23rd Mar, 2019

EXCLUSIVE: Council blocks release of documents over pledge to protect Coventry City's future after our FoI request - as private report revealed

Les Reid 1st Mar, 2019

COVENTRY council has refused to publicly release documents following an Observer Freedom of Information request concerning councillors’ previous public pledge to protect Coventry City Football Club’s future when selling the Ricoh Arena to Wasps.

We publish today the council’s full response in two documents to the FoI request we lodged in January.

It includes a previously private and confidential council agenda report from October 2014 when Coventry City’s home was controversially sold to London Wasps Holdings Limited.

The private agenda document from the October 7, 2014 meeting – when councillors unanimously agreed to sell the council’s 50 per cent shares in the Ricoh Arena company Arena Coventry Limited – reveals how council officers presented all councillors with the case for doing so – steered by leading Labour councillors including then leader Ann Lucas amid a dispute with CCFC’s hedge fund owners Sisu.

But the council has refused to disclose other documents we requested, which might otherwise shine a light on the terms of the deal, particularly leading councillors’ repeated public commitment that the Ricoh was only being sold to rugby club London Wasps on the strict condition that the “security and future” of Coventry City and Coventry rugby club was being protected.

Our FoI request comes as Coventry City now face homelessness and expulsion from the Football League. It follows our front page in December, when we put detailed questions to Sisu, Wasps and Coventry City Council leader George Duggins and Conservative opposition leader Gary Ridley.

We had called on Couns Duggins and Ridley to justify with evidence their apparently retrospective claim that the commitment to Coventry City’s future was restricted to just four years from 2014 – the maximum potential terms of the club’s then tenancy arrangements.

A deadline now looms in the stadium dispute for the club to state where it will play home games next year, or face potential expulsion from the league at an Extraordinary General Meeting of English Football League member clubs on April 25.

Council leaders have maintained it is a matter for Ricoh Arena owners Wasps and tenant Coventry City to sort out – yet the council is the stadium’s freehold owner, with ‘soft’ powers and influence across the city.

Wasps are refusing the club’s request to extend the tenancy arrangements beyond this season – insisting Sisu companies must first ditch court appeals concerning the council’s Ricoh Arena sale on a massively extended 250-year lease not offered to the football club.

We asked for a copy of the share sale agreement which might reveal whether the protections for Coventry City publicly stated by councillors were indeed written into the deal.

The council has blocked disclosure on grounds of third party confidentiality, given that Arena Coventry Limited was a private company of which the council and the Alan Edward Higgs Charity had been joint shareholders. ACL’s directors included council executives Martin Reeves and Chris West.

Other documents we requested have not been released – which could include other private documents, down to notes between councillors and officers and transcripts of private discussions.

The Coventry Observer is now challenging the non-disclosure with the council, and will consider a referral to the Information Commissioner’s Office. It oversees whether authorities have complied with the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We argue further disclosure is necessary in the public interest, and in line with the Act.

Our wide-ranging FoI request begins by asking Coventry City Council the following..

I refer the council to the minutes of its full council meeting of October 7, 2014.

Under an agenda item entitled ‘Asset Review’ concerning a decision taken at that meeting to sell the council’s shares in the Ricoh Arena’s management company to London Wasps Holdings Limited, the minutes state that councillors debated and discussed the following…

•The commitment that any deal relating to the Ricoh Arena would not be approved unless the following three tests were satisfied:

• (1) A good deal for the City

• (2) The security and future of Coventry City Football Club

• (3) The security and future of Coventry Rugby Club

It has recently been alleged in the Press by leading councillors that this commitment to Coventry City Football Club in 2014 only referred to the period of the club’s Ricoh Arena tenancy arrangements at that time, of up to four years. This is, despite the above contemporaneous wording regarding the commitment to CCFC’s ‘security and future’ which guided councillors when considering their decision, and despite such comments being made in public at that council meeting

and in the media by leading councillors at the time.

The council’s Code of Conduct commits members to standards in public life regarding truthfulness, honesty, integrity, transparency and other tests.

My request is for the following related information, which I contend are matters in the public interest…

1. Any evidence to show that the commitment was indeed limited to CCFC’s existing rental terms.

The council initially responds by stating…

It was always the wish and intention of Councillors that Coventry City Football Club was secure and remained playing in Coventry. This was stated in the debate as you have noted, but in making the decision the information that the Councillors had was in the attached Private Cabinet and Council Report (the Report), dated 7 October 2014, the information therefore at paragraph 2.3 was known.

As part of the Council’s duty to advise and assist under s16 FOIA, you are advised that it was a requirement of the sale of the City Council’s 50% share in Arena Coventry Ltd that the existing licence agreement between ACL and Coventry City Football Club was novated in full and without restriction and that there was no other restriction in the lease terms that would disadvantage CCFC in terms of being able to continue to play home matches at the stadium. At the time of the sale transaction as noted in the report referenced above, CCFC had made it clear that it would only consider a short term lease arrangement with a break clause as it pursued alternative stadium options.

The Council Report provided as part of the response to this Freedom of Information request makes it clear that the terms of the sale transaction ensured that there were no obstacles as part of the transaction that would impact adversely on the security and future of CCFC. Any subsequent agreement for any stadium tenant including the football club would be on the basis of a commercial agreement being reached between the relevant parties. In reality, this is no different to the position had the City Council retained an ownership stake in ACL which operated as an independent company with its own Board of Directors.

The full council’s full response and private agenda report (with redactions) can be read here (note: the council is months behind in publishing FoI responses on its website) ...

REQ05187 Response

 

REDACTED Report

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