TRADE unions and Coventry City fans’ groups have joined calls for an independent inquiry into the council’s deal to sell the Ricoh Arena company to loss-making London Wasps using taxpayers’ money.
It comes as Coventry City Council responded to our investigation and inquiry calls by stating councillors’ private decision last October would be reviewed by an external auditor as part of the council’s usual annual audit of its accounts.
Several fans’ groups, other organisations and individuals claim this would not go far enough.
They are calling for a review with much wider terms of reference, to examine the council’s conduct over the entire affair.
Its remit would include an examination of inaccurate key public claims by leading council figures; the council/ACL’s management of communications via a hired London PR firm; and how much councillors knew about the true finances of a loss making company Arena Coventry Limited being sold to another reportedly loss-making and indebted company, London Wasps Holdings Limited, which declared it was “at high risk of going bust”.
The deal meant nearly £14million of taxpayers’ money remained tied up in ACL, amid unprecedented council cuts to jobs and services.
Many fans especially want an external inquiry into why the same deal on a huge 250-year lease, with a 20-year payback on the loan first revealed by the Observer, was not offered to the football club on which the Ricoh project and ACL always depended.
We have shown how ACL’s bottom line figures in its accounts over five years were masked by previous income of nearly £1million a year from former casino owners Isle of Capri, and were also dependent on income from the council and football club rent.
The Coventry Observer has also questioned why the auditor should be accountancy firm Grant Thornton, given its previous work on the council’s loan deal.
Five CCFC fans’ organistions, including the Supporters’ Consultative Group (SCG) and the London Supporters’ Group, have now distanced themselves from the position of counterpart the Sky Blue Trust. It is waging a campaign to remove the club’s owners Sisu while not calling for an independent revew of the actions of ACL’s former owners the council, and Alan Edward Higgs Charity.
The fans’ organistions are also calling for an inquiry with a view to the council repairing the damage and stating what it will do to finally support the football club, whoever owns it.
The Coventry Trades Union Council has now added its voice to the concerns of ex-MP and ex-councillor Dave Nellist of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, and professor of politics Andrew Russell. Labour MP Jim Cunningham has also called for a full public explanation of the council’s decision following our investigation.
Darrall Cozens, president of Coventry Trades Union Council, joined calls for a wide-ranging independent inquiry.
He said: “The duty of any elected council is to defend the services it provides for its citizens, not to lend to outside private companies who the evidence suggests are in fact loss-making companies. On this highly sensitive matter, there clearly needs to be a full independent inquiry into what happened.”
Mr Russell, a Sky Blues fan and politics professor at Manchester University, said an inquiry conducted by the Local Government Ombudsman or another truly independent body could “flush out” and separate what information was truly commercially confidential, and what the public had a right to know about.
Councillors are signed up to a constitutional commitment in the council’s code of conduct to “openness and transparency” with the public.
Mr Russell said leading councillors had throughout the Ricoh Arena dispute claimed they could not speak on certain issues for “commercial or legal reasons”, only for them to later speak publicly on some of the same issues.
He said such an inquiry with a wide remit should take place irrespective of whether Sisu’s latest threat of judicial review proceedings on a narrower remit actually happened at a later date.
Arguments to justify the council’s continuing secrecy concerning “subjudicy” – or prejudicing future court proceedings – would not apply as a High Court judge cannot be “predjudiced”, or swayed by advance publicity.
Mr Russell added: “The council has exploited the fact that the owners of the football club have not had the best of Press, and have had their own PR disasters.
“But that’s no reason to shroud their own actions in secrecy. Daylight is the best disinfectant. An inquiry would exonerate the council if everything was completely above board.
“An inquiry should examine whether there was ever a fair competition between the football club and Wasps. It should examine if there was any period of time between when councillors realised the public was not being told the truth, and when the council leader publicly admitted this last month.
“We need to know how much councillors knew about things which turned out not to be true when the deal was agreed. We need to know if they really acted in the best interests of the club and community.”
Peter Ward, an “international businessman” who runs the Coventry City supporters’ SCG, said: “My view is most fans want as much exposing as possible of why this was allowed to happen and would welcome an independent inquiry. If there’s nothing to hide, why not?
“The council has a responsibilty to tell the truth to city taxpayers and the people who elect them. Many Coventry City fans worldwide will not be able to vote them out.
“The Sky Blue Trust clams to represent the views of fans but it does not.”
Mr Ward said the Trust’s recent survey question to which a few hundred fans responded was one-sided and unreasonably loaded against the club’s owners. He added many fans would have welcomed an additional question, asking: Should fans support the team, at least until there is any clear and realistic takeover proposal with Sisu prepared to sell’?
Mr Ward added the ‘Sisu out’ campaign could push the club to extinction, and he called on fans to support the need for better stadium revenues for the club whoever owns it, including if that meant owning a new stadium in the Coventry area.
He added: “The council used and abused the football club to use the stadium as a catalyst for North Coventry regeneration.
“One question the council needs to be asked now is, ‘What value do they put on having a successful football club? The value of the existence of the club seems to have been completely missed.
“The council have turned their backs on the football club and instead welcomed complete strangers with no vested interest in Coventry and surrounding area.”
Paul Knowles of fans internet forum GMK Online, and the popular podcast show Nii Lamptey Show, also re-iterated calls for an independent inquiry this week, as have the Get Cov Back To The Ricoh group.
More detailed questions put to the council by the Coventry Observer have not been answered this week.