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Letter: Join My Call for an Independent Inquiry into GBC’s Sale of Liongate

Published on: 30 Jul, 2021
Updated on: 30 Jul, 2021

Liongate – currently being developed by its new owners.

From: Geoff Davis

Former Conservative borough councillor for Holy Trinity

See also: Conservatives Claim Council Incompetence Over Sale of Ladymead Office Block

Having watched the GBC full council meeting on Wednesday (July 28), I was alarmed to hear Cllr Tim Anderson [R4GV Clandon & Horsley] – responding to questions about the council’s sale of the Liongate, a former office building – say that he “knows nothing about property”.

This statement confirmed my worst fears, as evidenced by the events surrounding the council’s freehold sale of Liongate in Ladymead.

The borough council has an enviable portfolio of property, which has proved invaluable for cash flow during the pandemic period, and it is vital that the portfolio is in safe and capable hands.

The consideration of the sale of this “family silver” has thrown up as many questions as have been answered.

I am concerned that the instruction to the selling agents (Lambert Smith Hampton) was not handled correctly creating the fundamental errors at the root of this matter.

First and foremost, the property should most definitely have been considered as an in-house contribution to the quest for additional council housing stock.  Cllr Jan Harwood [Lib Dem, Merrow], a fellow Executive member of Cllr Anderson, was elected on a manifesto promise of creating 300 new council homes per annum – despite not having the first clue how to do that.

It would have been manifestly sensible for Cllr Harwood to have jumped on the opportunity of creating 90+ units at Liongate from the council’s own in-house portfolio, at a stroke

Without question, the property should not have been marketed in the depths of a recession, when in any event, it would be hardly likely to obtain the best result. The market bounced soon afterwards, so a short delay would have been a very sensible thing to do.

Most importantly, the property should have been properly prepared for sale, if that was the publicly agreed basis of progression.

This would have included:

  1. Sorting out the Environment Agency, to enable residential use of the property.
  2. Obtaining planning consent for residential use – a very simple procedure under permitted development rights.
  3. Exploring the possibility of extra units in the existing shell – the purchasers immediately obtained planning consent for some 18 additional units.

Even if that consideration was not undertaken (which would have been grossly negligent) then the matter could have been saved by a very simple and conventional “overage clause” which could have been so easily incorporated into the contract.  The council could then have shared in the extra site value of any additional units created – but it did not.

Cllr Tim Anderson did pass an opinion at the full council meeting as to the marketability of the property, saying it was “undesirable”, being surrounded by three roads.

That view is obviously not shared by the developers – see photo

below.

Billboard advert for luxury flats at Liongate.

It’s another regretful example of Cllr Anderson not understanding property.

By involving in a panic-driven sale, the council has lost over £3 million in the process, which is negligent and irresponsible, to say the very least.  That is particularly challenging when the council is being restructured to save £1 million a year, but in the process, it has frittered 3-4 times that on a simple property transaction handled carelessly, losing nearly £4 million.

As this is such a serious matter on so many fronts, it is vital that there is a free independent inquiry into this matter.  I would welcome support for that, as the Conservative request for an inquiry was rebutted by the R4GV/Liberal Democrats on Wednesday.

If there can be a publicly funded Inquiry into the simple letting of Burchatts Barn, then there should certainly be an inquiry into the sale of a major freehold council asset, conducted in an irresponsible and amateurish manner.

The leader, Cllr Joss Bigmore has been snappy in his responses to me, presumably because he is feeling embarrassed by what has occurred under his watch.

The only current chartered surveyor councillor, John Rigg, was apparently not aware of this sale, until contracts had been exchanged.

I feel entitled to make the comments in this article as a chartered surveyor myself with some 55 years property dealing experience, 45 of those in Guildford.

Although I am mostly retired now, I have for the last 20 years specialised in “added value” situations on behalf of clients, which has nearly always involved properly preparing properties for sale, to achieve the best value.

In valuation terms, I was regularly appointed by the president of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors as an independent expert and arbitrator in very many rental and capital value cases.  I have a masters degree in Planning and Development.

I therefore feel perfectly entitled and able to make the proper statements in this article.

I encourage public support for an independent inquiry into this matter, forthwith.

The council tax payers of Guildford deserve that, at the very least.

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