Disposing of Council assets: the Waltham Forest Business Board and the Argall car parks

Councils inevitably dispose of unwanted public assets from time to time, and it is always interesting to discover exactly how they do so, and who benefits. The following is a tale of what happens in Waltham Forest, and as might be predicted, it  provokes more questions than it answers.

 On 14 June 2011, the LBWF Cabinet agreed to lease the Argall Avenue car parks to ‘BID’, a fair assumption being that the latter was the Argall Business Improvement District Co., which operated on the modest industrial estate of the same name (see the Cabinet paper of that date, Appendix B, p.1).

The car parks between them encompassed 13,585 square meters and space for 110 vehicles; and though only ‘approximately 40% utilised’, nevertheless constituted what was described as ‘a useful parking resource for the area’.

When I first heard about this disposal, I thought it was rather odd, and started to ask questions.

In its initial reply, LBWF told me that the car parks had been granted to ‘Waltham Forest Business Board of North London Business’ on a 125 year lease, and at peppercorn rent; could not be used for purposes other than their present one; and ‘any profit income generated’ was to be used ‘by the Waltham Forest Business Board to support business development on the Argall Avenue Industrial Estate’.

All of this was intriguing. A quick check showed that ‘Waltham Forest Business Board of North London Business’ was neither a company nor a registered charity, begging the question of how it could be party to a legal agreement such as a lease. Moreover, what had happened to ‘BID’?

As always, LBWF had the answers, and shot back that ‘As the Waltham Forest Business Board of North London Business is part of the “Argall BID Organisation/Board”, there was no requirement to refer the matter back to Cabinet following its decision of 14 June 2011’.

But this was palpable nonsense. For scrutinising carefully how LBWF referenced its leasee revealed that it had jumbled together three different organisations that were in fact freestanding and independent: the Argall BID Co.; the Waltham Forest Business Board, an umbrella body, claiming to represent local traders, but unregistered and thus of uncertain legal status; and ‘North London Business’, which turned out to be the trading name of North London Ltd., an entirely separate private company.

One detail that did jump off the page, though, was the fact that that local property developer and philanthropist Michael Polledri was both chair of the Waltham Forest Business Board and director of North London Ltd., and so I contacted him for elucidation.

By the time we met, I had obtained a copy of the lease document, which confirmed the leasee as ‘Waltham Forest Business Board of North London Business’, and so I showed this to Mr. Polledri, and sought his reaction. It is fair to say he was surprised. What had happened, he explained, was a ‘typo error’: the leasee was Waltham Forest Business Board; what should have been written on the lease was ‘Waltham Forest Business Board care of North London Business’; and he had instructed his solicitors ‘to amend the lease accordingly’.

It is certainly surprising that this error was not spotted before, particularly since the lease document had been processed by two sets of lawyers, and signed off by no less than LBWF’s Head of Commercial Law.

However, leaving that detail aside, there are some more basic issues that require explanation, too. The Cabinet did not agree to lease the car parks to the Waltham Forest Business Board, so who had directed that it should? Given that the Waltham Forest Business Board was neither a company nor a charity, did it have sufficient legal status to act as a leasee? Why had North London Business been mentioned at all? What did ‘care of’ mean? And who had authorised the lease’s very favourable terms, given that charities in Waltham Forest that rent Council property often are granted only short-term tenure, and have to pay not insignificant sums for the pleasure?

To try to get some answers, in mid-July 2014 I made a formal complaint about the saga to Daniel Fenwick, LBWF’s Director of Governance, and as a result of that was passed round several officers who all promised an answer but failed to deliver. Finally, I raised the matter with Martin Esom, LBWF Chief Executive, and on 7 November 2014, he told me: ‘I do note…that…you have been promised a full response to the issues you raised and that these responses have still not been issued despite chasers that you have sent to my office. I apologise for the lack of response. My office will follow up on this correspondence to ensure that you receive a full response as promised by the end of November 2014’.

 Curiously, as of today, any response, full or not, has yet to arrive.