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The Troubled Trail of Bitter Words Over Burchatts Barn

Published on: 4 Apr, 2021
Updated on: 6 Apr, 2021

By Martin Giles

The bitter bickering between Conservative leaders at GBC involved in the letting of Burchatts Barn is exposed in an email trail sent to The Guildford Dragon NEWS.

The emails, referred to in the council’s debate on the KPMG review of the Barn decision, are from late 2018 and early 2019. None is classified and Cllr Paul Spooner made it clear he was sharing them in a spirit of transparency and openness.

They show Cllr Spooner the then council leader, Paul Spooner, and about half of the Tory group’s 32 members, had reservations about the way decisions on the barn were being taken.

The main correspondents (from left to right): Gordon Bridger, Cllr Paul Spooner, Cllr Nigel Manning, Cllr Geoff Davis, Cllr Matt Furniss.

Crucially, the emails show it was believed that the maintenance cost of the Barn was “up to £70,000 a year”. The real cost, according to the recent KPMG report on the decision process was about £17-18,000.

Taken from the KPMG report, commissioned by GBC

The emails, sent in the months before the 2019 borough election, also reveal how much dissent there was over the decision and how bitter were the reactions between members of the Conservative leadership at the time.

The exchanges followed council acceptance of a bid by the Guildford Chiropractic Company (GCC) over those of the Guildford Shakespeare Company (GSC) and others. Residents who felt the Barn was a community asset were opposing or questioning the council’s decision.

The first extract is an email from the late Gordon Bridger. He writes to Cllr Geoff Davis, a member of the GBC Executive offering a possible solution to the situation that had arisen over the controversial selection of a commercial tenant for Burchatt’s Barn:

Sent Dec 9, 2018
Geoff
This is really is a serious embarrassing mess – there is a way out – that is to state that there were some administrative decisions which were taken which need re-consideration and it is proposed that the Executive Committee needs to review the decision.
While the company awarded [the tenancy] will be very annoyed there is little that they would likely do. Sue you? Cost too high and bad relations with a potential client? Not worth it.
I would be willing to support the Council and if necessary publicly congratulate you if  necessary – reports have leaked out and there will be press demands for a statement – I will shut up and congratulate the Council If you do so.
If it leads to GSC getting the contract you will get plenty of kudos – instead of massive brickbats and a quite extraordinary story.
Its a win, win situation for you – or lose, lose one
It’s your and Paul’s choice
Gordon B

Cllr Davis forwards the email to council leader Paul Spooner,  Asset Management portfolio holder Nigel Manning, deputy leader and Christchurch ward councillor Matt Furniss, Culture portfolio holder and Christchurch ward councillor Nikki Nelson-Smith, MD James Whiteman:

Taken from the KPMG report, commissioned by GBC

All, Please see this further note from Gordon.
Both Paul and Nigel have responded to Gordon already.
He is pulling the HT [Holy Trinity?]card.
Nigel – what about making this an Exec decision..?
Any further comments?
Best,  Geoff

Paul Spooner responds:

Isn’t this just old fashioned blackmail?
Paul

Gordon Bridger writes to the then council leader Paul Spooner and his Executive colleague Geoff Davis on the decision to let Burchatt’s Barn to a commercial enterprise:

Sent Dec 11, 2018
Dear Paul and Geoff,
I hope against hope that you have found a way of reviewing the Burchatts decision.
It has become public knowledge that it was a delegated decision taken by Nigel Manning which in my view, and  I am sure that of almost everyone with interests in the use of this Grade 2 building, an appalling one.  Nigel Manning told me that you Paul, Matt Furness [sic], Nikki Nelson-Smith, and, for some unknown reason, Caroline Reeves [she was a member of GBC’s Property Review Group] were consulted on it and raised no objection (he did not answer a subsequent question as to whether he provided the amount saved and suspect he did not for how else could objections not be raised?) when such a measly sum was at stake and I suspect he did not.
I shall be giving my views publicly on this unfortunate decision and am prepared to say that both of you were not notified and that it should have gone to the Executive for a decision.
There is a Guildford Society event this evening and I am sure the topic will arise – so guidance on this matter would be welcome
Regards,
Gordon Bridger

The following day Cllr Davis replies:

Hello again Gordon,
In case you didn’t know, Nigel brought this matter before the Executive and senior Officers this morning, when we discussed all the offers received.
A full discussion was had, and I am sure you will hear back as appropriate.
We understand that Peter Gordon [of Eagle Radio?] has been in touch with Paul also.
Best,
Geoff

Copying in Paul Spooner and GBC’s MD, Nigel Manning angrily reprimands Cllr Davis for his email to Gordon Bridger:

Sent Dec 13 2018
What the hell are you doing Geoff?????  You should not have contacted Bridger or advised him of an internal confidential meeting. This will look to him as if we have bowed to his pressure and it will only serve to increase the noise about this.  Will you never learn????
Nigel

Four days later, December 17th, Paul Spooner comments to his deputy Matt Furniss:

Oh dear…

In January 2019 the legality of including open space in the letting agreement had been investigated.  A council officer (name redacted) advises Nigel Manning:

Sent Jan 17, 2019
Dear Nigel / Paul [not Paul Spooner],
Having investigated the position, the legal advice is that even if we were to let just the building and parking area’s (not the garden) then we should advertise the disposal and deal with any relevant objections.  Therefore, it is intended that we advertise the whole area including the garden area.
Before I instruct legal to get on with this – please could I ask you to confirm that you are comfortable with this approach?
Many thanks.
Kind regards,

Cllr Manning responds:

Sent Jan 18, 2019

I am extremely annoyed and disappointed that at this late stage, after taking so much grief over this site, that we are now told that to be prudent we need to advertise the appropriation or the ‘sale’.  Why the hell was this not considered at the time it was originally being advertised the first time some 2 years ago???
Even though any objection would equally affect GSC as well as the preferred bidder it will kick off those who wish to do all they can to thwart GBC in all that it tries to do and to raise discourse with the electorate.
There is every chance that this may delay the completion of this lease beyond the occupancy date needed by the proposed tenant thus losing a valuable source of income and adding yet more fuel to the claims that GBC in incompetent.
There seems no evidence that these buildings were usd for a purpose ancillary to maintaining or running the park and as such the Muir case has no relevance.  If we can’t find anything to show this, it seems highly likely no one else can.  Do we really have to take this action???
A very disgruntled Lead member for assets!!
Nigel

Later on the 18th, the council officer replies:

Dear Nigel,
I am equally frustrated too, however, this is the legal advice received from Freeths, which is based on Counsel’s opinion so really should be acted upon.  As much as I wish to obtain the best outcome for the Council, I must be mindful of advice received.
I will await to hear from legal if there is any alternative route.
Kind regards,

And council leader Paul Spooner comments aside to his deputy Matt Furniss:

Name redacted [senior property solicitor at GBC] is right IMO [in my opinion] frustrating as it is.
Nigel not happy.
Paul

A few days later Cllr Nigel Manning writes to the director overseeing the letting of Burchatt’s Barn, Phil O’Dwyer (now retired). The issue of planning permission required by the new tenants had been raised and it appears Cllr Manning and others felt they had been misled:

Sent Feb 21 2019
Phil,
When the matrix of tenders bids was put before me it showed that the Chiropractors did NOT need planning. This clearly was not correct and I must question why this was put before me, if it was wrong???
If the bidders are prepared to exchange on Friday, particularly as they have given notice to quit their current premises, I do not think GBC should now back away, as this could well lead to reputational damage and a claim to compensation.
I still need the info requested!
Nig

Two days later Paul Spooner, the council leader, interjects curtly:

Sent Feb 23 2019
I feel the Exec were misled.
Paul

Taken from the KPMG report, commissioned by GBC

Cllr Manning responds:

Sent Feb 23 2019
The Exec were not misled! All bidders were aware that planning permission may well be required and bid on that basis. GCC were clearly the best bid on all fronts irrespective of the matrix which was for me to consider and bore no relevance to the Exec decision.
Nigel

But Cllr Spooner does not give up:

Sent Feb 23 2019
You called Matt [Furniss] and I into a meeting to present the findings. We were specifically told that planning would not be needed and that was a contributing factor.
Not impressed!
It may well be that if the bids were reworked the same result would emerge, but we were still misled.
Paul

Nigel Manning insists that even if councillors were misled the correct process was applied:

Sent Feb 23 2019
We would get the same result! This was an internal meeting and not the Exec. Yes planning have not helped but that does not change the fact that it WAS advertised correctly and openly, subject to planning, and the Asset is NOT a protected community asset, as confirmed by both internal and external legal advice.
Nigel

On February 24th Cllr Spooner asks if contracts had been exchanged with the tenants as expected. Cllr Manning responds:

No. They have been scared by the negative press and are concerned that if they exchange contract and the planning permission is refused, they will be locked into a lease of a building that they cannot use!!!
Yet again a vocal few causing GBC to lose income!!! I suspect that as there was a round [sic] from GSoc that there will be more than 10 objections which means it will go to planning committee. Of course if they refuse change of use then GSC would also be excluded from using Burchetts [sic] Barn!!!
As [Cllr Tony] Rooth is merely asking a question I should be able to get all the facts out. I am still awaiting legal advice as whether or not I can divulge the bidders bid details.
Nigel

The following day, the council leader sounds even more worried about the decision because of disagreement in his own party’s ranks:

Sent Feb 25 2019

Nigel,
There are now 17 Cllrs questioning judgement on this if I include [Cllr] David Wright overnight. That is everyone except you. All are Conservative or ex-conservative.
If you can find a supporter of this decision you are doing very well.
Paul

Later the same day Nigel Manning responds stressing that the planning permission requirement was not a key issue. But he quotes a “maintenance cost”, of £70,000, that KPMG’s report found erroneous. The true figure was about £17-18,000.

If you see the matrix previously provided by POD, which was not the one I was presented with, you will see that ALL bidders including GSC would need planning permission for use, irrespective of GSC need to get planning permission to change the ressy [residential?] flat into office use and for the Spiegel tent in the back garden extending onto Stoke Park!!
So all the 60 objectors (so far) would be also stopping GSC from using Burchetts [sic] Barn!!!
I believe the best decision for GBC has been made. It was a delegated decision by me which I assume you have signed off. If you want to review the decision for political reasons then I suggest you take that decision. By not going with GCC or any of the other bidders, as this it seems is yours and the other 17 Conservatives view, then you are saying the objectors are right, which will mean GBC continuing to incur maintenance costs of up to £70,000 per annum, as there would time needed for new advertising to lease out, or adverts by GBC to let the space, which would be loss making!!
If you want to review the decision, bearing in mind that the matrix provided to me by asserts (which is different to the one below, as in included the heading ‘is planning permission required, yes/no), then you need to be aware that the bidder may well be in a position to claim compensation from GBC. You are in a better position to clarify with assets/legal today as I am stuck in France at present trying to get on the earliest possible Shuttle back. With a fair wind I will not be back in Blighty until gone 4.00!
Nigel

Also on February 25th, Matt Furniss pursued his own line of enquiry. Thanking Director Phil O’Dwyer for detailed information provided regarding the letting of the Barn he says:

Dear Phil,
Many thanks for your summary.
On marketing, what weight was given to the corporate plan priorities and community use.
I know of the GSC plus in your commentary you mention the Lexicon School which would have been a good addition too.
Was it just a financial weighting?
On planning, I’m surprised we didn’t do the change of use prior to marketing. It is clear for any change that this was required and that prior to signing any new leaseholder would require the permission.
What changes to the assets process is being done to prevent this in future?
In addition when were you planning on discussing with ward cllrs?
Lastly there has been no consideration or link to emerging Stoke park masterplan.
To be honest, this should have been higher in the radar for sensitivity and conducted appropriately, communication had been poor internally and externally and a fait accompli has been presented it seems.
I look forward with interest the justification for change of use at planning as council financial reasons is not a material planning consideration.
Kind regards
Matt Furniss

Cllr Manning displays frustration in his response, calling Matt Furniss’s suggestion “stupid”:

Matt
Not sure if you have read my previous e-mail.  ALL tenderers would require planning permission to D1 or other.  As I have told you and many others less intelligent, money was not the sole consideration. The length of term, whether FRI agreed, deposit, break clause length.
Your suggestion that we could have gone for a change of use before marketing is stupid!!!  How would GBC know what use the best bidder would need!!! REALLY!  Look at the matrix provided with Phil’s e-mail.  (I would add AGAIN that this was not the matrix I was shown when I determined the best bidder)!
I have already sent you Paul Stacey’s comments regarding the Stoke Park Master Plan.
Nigel 

30 minutes later Cllr Manning added:

Matt
We know what the Old Orleans would be used for, a cinema!!!  When we are offering a building for lease we do not know what bidders will want! A clear difference.
I am not going to waste my time on Tuesday in relation to Burchetts [sic] Barn if a decision has already been made by the leadership!! Please communicate that decision to me clearly.
Nigel 

Cllr Furniss replies the same day more calmly and formally:

Hi Nigel,
Clearly the channel crossing is not going well. [Cllr Manning was returning from France.]
I did read all the emails and hence why I made the suggestion.
It follows the meeting we had with you recently over the Old Orleans site where we plan to go for planning permission prior to contracts with Odeon.
It is clear that we have differing opinions on what is best for the area and I am minded to my support of the current bid as ward cllr [for Christchurch] based on this new information.
Kind regards
Matt Furniss

Summary of KPMG findings (taken from their report)
We identified a range of issues relating to the disposal of Burchatts Farm Barn:

      • The options note was presented to councillors after the lease had been offered to the chiropractic clinic, meaning potential reputational damage had to be considered if the council withdrew from the arrangement in favour of an alternative to commercial leasing. The financial information included in key decision making documents was inaccurate, and the council has not been able to provide documentation to evidence key decisions.
      • Residents raised objections about the choice of lessee at the planning application stage, when the lease had already been offered to the chiropractic clinic. If the council had advertised the intention to dispose of the asset more widely, and had provided interested parties with the criteria for lessee selection, the process would have been more transparent and objections could have been addressed at a more appropriate time.
      • The council selected the bid that offered the highest consideration, but the council did not offer an information pack, criteria or guidance to businesses submitting expressions of interest detailing factors that would be considered in determining selection of the lessee. We note that the council have recently introduced a new procedure for assessing less than best consideration disposals where a minimum of market rent has been offered.

We have raised recommendations to improve the governance, accuracy and transparency of decisions relating to the disposal of assets.

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test 3 Responses to The Troubled Trail of Bitter Words Over Burchatts Barn

  1. Caroline Perkins Reply

    April 5, 2021 at 6:42 pm

    It is really shocking that such unpleasantries are shared within the closet Conservative Party. Surely these four “gentlemen” would have known that their emails might be exposed by a Freedom of Information request. Hopefully, they will all be sent to the new headmistress for a debriefing.

  2. John Perkins Reply

    April 6, 2021 at 10:21 am

    Cllr Manning’s excessive use of capital letters and multiple exclamation marks could be thought of as simply indicative of a 19th-century mentality He certainly seems to be a shouty man.

    Guildford’s answer to Donald Trump should be careful. Others have been accused of bullying for less.

  3. Simon Mason Reply

    April 6, 2021 at 8:38 pm

    Cllr Manning’s email on the 23rd Feb shows quite clearly why he was the wrong man for the job when he states “GCC were clearly the best bid on all fronts irrespective of the matrix”. Only after applying the matrix the best bid emerges.

    It’s also very sad that no consideration or link was given to the emerging Stoke Park masterplan especially after the council consulted the public on what they would like to see in the park in 2018.

    Blame must lie at the door of the Asset Management department as well as Cllr Davis and Cllr Manning the lead councillors from 2017 to 2019 for not thinking this through from start to finish.

    I don’t blame Cllr Spooner or Cllr Furniss as the email trail clearly shows they were just playing catch up.

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