Secrets revealed about Wirral Council’s Birkenhead Town Centre Regeneration plans and Neptune
Earlier this year I made a Freedom of Information request for the procurement advice that Wirral Council received from Peter Oldham QC and also Weightmans’ partner Sean Crotty about the regeneration of Birkenhead Town Centre.
A Rosemary Lyon (one of Wirral Council’s in-house solicitors) refused this request on grounds of commercial confidentiality (its own and other third parties). She stated that providing the information would “adversely affect its [Wirral Council's] bargaining position concerning potential regeneration of Birkenhead Town Centre which would result in less effective use of public money” and “make it less likely that companies or individuals would provide the Council with commercially sensitive information in the future and consequently undermine the ability of the Council to fulfil its role”. They even went so far as to claim that releasing the information “would adversely affect the course of justice”.
However, this blog post is the story behind what went on behind the scenes that Wirral Council clearly (according to the response to my Freedom of Information Act request) didn’t want to be disclosed to the public or written about in the media for reasons I will go into below.
On the 16th July 2013, the Leader of Wirral Council Cllr Phil Davies (under delegated decision making powers meaning that he made the decision on his own) gave his agreement to a “preferred development agreement” with Neptune Developments Limited to “allow them to work up a comprehensive redevelopment proposal for Birkenhead Town Centre incorporating Council owned land on Europa Boulevard and involving the re-modelling and offer of Birkenhead Market”.
In the report seen by Cllr Phil Davies before reaching his decision reference was made to “a commitment to develop a clear master plan for Birkenhead Town Centre” in the 2013/16 Corporate Plan. Reference was also made to the previous offer to Wirral Council in 2010 by William Tar Developments to build a casino on two out of three plots of land owned by the Council on Europa Boulevard. That offer was rejected in September 2010.
However what’s not been known widely by the public until now is that “At the same time and in response to the marketing exercise Neptune Developments Limited (NDL) submitted a proposal requesting that the Council move away from disposing of the sites separately and instead work with them to develop a wider regeneration scheme for Birkenhead. NDL had already secured an interest on a vacant site on Conway Street and they suggested that this coupled with Council owned land on Europa Boulevard could be combined to allow a more comprehensive redevelopment scheme to be worked up and in turn would give a far greater regeneration impact than if the sites were developed separately” and that “negotiations have been continuing with NDL since the completion of the marketing exercise”.
Detailed below is Neptune’s proposal.
“Neptune proposes that the project is taken forward on the basis of a two stage agreement. The first, which is the subject of this Report, will involve granting NDL Preferred Developer Status which will be extendible to a period of 12 months and will be subject to NDL meeting the following performance targets:
• Work up the Master-plan into a detailed implementation strategy for approval by the Council
• Working with the Council, NDL will develop proposals which will reposition the town as a retail and leisure destination
• NDL will negotiate further site acquisitions if necessary to deliver the agreed strategy.
Subject to securing Members (Ed – Members means councillors) approval to the Strategy and Master-plan NDL would then be required to enter into a second Conditional Development Agreement which would commit them, at their own risk, to work up the proposals into a position were they could be implemented and to deliver the returns that are needed to secure the wider regeneration of this part of the Town.
It is proposed that the Conditional Development Agreement with NDL will be structured to ensure the Council receives the best value obtainable for the 3 sites on Europa Boulevard which will be determined by an independent valuation and all works will be undertaken on an open book basis with NDL working on a fixed developer return on cost which varies depending on the nature of the risk.”
In a section titled “Other options considered” it’s basically stated that no other options were considered because NDL has an interest in the land needed to build Birkenhead Market on once its moved.
“An initial assessment of the NDL proposals confirms that if delivered the scheme will have the potential to revitalise an important part of Birkenhead Town centre delivering a far greater regeneration impact than if the sites identified in this report were developed out separately. No other options have therefore been considered as NDL has already secured an interest in the balance of the land that is needed to deliver the re-provided market.”
The section on consultation states this “There will be a need to carry out extensive consultation on the scheme prior and during the detailed planning process. This will be carried out jointly between the
Council and NDL.”
The section on legal implications refers to the advice that my Freedom of Information request in September was about (and refused). Once again Members means councillors.
7.1 In the event that Members want to pursue this proposal and to ensure that it is compliant with current EU procurement law, Officers have sought advice from Weightmans LLP and Counsel about its legality.
7.2 The advice has now been received and it concludes that the Council would at this stage be able to enter into a Stage 1 Preferred Development Agreement on the proviso that a final test of lawfulness is carried out when the Stage 1 work has been completed and the detailed arrangements can be assessed.
7.3 NDL is aware of this advice and would be prepared to complete the first stage obligations at risk to allow the final lawfulness test to be undertaken when the scheme has been fully worked up.
In other words Wirral Council’s happy to pass on the advice it received (at a cost of £7404 of taxpayer’s money) to Neptune Development Limited to help them in a commercial venture as it may result in Wirral Council receiving money in the future for land in Birkenhead that it doesn’t want.
According to this article in the Wirral Globe in July 2013 Wirral Council wants to rebuild Birkenhead Market and move it.
Neptune Development Limited clearly as they have “already secured an interest on a vacant site on Conway Street” have a commercial interest in any master plan proposals and would be able to “negotiate further site acquisitions” in advance of the master plan becoming public knowledge.
Doesn’t this all sum up how Wirral Council tries to operate though and considering the public interest in the regeneration of Birkenhead Town Centre being done in accordance with EU procurement law do you dear reader think I should make a further Freedom of Information request to Wirral Council for the advice they received from Peter Oldham QC and Sean Crotty of Weightmans in relation to this matter in the hope that they would provide it this time?
P.S. If anyone would like to have a stab at translating “all works will be undertaken on an open book basis with NDL working on a fixed developer return on cost which varies depending on the nature of the risk” into plain English that can be understood by the average person please leave a comment!
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