Saturday, 22 October 2011

Fire Station Fuck-Ups

I have to confess that I don't really take much notice of what Notts Fire Authority do, even though their committee minutes are all posted up on NCC's website. Perhaps I should as there may be worthwhile lols to be picked up.

However, I'm not sure checking minutes would have helped me find this stuff that the 'Post' is reporting on regarding NFA and NCC being hit for big out-of-court settlements of £2.7m. This followed a stalled legal action against a private development company, Gladman Commercial Properties, who had pulled out of an agreement to buy the old Dunkirk Fire Station site and surrounding land.

Briefly the allegations are as follows. NCC had land around the fire station it didn't need so it teamed up with NFA to sell the lot together for added value purposes. Gladman claimed that they were told the site could accommodate 600 student flats and, when they worked out it couldn't, pulled out. NCC and NFA went to m'learneds to try and get them back into line. It didn't go well it seems, hence the hefty out-of-court settlements.

Fact is, the whole business seemed pretty bejiggered from the start. The point of selling Dunkirk FS was that, combined with the sale of another station in Beeston, they could build a whole new big spangly station.

Simple enough you'd think but have a look at this report to NFA's Finance and Resources Committee in September 2007. One thing that alarms is the number of times the phrase 'it became clear that...' features at the start of paragraphs, almost as if nobody had actually tried to spot problems before they arose.

One problem that caused a significant deviation from the original budget was the realisation that the plot for the new station, assumed to be industrial land and thus worth about £300k, turned out to be residential land worth £2m. Whoops. That's an extra £1.7m please.

Moving on a few years to the actual court case, this was handled with the usual finesse and expertise that we have come to expect from NCC's legal department. First of all, here's a quick summary of the issues from the Property Litigation Association which is what I'd advise you to read if you're a vaguely normal person. If you want the full fat court decision it's here.

It seems that what NFA and NCC were claiming depended rather heavily on what was said in conversations between the selling agents and Adrian Jones, NCC's Director of Planning and Transport at the time. However, in a stroke of pure genius, they hadn't listed him as a witness, hadn't secured a witness statement from him and he wasn't there to do his stuff at the hearing. When asked why by the Judge the reason given was that he was no longer working for NCC. It's quite likely that, at around this point, Gladman's lawyer took the piss somewhat mercilessly because the big golden rule of court action is that you set out your case from the beginning.

Anyway, NCC requested an adjournment in order to get Mr Jones to appear. After some considerable opposition from Gladman the Judge agreed BUT, and here's the rub, he said that 'there will be heavy costs consequences' for NCC due to the delay and the extra work this would cause Gladman and their legal team.

And that's the point of this post really. Because the substantial issue was settled out of court we have no way of knowing who was actually right. It's not even clear whether Jones ever did appear on the stand or what he (would have) said if he did. But one thing we can be sure that the final settlement, and thus the cost to taxpayers, was inflated by NCC's legal team screwing up the case from the beginning.

One last thing. The Post reports that the following statement was issued by Gladman on conclusion of hostilities -

"GCP wish to make it absolutely clear that they accept that no member (councillor) of either Notts Fire Authority or Nottingham City Council played any part in the misrepresentations alleged by Gladman in the High Court claim."

This seems to have been designed to get any politicians caught up in this off the hook and has already been used as the excuse for the Chair of the Fire Authority, Darrell Pulk, not having to resign. Makes you wonder how much extra that statement cost just to save a few political asses.

PS. If you fancy further reading about another fuck-up by NCC's property and legal wings, not to mention the efforts made by the politicians to extricate themselves from a quagmire, you might like to have a look at the saga of the Radford Unity Complex.

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