councillors to move from concern to action.
"The quality of governance – delivered by councillors as well as officers - matters even more in times of financial austerity. As really important services like community pools and public toilets are lined up for the axe, what the ASCO fiasco reveals is truly alarming.
"Do we really have the capability in place to match the seriousness of the times?"
We have made all Cabinet members aware of the our findings below and have received comments from some of them. We will update this story as and when others respond.
TED WARD AND ASCO: A HISTORY
The Lancashire Telegraph reports the new owners of Darwen Football Club property developers Ellie Batiste and Ted Ward (originally, the Managing Director of ASCO Stores Ltd and, reportedly, still backing the venture) want Darwen residents to be involved in the make-over as much as possible. The couple pledge to invest £3 million in the company, drawing on funds from their property business (Evermar Property Developments Ltd.), based in Manchester, but say they are also looking for sponsors and other investors.
Salford property developer Ted Ward, who lives in Worsley, launches The Darrener, which is based at Darwen Football Club.
Regional journalism site reports How Do The Darrener is reported to be in expansionary mood as it plans to increase pagination, recruit more staff and launch a website. The weekly paper costs 65p and editor Peter Holland claims the title is now selling almost 3,000 copies a week with readership above 7,000. His ambition he said is to see paid-for sales at 7,000 within 12 months. Despite this, one freelancer publicly details non-payment of bills on the How-Do web site.
The Lancashire Telegraph notes plans by Ted Ward to open a new football stadium for Darwen FC at a cost of some £22 million.
The Lancashire Telegraph reports Darwen FC is facing a winding-up order over alleged unpaid advertising debts. Bosses at the club are given a deadline of Thursday 19th June to respond to the order from solicitors acting on behalf of The Bee radio station to pay debts believed to be some £8000.
18th July: The Lancashire Telegraph reports Ted Ward is banned from the ground after its former owner won a court injunction against him. Ted Ward is told he risks prison if he does not comply with the order banning him and his companies from The Anchor Ground.
The injunction also bans his businesses - including The Darrener - from operating from the club. It folds after only nine months, leaving staff unpaid and legal action to recover monies.
Darwen Online reports the hearing took place at Birmingham's Civil Justice Centre in which previous owner, Kevin Henry, claimed he had received just £20,000 of the £95,000 agreed for the sale of Darwen FC over 18 months ago.
Mohammed Zaman, who was acting on behalf of Mr Henry told the court how a separate company had been setup called Darwen Football and Rugby Club to have a very similar name to the original company "Darwen Football and Social Club" which was set-up in 1973.
It's claimed in court that this was done to pass the new company off as the old one and allow Mr Ward to divert funds into the new company. The Lancashire Telegraph reports that the court was shown evidence that no money had been banked into the account of Darwen Football and Social Club between December 2006 and January 2008.
Representing himself in court, Mr Ward said "It’s a terrible statement to say we were diverting funds." and showed a copy of his personal bank statement, telling them "“I am a man of substance."
22nd July: The Lancashire Telegraph reports Kevin Henry, the new man at the helm of Darwen Football Club has shelved plans for a multi-million pound stadium redevelopment. Henry wins a court injunction banning former boss Ted Ward from the Anchor Ground.
In its report, it notes Mr Ward had unveiled plans for a £22million, 5,000-capacity stadium, with shops and a hotel, on land at Robin Bank - but it later emerged that the artist’s impression of the planned stadium was in fact the University of Tulsa American football stadium from Oklahoma. Labour's shadow regeneration member Andy Kay was unimpressed by the image, which was also used on election leaflets by the 'For Darwen' party. "I would hesitate to say they were lying, but they are certainly being economical with their images," he said."There's no chance something like that would fit on Robin Bank."
Staff at The Darrener newspaper say they are taking action against its owner, because they claim they have not been paid for almost three months.
Darwen FC earns a short reprieve from a winding up order because of unpaid debts (Lancashire Telegraph)
How-Do reports that staff that worked for The Darrener newspaper, including ex-BBC journalist Peter Holland, win claims of more than £19,000 after defeating owner Ted Ward at an employment tribunal in Manchester. At the tribunal Judge Peter Russell awarded Holland £6,837.54, chief reporter Miranda Taylor £4,750, graphic designer Martyn Halliwell £3,266, layout assistant Lisa Geogarty £2,484.50 and reporter Simone Yates £2,100.
3rd April 2009: Date of Incorporation of Asco Stores Ltd. The new company is backed by "private investors" with further financial support from NatWest Bank (Source: Crains).
27th April: ACSO's Risk Score – 32 Moderate Risk (UK Company Data Report)
After 134 years, Darwen Football and Social Club Ltd is wound up in the High Court over a £13,000 bill for beer and £9,000 owed to tool hire company ING for turf equipment, related to the tenure of previous boss Ted Ward. AFC Darwen, a new Darwen football club is formed, but the reformed club had to start at Step 7 (Level 11) of the football pyramid and apply for admission to the West Lancashire League, which was granted and they entered straight in at the Premier Division. (Sources include the Blackburn Citizen)
Fans of Darwen FC discovered that Ward bought Darwen Football & Social Club Ltd, which then incurred the debts to a brewery, leasing companies, etc. Ordinarily, the club's takings would be banked into the account of Darwen Football & Social Club Ltd. However, upon taking over, Mr Ward formed a new company called Darwen Football & Rugby Club Ltd. Were takings were banked into that company's bank account, thereby leaving the original company in a mess? Fans don't know, but the big question is: what happened to the funds, if any, banked in the new company's account? (Sourced from the Lancashire Telegraph forum: search for "Ian the Beancounter")
5th December: ASCO Stores Ltd opening of first store, taking over Darwen's old Woolworths. (The opening was, it seems, originally scheduled for August). The leader of Warrington Borough Council, Coun Ian Marks did the honour of cutting the ribbon, teling press "The council has been working very closely with you on a scheme to get people who were previously unemployed into work. I think 18 people have joined you through this scheme which is wonderful." (This is Cheshire)
Web site Crains reports the store will employ 65 people and the company hopes to open another 11 across the North West by next summer, hoping to take advantage of low town centre retail rents to open 30 supermarkets employing 3,000 staff within three years. Elsewhere, it's reported ASCO plans to open stores in St. Helens and Runcorn before Christmas. (Neither has opened so far).
12th December: ASCO Company Secretary Alistair Hollows Resigns (Company House records)
17th December: ASCO Stores Ltd staff are laid off before Christmas, half the workforce less than two weeks after opening. Disgruntled staff claim baliffs have visited the store over unpaid bills.
Dave Laney, operations manager at Asco, tells the reporters: “When I open other stores in the vicinity the first people I’m going to call on is the people we have trained up.
“I’m more disappointed than anybody that we found ourselves in this situation where we have over-employed and we have had to make some hard decisions.” (Source: This is Cheshire)
10th January: County Court Judgement against ASCO: £3759 (UK Company Data Report)
13th January: The Lancashire Telegraph reports again that Ted Ward is reported to be behind the launch of Asco Stores Ltd (and is described as being a "business consultant" to the company in other newspaper reports: Companies House information - cost £1 - shows that Mr. Ward is the only shareholder, having subscribed £1 for the controlling interest. Companies House also has publicly available information about the various companies of which Mr. Ward has been a director).
The company says it hopes to open another 11 stores across the North West by next summer. Locations in St. Helens and Runcorn are among those identified.
15th January: Media reports of ASCO Stores Ltd staff unpaid and post dated cheques. (This is Cheshire: "Post-dated pay cheque cost me my home")
17th January: County Court Judgement against ASCO:£3101 (UK Company Data Report)
20th January: ASCO Stores Ltd Managing Director Ted Ward steps down. Dave Laney, who was initially operation manager, takes over and insists that there was no mystery over Ward's departure and that it was business as usual. (Company House records, the Darwen Reporter).
Laney has some 30 years retail experience working for retailers including WH Smith and Mothercare, says the new venture is backed by private investors with further financial support from NatWest Bank.
20th January: New Company Secretary Sandra Cave appointed (Company House records)
12th February: Company Secretary Terminated (Company House records)
16th February: Lancaster City Cabinet agrees to present a proposal to Full Council on 3rd March proposing the closure of Lancaster Market and its takeover by a single retailer. (Green councilors Bart and Fletcher vote against the proposal and Evelyn Archer abstains).
While the name of the retailer is at that point confidential, one council officer names it during a meeting with Market traders and ASCO later confirm they have been approached, providing the Morecambe Visitor with a visual of the revamped exterior in ASCO branding.
The full discussion of ASCO and the future of Lancaster Market at Cabinet is not in the public domain, but Councillor Jon Barry has confirmed, as noted above, that while they made the risks of any deal clear, City Council officers did not include information on the credit rating of ASCO when documentation on the market and the proposed "deal" with Asco was presented. A Creditsafe report (Cost: £8.99+VAT for the report) available at the time officers compiled their report indicates ASCO had a credit rating of 3, going down to 1 at the time of full council on 3rd march. Anything below 30 is deemed 'high risk' and 0 represents bankruptcy.
The report also notes that ASCO was already at the time of the cabinet report collecting county court judgements against it, starting with one for as little as £84.
24th February: New Company Secretary, Sarah Dorothea Richards, appointed (Company House records)
25th February: ACSO's Risk Score – 1 High Risk (UK Company Data Report)
25th February: ASCO makes Ethical/Company Policy statement to save the British High Street intending "to rescue and refurbish empty properties". Just one minor thing - Lancaster Market is not empty... (Asco - www.ascostores.co.uk/press)
3rd March: Full Council votes against the Cabinet proposal to close Lancaster Market and agrees to negotiate with traders. Cabinet member Coun Abbott Bryning, who missed the cabinet vote, called the proposal with ASCO “a bum, one-sided deal”. Coun Blamire, who voted for it at Cabinet says she later realised that “it was utterly ridiculous”. Coun. Thomas, whose portfolio included property issues, resigns over the matter.
This week: Cabinet meets with traders and other bodies to discuss the Market's future (see earlier news story), also invloving the strategic director of Blackburn with Darwen Council (which itself is undergoing changes regarding its market), and Quarterbridge (specialists in the development of retail markts that undertakes ‘best value’ reviews and planning for market authorities, and offers a full marketing and strategic development service to all market businesses.).
31st March: the Council will meet again to discuss the future of Lancaster Market...
• Lancaster Market Matter March: Video (Facebook, membership required)
• Save Lancaster Market Facebook Group