AN open letter signed by prominent Coventry City fans and professionals calls for an independent inquiry into the council’s Ricoh Arena deal with London Wasps Holdings Limited and a better deal for the football club.
It has been signed by 25 high-profile Sky Blues’ fans and professionals, including businessmen, lawyers, accountants, academics, writers and politicians.
They include the Ricoh Arena architect Geoff Mann, respected club historian and author Jim Brown, and professor of politics Andrew Russell.
Coventry City Supporters’ Consultative Group members who have signed individually include chairman Peter Ward; Jonathan Strange, the musician and biographer of 1987 Wembley FA Cup hero Keith Houchen; and Pat Abel, who last year helped facilitate mediation via Coventry Cathedral which led to the Sky Blues return from Northampton.
The detailed open letter calls for a fully independent inquiry with wide terms of reference. It rejects Coventry City Council’s proposal that its auditor Grant Thornton’s review of the Wasps deal as part an annual audit of the council’s accounts will suffice.
THE OPEN LETTER IN FULL – ALSO USE THIS LINK…
OPEN LETTER TO…
ANN LUCAS, LEADER OF COVENTRY CITY COUNCIL AND CEO MARTIN REEVES.
ERIC PICKLES MP, DEPARTMENT FOR COMMUNITIES AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT.
NICK EASTWOOD, DIRECTOR, LONDON WASPS HOLDINGS LTD & ARENA COVENTRY LTD.
1. We the undersigned call for:
i. An urgent and wide-ranging independent inquiry into Coventry City Council’s private decision on October 7, 2014, and the full circumstances surrounding it, which enabled the sale of the company running Coventry City Football Club’s home stadium, the Ricoh Arena, to the reportedly indebted and loss-making London Wasps Holdings Limited, on a 250-year lease, with nearly £14million of taxpayers’ money tied up in it.
ii. An examination and explanation of what Coventry City Council, as the Ricoh Arena’s freehold owner and lender of taxpayers’ money to Arena Coventry Limited, and London Wasps Holdings Limited, are prepared to do to provide a better deal for the football club on which the Ricoh and ACL always depended financially, whoever the club’s owners are.
We also call on the council to state generally what it is prepared to do now to repair the damage and finally support the city’s once proud football club whoever owns it, whether at the Ricoh or a new stadium.
2. We share concerns about debt, lack of investment and on-the-field problems under the club’s current owners, Sisu. However much many may wish it after years of failed plans to oust Sisu, we currently see no evidence of any potential club takeover. We would be open to evaluating any credible plan which has potential to move the club forward. However, we also recognise whoever owns the club in future will need to benefit from as much commercial revenue from a stadium development as possible.
3. We believe the majority of Coventry City fans, taxpayers and interested observers recognise the complex and historic issues at the heart of the dispute between the club, council and charity which led to the Wasps deal. The problems stem from the 1990s, the sale of the former Highfield Road stadium, and the 2003 business separation between the club and stadium. We believe daily anecdotal evidence indicates most fans and other interested observers, even the most ardent anti-Sisu campaigning group which has written to the council with heavy criticism of the Wasps deal, believe the issue cannot be understood by simply blaming one party. Most appear to believe all parties concerned should be accountable for their actions. Many people have stated on the internet and elsewhere they support calls for a full independent inquiry.
4. We are concerned about the use of council taxpayers’ money to prop up a London rugby club’s gamble of coming to Coventry at a time when it stated on its website it was “at high risk of going bust”, amid unprecedented cuts to council jobs and services. The council has stated Wasps’ business case included the football club surviving and remaining as tenants, at least under the current temporary arrangement. This is far from certain. Furthermore, with the football club as tenants, Wasps would financially benefit from any future success of the football team.
5. The independent inquiry should not be limited to examining whether the council acted properly in privately backing the whole Wasps deal and selling its 50 per cent equity in ACL, with high taxpayer risk. We do not therefore accept that a review of the finances and decision-making procedures as part of the annual audit of the council’s accounts will be anything like sufficient to restore widespread lost public confidence. We are also concerned about the council’s proposal that this audit, commissioned by the council, should be conducted by accountancy firm Grant Thornton, given its previous role in advising over the loan in ACL, where there is an apparent conflict of interest.
A fully independent and wide-ranging inquiry should also examine in particular:
a. Why the same terms agreed with Wasps were not offered to Coventry City FC. We recognise the Ricoh project depended on CCFC from its genesis, and that ACL depended on annual revenue over years from CCFC. We note the club had privately and publicly in late 2013 stated it would consider a deal on a long leasehold, despite misleading public claims to the contrary by the council leader, and that the Wasps deal extended the council’s lease to ACL from 41 to 250 years, practically a freehold. What value was returned to the taxpayer for this?
b. The extent to which councillors and officers conformed with the council’s code of conduct with false and misleading public claims. There were many, but they include the council leader’s inaccurate claims about ACL’s profitability prior to the Wasps deal; and claims “our door was always open” when documents reveal there had been a mentality of “hell freezes over” before any deal with CCFC’s current owners.
c. The extent to which councillors were properly informed by officers about the true financial position of ACL in 2013/4 and in other years, including its dependency on CCFC income, council income, and amortisation of the windfall from former casino owners, Isle of Capri. What other sources of information did councillors rely on, and why did they not speak with the football club?
d. The extent to which councillors were informed about London Wasps Holdings Limited’s last recorded £3.2million losses and £10million of debt to a Maltese company, and Wasps’ public claims that it was at “high risk of going bust.” Councillors had repeatedly publicly stated they would only invest taxpayer loans in viable and sustainable companies.
e. The associated risk to the taxpayer. What independent risk analysis was conducted to examine the ability of ACL to pay back capital and interest on the loan over a reported 20 years?
f. The extent to which the council is prepared to offer further taxpayer support to ACL/London Wasps Holdings Limited in the event of further financial difficulty and potential default on loan repayments.
g. The extent to which council/ACL figures, including through PR operations, attempted to shut down media and public challenge. To what extent was hired London PR firm Weber Shandwick used to discredit opponents and challengers, including ordinary fans? What fees were paid to Weber Shandwick from council funds?
h. The extent to which council/ACL figures worked with other organisations, at taxpayers’ expense, as part of failed attempts to oust the club’s current owners.
i. The extent to which best practice would have obliged the council to consult with the public and stakeholders. We note the 141-year-old Coventry Rugby Football Club was not notified in advance of the deal either.
6. We do not accept the club’s owner’s potential ongoing litigation is a reason not to hold an urgent independent inquiry. That potential litigation may never happen, and the timescale could be lengthy. Neither would its remit cover all the points we wish an inquiry to cover. A High Court judge cannot be prejudiced by advance publicity. Council leaders have on several occasions under pressure publicly commented on certain aspects of the dispute which they had previously claimed could not be discussed because of ‘legal advice’.
We believe the council has not struck the right balance between (a) commercial and legal confidentiality, which can still be respected in an independent inquiry when strictly necessary, and (b) the public’s right to know, in line with the council’s code of conduct and constitutional commitment to openness and transparency.
7. We request the recipients respond urgently in writing to the above.
Geoff Mann, architect of Ricoh Arena, Geoff Mann Architects Ltd
Jim Brown, author and CCFC historian, CCFC fan
Jonathan Strange, musician and biographer of 1987 Wembley FA Cup hero Keith Houchen, CCFC fan
Andrew Russell, professor of politics, CCFC fan
Alan Limb, Insolvency practitioner, CCFC fan
Peter Ward, chair of Coventry City Supporters’ Consultative Group (SCG), businessman, CCFC fan
Mark Georgevic, businessman and lawyer, CCFC fan
Pat Abel, SCG, facilitated mediation in Ricoh dispute, CCFC fan
Brian Patton, ex-Coventry city councillor
Joey Crone, presenter, Nii Lamptey Show, CCFC fan
Neil Allison, Nii Lamptey Show & Sky Blues Blog, CCFC fan
Paul Knowles, GMK Online fans’ forum and Nii Lamptey Show, CCFC fan
Rob Stevens, businessman and academic, Get Cov Back To The Ricoh campaign, CCFC fan
Stuart Cosgrove, Get Cov Back To The Ricoh, CCFC fan
Tom Furnival-Adams, Coventry City blogger, CCFC fan
Les Reid, political journalist, CCFC fan
Keith Kondakor and Laura Vesty, Green Party in Coventry and Warwickshire
Jeff Conquest, head teacher, CCFC fan
Ian Cooper, school teacher, CCFC fan
Michael Garlick, SCG, CCFC fan
Ray Stephens, SCG, CCFC fan
Chris McGrath, SCG, CCFC fan
Steve Barnett, SCG, CCFC fan
Darren Davies, SCG, CCFC fan
Pat Raybould, SCG, CCFC fan
* SCG members signing as individuals