THE SENTINEL Friday February 15, 2013
Council forced to hand over emails and letters CITY council officers have fought for years to keep secret the email exchanges between senior directors and WaterWorld owner Mo Chaudry. The authority refused a number of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests triggered by its £21,850 payoff to Mr Chaudry in September 2011. Requests under FOI, which legally obliges public bodies to release certain information, sought full disclosure of the paper trail linking Mr Chaudry with senior officers and the elected mayor. The authority refused on the grounds that its payoff to Mr Chaudry included a legally-binding confidentiality agreement between both parties. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which oversees legal obligations under FOI, sided with the council. But the case raised concerns about a precedent for public information being concealed by civil proceedings. An information rights tribunal at the ICO overturned the original refusal, prompting the council to release a dossier of relevant communications yesterday. Paul Hackney, the council’s head of legal services, said: “The council considered it inappropriate to release certain information under several Freedom of Information requests. “This was because the information was considered relevant to a settlement agreement reached between the council and WaterWorld Holdings following a confidential mediation agreement over a legal dispute between the two organisations in 2011. “The Information Commissioner fully agreed with the council’s approach. However, the situation has been clarified by the tribunal and a number of email communications and letters are now able to be released. “The council is complying with the order. It is not appealing against the tribunal’s decision.”
THE SENTINEL Friday February 15, 2013
How the Dimensions splash pool saga unfolded As confidential letters to set up a secret Dimensions deal, which was repeatedly denied by Stoke-on-Trent City Council, are revealed, Alex Campbell examines the relationship between senior council figures and a millionaire businessmen which ultimately turned sour MILLIONAIRE Mo Chaudry criticised the city council for running a taxpayer-funded rival to his own business and claimed the authority’s financial support for Stoke City and Port Vale had set a precedent for using public funds to support private businesses. Exchanges between the WaterWorld owner and city
former chief executive Steve Robinson distanced the authority from any agreement. The city council has never formally declared that a deal was in place. These are some of the key exchanges between the two parties.
council officers show the entreprenRECORDS released yesterday date eur immediately threatened legal back to October 2007 when Mr action when it became clear that a Chaudry was discussing plans to plan to shut Burslem’s Dimensions expand WaterWorld into a major leissplash pool and divert customers to ure complex with houses, a fitness his business had collapsed. centre, a hotel and an ice rink. Today’s disclosures show Mr Peter Hayes, the council’s interim Chaudry was told by a senior officer director of communications, told Mr that a deal had been agreed – in the Chaudry: “Mark Meredith says you full knowledge of elected mayor Mark two have had a chat about your plans. Meredith. But as public and political He would rather deal with this himopposition spiralled the council’s self.” Details of a Renew North Staffordshire meeting held at WaterWorld in November 2007 show Mr Chaudry asked the council to publicly support his expansion plans, which have never been developed.
They include the first reference to WaterWorld benefiting from the closure of council swimming facilities. A summary, written by Renew’s Andrew Tharp, states: “City council to develop a swimming contract with Mo in anticipation of future swimming facility shortages.” Plans to shut Dimensions were not made public until more than four months later, in February 2008.
In an email to the elected mayor on the same day, Mr Chaudry said: “More or less everything is agreed in principle subject to finalising the detail and signing the formal agreements.” He also offered his support in setting up a mentoring programme, telling Mr Meredith it would improve the city’s ‘credibility’ with central Government and ‘counter negative press’ over school closures.
A SENIOR council officer met Mr Chaudry on January 4, 2008, to discuss a plan to shut Dimensions splash pool and offer an incentive for customers to visit WaterWorld. In an email sent to Mr Chaudry and copied to Mr Meredith later on the same day, community services director Julie Seddon states that plans were ‘agreed’ to shut Dimensions and run a £50,000 ‘pilot’ of free access to WaterWorld for school age children. Ms Seddon arranged a meeting between Mr Chaudry and Mr Meredith to ‘drive progress’, suggesting the proposal should eventually be promoted in its own ‘Our City’ magazine and The Sentinel. She thanked Mr Chaudry for his ‘enthusiasm’ and said she was looking forward to watching a DVD of Mr Chaudry’s appearance on TV show The Secret Millionaire.
PLANS to shut Dimensions splash pool to save £60,000 were revealed by The Sentinel on February 25, 2008. Then cabinet member, Labour’s Mohammed Pervez, told The Sentinel: “The council is required to provide swimming facilities but this is a splash pool. You have to question whether the city council should be providing this service.” The council made no reference to its discussions with WaterWorld. Labour councillors Jean Edwards and Dave Conway quit in protest over the planned closure. Labour member, Alan Joynson, followed days later. Mr Conway claims Mr Pervez and Mr Meredith ‘categorically denied’ any meetings with Mr Chaudry. The plan to close Dimensions by the end of March, 2008 – which still made no reference to WaterWorld – was narrowly approved on February 29. RESIDENTS launched a campaign to save the pool – with more than 7,000 signing a petition against the plan. A public meeting to discuss the campaign was held on March 20. Unbeknown to residents, Mr
QUESTION: Mohammed Pervez asked if the council needed to provide a splash pool. Chaudry emailed the council’s PR department on the same day to outline a plan to offer half-price entry to city taxpayers at WaterWorld during certain periods of the day. He offered to provide a discount for two months before agreeing ‘a longterm scheme to fund the ratepayers access to WaterWorld. In exchanges with PR chief Mr Hayes he suggested the scheme would win public support for the Dimensions closure, adding: “It is high time something positive came out of all that has gone on. This will take the heat off everyone for the time being.” On a planned press release to reveal the WaterWorld deal, Mr Chaudry said: “The last thing anyone wants is to mess up and get further backlash.” AS PRESSURE mounted the council failed to confirm a closure date for the pool and councillors voted to postpone plans for further examination. On April 3, a scrutiny committee demanded a ‘full investigation’ into the closure plans and called for a full review of the leisure service. The letters reveal that Mr Chaudry met Mr Robinson a day later. It became clear that the apparent
agreement was in jeopardy and his relationship with the authority began to sour. Mr Chaudry threatened to sue over a deal he felt had been broken, while Mr Robinson attempted to distance himself from any ‘alleged agreement’ by pointing out that individual councillors and officers do not have the power to circumvent the democratic process. Mr Robinson told Mr Chaudry: “You stated that you ‘did not wish to play the race card’ but felt that the council was not, in effect, being evenhanded in its relations with you. “On a more general note, it did appear at our meeting that you were seeking to force the council to act in a way supportive of your commercial interests and outside of established processes through the threat of legal action. I am not sure whether this was intentional or perhaps a reflection of different approaches to ‘doing business’; however, I do not feel that it is helpful.” In a strongly-worded riposte, Mr Chaudry, pictured right, expressed his frustration that a taxpayer-funded facility was allowed to rival his business, stating: “I wonder how our two professional clubs would feel if the council decided that they wanted to get in to professional football and would allow their customers to pay only a fraction of the entry price and be subsidised by the rate payer.”
He questioned financial support for Stoke City’s Britannia Stadium and a £2.5 million loan to Port Vale, adding: “My grievance here is that these professional football clubs have received substantial financial benefits from the rate payer.” SAVINGS of £60,000 by closing Dimensions were a significant underestimate, according to Mr Chaudry’s claims. But the results of the council’s service review, which were published on June 6, concluded that no such savings could be made. Announcing that the pool was saved, Mr Pervez said: “The figure of £60,000 is not there, and therefore we cannot justify closing Dimensions splash pool.” Mr Meredith and Mr Chaudry, and senior councillor Roger Ibbs – who Mr Chaudry suspected of helping to derail the Dimensions deal over a personal grievance – were later arrested on suspicion of various offences. A seven-month inquiry led to no charges being brought. Mr Chaudry revealed in November 2009 that he was to sue the council to clear his name over what he has always maintained was a deal the council had broken. He was paid £21,850 to end his legal threat in September 2011, at which point the council ‘acknowledged that discussions had taken place’ and apologised for ‘confusion.’
POSTURE AWARENESS WEEK
Meredith: ‘The original savings identified to close the facility were not deliverable’
I AM pleased that the full story can now be told and I welcome this opportunity to do so. I met Mr Chaudry back in 2007 through his many activities in Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire. Mr Chaudry spoke to me about the potential partnership arrangements to deliver swimming sessions at WaterWorld. This appeared to be an attractive proposition given the high level of taxpayer subsidy to sport and leisure services in the city. Consequently I facilitated meetings between Mr Chaudry and appropriate officers of the city council. As a result of these meetings a proposal was developed by council officials in conjunction with Mr Chaudry which involved the possible closure of the Dimensions splash pool and reprovision of services at WaterWorld at a reduced cost. Under the governance arrangements at the time, it was initially felt that the matter could be dealt with under delegated powers to officers.
However, as the matter became politically very contentious it was decided that this was best dealt with through a wider process involving elected councillors as part of the council’s budget discussions. As with all difficult decisions of this nature this was not an easy process and was complicated by a number of factors including the number of factions and groups on the council and allegations of inappropriate behaviour of some elected members due to alleged personal conflicts with Mr Chaudry. Despite the difficulties the matter was debated at full council and a democratic decision was made to close Dimensions splash pool pending a full service review. Elected members voted on the information before them as supplied by council officials. Following a council service review I was told by council officials that the original savings identified were not in fact deliverable by closing Dimensions splash pool. At this point I decided to reverse the original decision and informed
the staff at Dimensions accordingly. Mr Chaudry had a grievance against the council which was dealt with by the official legal department of the council. Following an internal council investigation and the subsequent referral of the matter to the police a number of arrests were made. However, the Standards Board for England and the police investigations found no wrongdoing or criminal action or intent on behalf of either myself or Mr Chaudry. Having considered all the evidence before them the police did not take matters further. Mr Chaudry continued to pursue a legal challenge against the council which was eventually settled through an official mediation process out of court. Both parties subsequently issued agreed press statements. Unfortunately, I was not able to speak on this issue previously both because a legal process was still being progressed and there were clear legal reasons preventing me from speaking. I hope that this information now in the public domain helps to clarify the issues surrounding the original decision.”
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