Sixfields Fiasco – Definitely My Final Chapter

The latest reports from the audit of the NTFC loan made me think that hindsight is a wonderful thing but the public would prefer politicians to think things through before they make decisions.

The announcement from the Indian Consortium that they have pulled out of buying Northampton Town Football Club (NTFC) because during the ‘due diligence’process they found issues that were in their view insurmountable is naturally disappointing for the Cobblers dedicated band of supporters.

It may therefore not come as too much of a shock to those who have read my earlier views on the subject of Sixfields that for once I agree, (not something I have often written before) with the Chairman David Cardoza when he says that “It should have come as no surprise to the supporters.”

Or as the late Cilla Black would have said “Surprise, Surprise”, and in fact the supporters and no-one else who has followed this whole sorry saga were.

I don’t intend to discuss in detail issues that I’ve previously written about or the impact that the latest news may have on the club who may well now be on the brink of administration or even worse liquidation.

Both of which would almost certainly damage the long-term sustainability of the football club as a going business concern.

In March following information that the Northampton Borough Council Conservatives led by the then Leader David Mackintosh intended to portray the concerns I had raised over the loan agreement and lack of progress of the East Stand as proof that I and the Labour group were anti-Cobblers in their election campaign I published the blog Don’t Believe the Smears and Rumours NBC – NTFC

I published the blog to prevent the Smears and Rumours and also as evidence that I had passed information that I’d received on to the Borough Council CEO, Legal Officers and Leader of the Council which immediately prevented the Conservatives from pursuing their electoral strategy.

To that purpose the publication was a success and having been read by almost 1500 people it certainly appeared to have put a cat amongst the Conservative pigeon’s at NBC.

I should explain that the content of the blog was unsolicited and in my view the information was so detailed that I believed and still believe that it was accurate and could have only come from someone who had access to the working of the football club.

Interestingly I wasn’t asked to retract any of the content of the blog nor was any denial of its accuracy received.

Yes there are many questions as I said in my blog Sixfields Stadium – The £12 million question? to be asked of and answered by Mr Cardoza about what has been happening at NTFC and in particular where the £10.25m loan from the Northampton Borough Council taxpayer is, what has it been spent on and why the stadium is in a worse structural condition than when they took on the lease.

But is right to aim all of the blame at Mr David Cardoza?

And just as important is it right to also place all of the blame around the loan issue on David Mackintosh even though it is difficult to see past his “I always keep my promises” statement when the loan was given and his definitive statement in full council that the loan was for an agreed plan to redevelop the stadium.

To understand the whole NBC – NTFC relationship however we need to go back to April 2004 when following a detailed report and assessment the Conservative Cabinet, of who I was a member, led by Cllr Phil Larratt, agreed a 150 year lease of the Sixfields Stadium to NTFC for the princely sum of £1.

For those who haven’t read the report the annual cost to the Northampton taxpayers in 2004 of maintaining the stadium infrastructure and associated services was over £400,000 and the decision was taken based on two very clear principles.

Firstly that it would relieve the taxpayer of the cost and secondly after carrying out ‘due diligence’ into NTFC and the Chairman Mr D Cardoza confirmed that they were able to take on the Stadium and make it financially viable.

Within eight weeks however Mr Cardoza returned and asked for extra support claiming that they were unable to fulfil the commitment given to make the stadium and football club financially viable.

The claim was that without receiving preferential development permission and more importantly without being ‘gifted’ rights to develop land in the area which was not under their ownership the club was likely to go into administration.

The upshot was that Mr Cardoza wanted the area to be designated as an out-of-town Retail Centre with NTFC having priority over development rights.

The Cabinet agreed and as history shows it led to Cllr Phil Larratt being forced to resign to be replaced by Cllr Tim Hadland as the Leader of the Council because it turned out that the Cabinet had been misled and the decision was illegal.

The decision was subsequently overturned and led to the Conservatives facing two years of abuse and criticism that we were anti – Cobblers when in fact just the opposite was true.

Had the decision not been reversed it would have led to a judicial review and the Cobblers would almost certainly have gone into administration.

However as is the way of these things the truth was ignored and those who shouted loudest received all of the attention in spite of the fact that it was based on false information being given to them.

Cllr Hadland made what turned out to be a futile but valiant attempt to explain the facts at a meeting with supporters where he was verbally abused and shouted down to such an extent that when he returned his comment was understandably that “He wanted nothing to do with those people”.

The situation could have been alleviated had Mr Cardoza come out and explained to the supporters the true facts of the situation but in fact to my mind he did quite the opposite and encouraged the dissent.

I’ll skip the four years between 2007 and 2011 of Liberal Democrat control of the Borough Council when in following the legal planning process they refused to give land to the football club and move to May 2011 and the Conservative Borough Council Election victory.

One of the promises that I signed off as the Leader of the Conservative Group at the time in the 2011 Borough Council Manifesto was to support the Football Club which is why I met with Mr Cardoza the week after the election.

There were a number of problems to overcome in offering assistance to the club not the least being that there was no clear planning application or business plan for the redevelopment of the stadium which I admit as the new Leader of the Council came as a major surprise and gave me cause for concern.

In fact on investigating the information available it became very clear that for all of the rhetoric of the Council being the blockage very little had advanced either by the club or the Council since 2007.

The other problem was that Cllr Hadland as the Cabinet Member responsible for Regeneration and Planning and therefore also for the negotiations with Mr Cardoza and the Football Club couldn’t overcome his mistrust of the organisation and in July informed me that he had asked Cllr David Mackintosh to lead on the negotiations.

It was an awkward and difficult position for a new administration so I accepted his decision and made it clear that I would not sanction or agree to any offer of assistance that was illegal or without a viable and clear business case provided by NTFC available for scrutiny by the Council Officers.

In short I was conscious of having been burned once in dealing with NTFC and was not going to repeat the mistake.

It became clear at the beginning of September 2011 that Cllr Mackintosh supported by Cllr Eldred and others were getting nervous and wanted to increase the speed of providing what was being asked for by NTFC which came to a head during a Conservative group meeting when Cllr Eldred complained about the lack of progress.

I regret that for whatever reason they weren’t prepared to listen and in fact the two Councillors who knew what was happening namely Cllr Mackintosh and Cllr Hadland remained silent.

It was following that meeting that I became fully aware that the suspicions I had immediately following the election that a number of the Conservative Councillors had already started a process to remove me as the Leader was confirmed which is why I resigned some two weeks later.

As is now on the record those who sought the Leadership of the Council did so and those who supported them received their rewards with positions of influence available through the patronage of the Leader.

And Cllr Mackintosh subsequently received their support in his successful bid to become the MP for Northampton South.

Which brings me back to who is to responsible for the current situation?

There are a number of questions that David Mackintosh and the Chief Executive of Northampton Borough Council should be required to answer regarding the £10.25m loan to NTFC,

  1. What level of ‘due diligence’ was carried out into the NTFC financial situation? Surely they were aware that the football club had a net worth of over -£7 million with assets of only £2000.
  2. If ‘due diligence’ had been carried out I find it incredible that a loan of £10.25 was offered to an organisation whose auditors on the two previous annual reports had specifically said that there is serious concerns about the ongoing business viability of the football club”
  3. What advice did the Council CEO, Financial and Legal Officers give to David Mackintosh following whatever ‘due diligence’ was carried out.
  4. Did David Mackintosh accept the advice or ignore it and take forward his own political agenda.
  5.  What were the arrangements for the repayment of the loan? With two payments already missed why wasn’t the current Leader of the Council Cllr Mary Markham aware of it immediately?

The problem is as I said earlier it would be easy to place all of these issues firmly at the feet of David Mackintosh, but there are others who should also be held accountable and responsible.

As the Cabinet Member responsible for Regeneration and Planning what role did Cllr Tim Hadland have in the process? 

Surely he was involved at all stages of the negotiations of the £10.25m loan to redevelop what is essentially a major NBC asset, namely the Stadium and surrounding area and as such is directly accountable and responsible?

As the Cabinet Member responsible for Finance what role did Cllr Alan Bottwood have in the process? 

Surely he was involved and directly involved in ensuring that ‘due financial diligence’ was carried out before agreeing to loan £10.25m of tax payers money to another organisation and as such is directly accountable and responsible.

As Cabinet Members at the time Cllr Mary Markham, Cllr Brandon Eldred and Cllr Mike Hallam also voted for and agreed to the loan and will have been fully informed throughout the negotiations and therefore are directly accountable and responsible

So what should happen next and this is only my personal opinion,

Firstly there should be an immediate open and transparent investigation carried out by the Local Government Ombudsman with a brief to investigate if there has been maladministration by the Borough Council Conservatives.

For those unaware, maladministration is a serious matter and the Local Government Ombudsman can investigate alleged or apparent ‘maladministration’ or failure which includes

  1. Delay
  2. Incorrect action or failure to take any action
  3. Failure to follow procedures or the law
  4. Failure to provide information
  5. Inadequate record – keeping
  6. Failure to investigate
  7. Failure to reply
  8. Misleading or inaccurate statements
  9. Inadequate liaison
  10. Inadequate consultation
  11. Broken promises

I will leave it to the reader to decide which of these apply to this issue.

If maladministration is proven and /or the decision is found to be illegal then the Cabinet at the time should be held to account and should be compelled to personally reimburse the taxpayer for any and all financial loss that is incurred should the loan not be repaid.

This would include also the cost of legal action that the Conservative Administration has threatened to take against NTFC to recover the entire outstanding debt.

Why should the taxpayer have to foot the bill for the politicians decisions to make what is increasingly becoming seen as a loan based on a somewhat  uncertain basis.

With a deadline of tomorrow Thursday 15 October legal action is now more likely than not.

This is a serious problem for the people of Northampton not only because the £10.25m loan may not be repaid but also because of the consequences of the club going into administration or liquidation when the stadium would if the lease is surrendered revert back to the Council and the need to find £500k a year to maintain it.

What other issues arise from any possible investigation into the financial issue of NTFC that would come from the NBC legal action to recover the debt and/or any possible investigation into the decisions taken by the Council we will have to wait and see.

I should say I very much doubt if the Conservative administration will agree to an independent investigation or to be honest whether the Labour Group will demand one and take steps to officially request the Ombudsman to conduct one.

I have no doubt that my views will be attacked by the Conservatives and others who will now be desperate to cover their tracks or as they say in the Royal Navy “to clear their yardarm.”

This brings me to why this is “Definitely My Final Chapter” on this issue.

We will shortly be moving from Northampton so at least I have the comfort of knowing that our Council Tax won’t be going towards a Council who it appears have been only to happy to run free and loose with taxpayers money.

I will watch with interest from afar.