EXCLUSIVE: 1 letter, 4 emails and a note, Wirral Council’s incredible “behind the scenes” responses on Fernbank Farm
“If you make money your God, it will plague you like the devil.”
This is very long and detailed. Today may well be the last time I write about the ins and out of the Fernbank Farm saga (unless more documents surface or something dramatically changes), as I can’t see anything changing in the near future. I hope however that this gives an insight about what happened “behind the scenes” at Wirral Council, as if the tenants were kept in the dark by what seemed to them to be a conspiracy of silence, how can politicians hold officers to account on this topic without knowing the full details?
The first document I below is a letter dated 14th March 2014. The context to this letter is that after the fast track trial, the husband of one of the two defendants made a complaint to Wirral Council. This letter is the reply. I’ve not included the Wirral Council logo on the letter, Malcolm Flanagan’s signature or the www.wirral.gov.uk that appears at the foot of each page.
The letter refers to the letter sent in July 2012 to the tenants with the eviction notice (and which forms part of the eviction notice) as the “wrong letter”.
(Wirral Council logo)
Transformation and Resources Department
PO Box No 2,
date 14 March 2014
to Mr M Woodley
my ref Farm3/MJF/DM
service Transformation and Resources – Business Processes
tel 0151 666 3260 Please ask for Malcolm Flanagan
Dear Mr Woodley,
Fernbank Farm complaint
I refer to your complaint of 18 February 2014, regarding the above matter as well as the pack of information including memory stick that you submitted to me on 24th February.
I have been asked to review your complaint under the authority’s complaints process. I have looked at the matters you raise in how the authority acted in these proceedings. I have reviewed your comments as well as the information available to me and spoken to the officers concerned and set out below my views of the complaint.
As far back as 2000 the land in question had been allocated as a potential housing development site/primary residential as identified within the Council’s Unitary Development Plan. The restriction of developing such green field land which had been in place for some time was abolished nationally in May 2012. This then opened up the possibility of the property to development and realising a very significant capital receipt once it had been agreed by the authority. This national change was put before Cabinet on 27 September 2012 and the development restraint was effectively withdrawn on 15 October 2012 at Council.
The authority’s budget process identifying the stark financial position of the authority came to the fore in the September period under the direction of the Interim Director of Finance. It was at this point that wholesale reviews of authority expenditure, income and assets were undertaken. At the Council meeting in October this detailed the severe financial challenge the authority and that it must take drastic action to balance its budget.
It is then as the scale of the budget issue crystallised this property’s standing as a sizeable and realisable asset increased significantly in importance. It is my view that it was this budget process that changed the authority’s position on this property and it was not its original position.
I am satisfied that, despite what the later actions or inactions may make this look like, in May 2012 there was I believe an intention on the part of the authority to negotiate a new lease with the current tenants. I believe this is shown from the early contacts between the tenants and the authority.
I do not believe the authority intentionally used the wrong letter in July 2012. It is clear though that by some time no later than November 2012 the authority had chosen not to respond to enquiries in recognition of how the authority preferred to see the situation develop. I accept the tenants did write and phone but the authority did not respond and I do not think the authority denies this. At the hearing the authority’s officers said this is what they did and why they did it. The Judge at the hearing described this as “staying silent” and it is seemingly something a landlord can legally chose to do, as the tenant still has an available remedy to apply to the court to protect their own position.
I can though understand your concern on this stance and that the tenants were given no clear signal that this was the authority’s developing position. Again I appreciate your view on this non engagement and how you judge whether this is an appropriate way of transacting business as a public body.
In your complaint you asked who authorised the change in position in effect to “stay silent” and were they entitled to do that. My understanding is that officers in Asset Management have within their job description to act in a commercial manner and to effect the best position for the Council. In my interview with David Armstrong he made it clear that while the decision had predated him given the scale of the budget issue he could foresee no other alternative that he could have taken if it had been his service area at the time.
You have also commented that Mr Armstrong was unaware of the legal action. I have spoken with him and having looked at the timing of contacts no other action than the letter of August 13 was being referred to by you. He is clear that when speaking to you he thought from the information you gave that something else had been done without him being aware. This was not the case and it was the August 2013 being referred to.
Reviewing all these matter, I believe that it was a proper and legal position that the authority was entitled to take in recognition of its budget situation. In its formal role as Landlord, it acted within its rights, in a way to best manage its interest which was to re-acquire the property and realise the best possible receipt for use as capital in the future.
I fully realise you will view that differently. The stance taken by the authority was a formal and legal position but I realise how that translates in human terms on the impact it has on the longstanding tenants and the associations members.
Regrettably whilst appreciating your concerns on the authority’s manner of getting to the position it favoured, I cannot uphold your complaint that it was wrong of the authority to do this. I accept that the “non action” did not alert the tenants to the change in the Landlords intention as it was not something they anticipated from the authority.
Whilst I cannot uphold your complaint for the above reasons, I do appreciate the strength of feeling it has caused in so many people affected by this.
At the recent hearing the Judge gave the authority the right to take back the property I believe, in six months from the date of the decision. I am aware that Mr. Armstrong, Assistant Chief Executive, at the hearing indicated the offer of occupancy by the group for a longer period of 12 months. I believe this shows as the senior officer Mr Armstrong is keen to try to offer support for the club and not just act as quickly as the law allowed.
I have spoken to Mr. Armstrong and he is keen to mitigate the loss of the land to the group. He has also indicated to me his intention is to have the officer’s look at alternative sites for the group and to hopefully agree a suitable way forward over the next few weeks. I have had no reason to doubt the authority’s intention to support this process, while realising a very considerable asset, to help as much as reasonably possible those affected by its decision.
I do realise you will be disappointed by the outcome of my review in not supporting your complaint. However I remain clear that whilst all was done by the authority in a legal manner I appreciate how the change to a more commercial operation in handling this situation has been seen by those affected.
I have to advise you that my review is undertaken at Stage 1 of the authority’s complaints process. If you are dissatisfied with my review you do have the right to request a further review, which can be requested by writing back to me and it would be reviewed by another officer.
(Malcolm Flanagan’s signature)
Head of Business Processes
Below are some emails and a note that show what was happening “behind the scenes” at Wirral Council.
From: Dickenson, David
Sent: 23 January 2013 10:54
To: Voas, Sandy
Subject: Upton Pony Owners Lease, Sandbrook Lane, Moreton
As discussed Upton Pony Owners lease land at Sandbrook Lane Moreton and the section 25 notice has been served to terminate the lease on 31st May 2013. The trustees are Mrs Kane and Mrs Woodley. Please can no further invoices be raised or any rent accepted after 31st May 2013. The tenants are not aware yet but the Council may be looking at the future of this land.
David Dickenson MRICS
Asset Management Surveyor
Asset Management Section
Cheshire Lines Building
From: Coathup, Cheryl
Sent: 20 May 2013 12:07
To: Dickenson, David
Subject: Telephone Message – Mrs Kane
Follow Up Flag: Follow up
Flag Status: Red