Secret deal backgrounder

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Transcript of Secret deal backgrounder

  • 6 THE SENTINEL Friday February 15, 2013 SEN-eO1-S2 [P/R] SEN-eO1-S2 [P/R] THE SENTINEL Friday February 15, 2013

    How the Dimensions splash pool saga unfoldedAs confidential letters to set up a secret Dimensionsdeal, which was repeatedly denied by Stoke-on-Trent CityCouncil, are revealed, Alex Campbell examines therelationship between senior council figures and amillionaire businessmen which ultimately turned sour

    former chief executive Steve Robin-son distanced the authority from anyagreement. The city council hasnever formally declared that a dealwas in place. These are some of thekey exchanges between the twopar ties.

    RECORDS released yesterday dateback to October 2007 when MrChaudry was discussing plans toexpand WaterWorld into a major leis-ure complex with houses, a fitnesscentre, a hotel and an ice rink.

    Peter Hayes, the councils interimdirector of communications, told MrChaudry: Mark Meredith says youtwo have had a chat about your plans.He would rather deal with this him-s e l f.

    Details of a Renew North Stafford-shire meeting held at Water-

    World in November 2007show Mr Chaudry asked

    the council to publiclysupport his expansionplans, which have neverbeen developed.

    They include the first reference toWaterWorld benefiting from the clos-ure of council swimming facilities.

    A summary, written by RenewsAndrew Tharp, states: City council todevelop a swimming contract with Moin anticipation of future swimmingfacility shortages.

    Plans to shut Dimensions were notmade public until more than fourmonths later, in February 2008.

    A SENIOR council officer met MrChaudry on January 4, 2008, to dis-cuss a plan to shut Dimensions splashpool and offer an incentive for cus-tomers to visit WaterWorld.

    In an email sent to Mr Chaudry andcopied to Mr Meredith later on thesame day, community services dir-ector Julie Seddon states that planswere ag reed to shut Dimensions andrun a 50,000 pilot of free access toWaterWorld for school age children.

    Ms Seddon arranged a meetingbetween Mr Chaudry and MrMeredith to drive progress, suggest-ing the proposal should eventually bepromoted in its own Our Citymagazine and The Sentinel.

    She thanked Mr Chaudry for hisenthusiasm and said she was look-ing forward to watching a DVD of Mr

    Chaudrys appearance on TV showThe Secret Millionaire.

    In an email to the elected mayor onthe same day, Mr Chaudry said: M o reor less everything is agreed in prin-ciple subject to finalising the detailand signing the formal agreements.

    He also offered his support in set-ting up a mentoring programme,telling Mr Meredith it would improvethe citys c re d i b i l i t y with centralGovernment and counter negativep re s s over school closures.

    PLANS to shut Dimensions splashpool to save 60,000 were revealed byThe Sentinel on February 25, 2008.

    Then cabinet member, LaboursMohammed Pervez, told The Sen-tinel: The council is required toprovide swimming facilities but this isa splash pool. You have to questionwhether the city council should beproviding this service.

    The council made no reference toits discussions with WaterWorld.

    Labour councillors Jean Edwardsand Dave Conway quit in protest overthe planned closure. Labour member,Alan Joynson, followed days later.

    Mr Conway claims Mr Pervez andMr Meredith categorically deniedany meetings with Mr Chaudry.

    The plan to close Dimensions by theend of March, 2008 which still madeno reference to WaterWorld wasnarrowly approved on February 29.

    RESIDENTS launched a campaignto save the pool with more than 7,000signing a petition against the plan.

    A public meeting to discuss thecampaign was held on March 20.

    Unbeknown to residents, Mr

    Chaudry emailed the councils PRdepartment on the same day to out-line a plan to offer half-price entry tocity taxpayers at WaterWorld duringcertain periods of the day.

    He offered to provide a discount fortwo months before agreeing a long-term scheme to fund the ratepayersaccess to WaterWorld.

    In exchanges with PR chief MrHayes he suggested the scheme wouldwin public support for the Dimen-sions closure, adding: It is high timesomething positive came out of all thathas gone on. This will take the heat offeveryone for the time being.

    On a planned press release to revealthe WaterWorld deal, Mr Chaudrysaid: The last thing anyone wants isto mess up and get further backlash.

    AS PRESSURE mounted the coun-cil failed to confirm a closure date forthe pool and councillors voted to post-pone plans for further examination.

    On April 3, a scrutiny committeedemanded a full investigation intothe closure plans and called for a fullreview of the leisure service.

    The letters reveal that Mr Chaudrymet Mr Robinson a day later.

    It became clear that the apparent

    agreement was in jeopardy and hisrelationship with the authoritybegan to sour.

    Mr Chaudry threatened to sue overa deal he felt had been broken, whileMr Robinson attempted to distancehimself from any alleged agreementby pointing out that individual coun-cillors and officers do not have thepower to circumvent the democraticp ro c e s s.

    Mr Robinson told Mr Chaudry:You stated that you did not wish toplay the race card but felt that thecouncil was not, in effect, being even-handed in its relations with you.

    On a more general note, it didappear at our meeting that you wereseeking to force the council to act in away supportive of your commercialinterests and outside of establishedprocesses through the threat of legalaction. I am not sure whether this wasintentional or perhaps a reflection ofdifferent approaches to doing busi-ness; however, I do not feel that it ishelpful.

    In a strongly-worded riposte, MrChaudry, pictured right,expressed his frustration that ataxpayer-funded facility wasallowed to rival his business,stating: I wonder how our twoprofessional clubs would feel ifthe council decided that theywanted to get in to professionalfootball and would allow theircustomers to pay only afraction of the entryprice and be subsid-ised by the ratepay er.

    He questioned financial support forStoke Citys Britannia Stadium and a2.5 million loan to Port Vale, adding:My grievance here is that these pro-fessional football clubs have receivedsubstantial financial benefits from therate payer.

    SAVINGS of 60,000 by closingDimensions were a significant under-estimate, according to Mr Chaudryscl a i m s.

    But the results of the councils ser-vice review, which were published onJune 6, concluded that no such sav-ings could be made.

    Announcing that the pool wassaved, Mr Pervez said: The figure of60,000 is not there, and therefore wecannot justify closing Dimensionssplash pool.

    Mr Meredith and Mr Chaudry, andsenior councillor Roger Ibbs wh oMr Chaudry suspected of helping toderail the Dimensions deal over apersonal grievance were later arres-ted on suspicion of various offences.A seven-month inquiry led to no

    charges being brought.Mr Chaudry revealed in

    November 2009 that he was tosue the council to clear hisname over what he has alwaysmaintained was a deal the coun-cil had broken.

    He was paid 21,850 to end hislegal threat in September 2011, atwhich point the council

    acknowledged that discus-sions had taken place

    and apologised forconfusion.

    Meredith: The original savings identified to close the facility were not deliverable

    CITY council officers have fought foryears to keep secret the emailexchanges between senior directorsand WaterWorld owner Mo Chaudry.The authority refused a number ofFreedom of Information (FOI) requeststriggered by its 21,850 payoff to MrChaudry in September 2011.Requests under FOI, which legallyobliges public bodies to releasecertain information, sought fulldisclosure of the paper trail linking MrChaudry with senior officers and theelected mayor.The authority refused on the groundsthat its payoff to Mr Chaudry includeda legally-binding confidentialityagreement between both parties.The Information CommissionersOffice (ICO), which oversees legalobligations under FOI, sided with thecouncil.But the case raised concerns about aprecedent for public information beingconcealed by civil proceedings.An information rights tribunal at theICO overturned the original refusal,prompting the council to release adossier of relevant communicationsyesterday.Paul Hackney, the councils head oflegal services, said: The councilconsidered it inappropriate to releasecertain information under severalFreedom of Information requests.This was because the informationwas considered relevant to asettlement agreement reachedbetween the council and WaterWorldHoldings following a confidentialmediation agreement over a legaldispute between the twoorganisations in 2011.The Information Commissioner fullyagreed with the councils approach.However, the situation has beenclarified by the tribunal and a numberof email communications and lettersare now able to be released.The council is complying with theorder. It is not appealing against thetribunals decision.

    Council forced to handover emails and letters

    I AM pleased that the full story cannow be told and I welcome this

    opportunity to do so.I met Mr Chaudry back in 2007 throughhis many activities in Stoke-on-Trent andNorth Staffordshire.Mr Chaudry spoke to me about thepotential partnership arrangements todeliver swimming sessions atWaterWorld.This appeared to be an attractiveproposition given the high level oftaxpayer subsidy to sport and leisureservices in the city.Consequently I facilitated meetingsbetween Mr Chaudry and appropriateofficers of the city council.As a result of these meetings aproposal was developed bycouncil officials in conjunctionwith Mr Chaudry which involvedthe possible closure of theDimensio