How Argyll & Bute Works: The land swap

Here’s a wee tale about the council that I can’t give you exact details of, ie where, when or who due to the fact the paper was one of Argyll & Bute’s classic exempt items where press and public are excluded. It was discussed at the audit committee meeting mind you so maybe it would be OK to identify the when and where but to keep on the safe side of the tracks, I won’t, for the moment.

I could also not possibly say anything that might be construed as being public criticism of officers but this tale involves one officer who needs significant amounts of praise and he will duly get this.

This story is about a land swap between a private company and the council. It happened in Argyll & Bute in the recent past. The private company owned a bit of land that was out with the master plan area for the town involved. This bit of land was also, most likely, out of the building line and the planning status of the land was dubious.

The council owned a similarly sized bit of land that was within the master plan area and which might best be described as a prime retail site.

There had been discussions between the council and this private company over swapping the 2 pieces of land, something that might well have benefits to both parties. The excellent officer of the council who was involved in this wrote a paper which, 100% correctly, recommended external valuations of both bits of land to ensure there was complete transparency over the value. Such an independent valuation would also allow a deal to be reached with money changing hands if there was any difference in value between the 2 bits of land.

This paper went to Kilmory where senior officers changed the paper to remove any reference to any independent and external valuation. I am reliably told by another councillor that those who changed the paper to omit the need for any independent valuation were “senior officers in legal and estates”. I asked who takes responsibility for these changes and did not get a reply, as usual.

Instead, the paper now stated that officers took the view that both bits of land were roughly of equal value so the land could be swapped with no money changing hands. It is possible, of course, that they were of equal value but the only way to establish the truth would be to get an independent valuation, best obtained from the district valuer.

The paper, as amended, went to the committee concerned. The officer who had written the initial draft said openly at the meeting that he still considered there should be independent valuations carried out. Brave officer for saying so, especially after senior people had already over ruled him on this. Nonetheless, when it went to a vote the forces of darkness voted in favour of the land swap and the forces of common sense voted for an independent valuation. The forces of common sense lost the vote by one vote so the land swap was agreed.

I suggested to one of the councillors who voted against the land swap to contact internal audit about this because there was a very clear recommendation from internal audit and the council’s audit committee that in all land or property transactions there needed to be both valuations of the land or property provided to elected members plus details of the asset value if what we were selling was a recognised council asset. To be frank, such a recommendation should never have been needed because most people would simply expect this information to be available to those making decisions, ie councillors. But this is Argyll & Bute remember so don’t set your sights too high.

The issue was raised in a report by the chief internal auditor at the September audit committee meeting and I made clear my displeasure at officers completely ignoring audit committee recommendations. I subsequently wrote to one of the officers and the other day saw a reply to the effect that the legal  transaction would not be carried out until independent valuations were obtained. This looks like a result but here you never really know.

The bottom line is that in an organisation that is properly governed and managed, none of the above need have been written because none of this would have happened.

The latest in this is just jaw dropping and I hope the District Valuer (DV) gets sight of this blog. I asked again if the DV would be carrying out the valuations and initially did not get a straight answer. I pressed the point and was then told that they would not be using the DV. The words used were:

While I acknowledge that  the DV is often engaged by the Council in instances when independent valuations are required , as the proposed transaction relates  specifically to the retail/ supermarket sector, a firm of valuers with experience in that particular area of the property market will be appointed  for this purpose.

I replied: I do wonder what the DV might think if he was to find out that he is not being used on the grounds he may not have the experience in this sector. My view remains that the DV ought to be used.

So, the DV doesn’t have the experience to do this work. Fascinating, but why?

Author: Michael Breslin

I am no longer a councillor with Argyll & Bute Council but given the appalling treatment I got from the senior officers and a few elected members, I plan to continue keeping an eye on what the council is doing.

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