Guest blog by Meg Howarth
All Souls College, Oxford, has been ordered by the Information
Commissioner to provide a copy of its Option Agreement - also known as the ‘binding
agreement’ - for the sale of historic Kensal Rise Library (KRL) to developer
Andrew Gillick. Only the date of completion, price and
names/personal details of those involved in the transaction
can be withheld.
|Protest outside All Souls College, Oxford
The Commissioner made his decision on 4 March, in response to a Freedom of Information request by a supporter of the campaign to save the Mark Twain library from conversion to yet more unaffordable housing. The college authorities have 35 days in which to comply with the request. Failure to do so could result in the Commissioner writing to the High Court where lack of compliance may be treated as contempt of court.
The grounds for the decision are that ‘The Commissioner considers that there is a legitimate public interest in disclosure of information surrounding the transaction, to which there is significant opposition, to promote openness, accountability and increase public understanding’.
Wealthy All Souls was until recently the owner of the site following the closure of the historic library by Brent Council in 2012. Its sale to Andrew Gillick was conditional on vacant possession. This was achieved when the college sent in its heavies to remove the pop-up library - built partly on the site, part on the public highway - at 6am on 31 February this year. Completion of sale occurred on or soon after that date.
All Souls’ cowardly dawn-raid echoed Brent’s own barbarism of 29 May 2012 when council contractors entered the library building at 3am, stripping it of its books and Mark Twain commemorative plaque. The aim in both instances was the same - to pre-empt local opposition to the respective actions. The anti-democratic leading the greedy...
Indeed, the college’s principal argument against disclosure of the Option Agreement was that public knowledge of the date(s) for vacant possession and completion-of-sale - together with the price - ‘would result in increased protest and activism to try to prevent completions’. It argued that should the sale of the property not be completed - for whatever reason - disclosure ‘would also make it more difficult for the college to find an alternative purchaser for the property’. It justified its line of reasoning as follows:
‘the college relies on its income from its property assets to conduct its research activities...prejudicing the college’s ability to generate such income from the sale of property would make it less able to conduct research of a similar standard and scale [something] which would not be in the public interest’.
Proof, if any is needed, that irony is not yet dead, is the title of such a piece of research by one of All Souls’ senior fellows. It was listed on the college’s website in July 2012 as nearing completion and was published by the university later that year - Restatement of the English Law of Unjust Enrichment!
You couldn’t make it up. Not only did All Souls pay nothing towards the building of the library - that was financed from a mixture of public taxation and a handsome donation by Andrew Carnegie. But the land on which KRL was built was more likely an act of tax-avoidance, aimed to bypass the land tax in operation at the time, rather than the philanthropic act its donation to the-then borough of Willesden, now Brent, is reputed to have been. Folklore over realpolitik...?
The real philanthropy would, of course, have been for the college elders to have returned KRL to the borough of Brent. Too late for that now. Andrew Gillick is the new owner. His original change-of-use scheme was unanimously rejected by Brent’s planning committee last September. It is currently enmeshed in a Kensington and Chelsea police-led inquiry into fraudulent online support - the headquarters of Mr Gillick’s property firms Platinum Revolver and Kensal Properties is sited in the royal borough (see Wembley Matters, 27 February 2014). The developer is intending to submit a revised change-of-use planning application for the site.
Footnote: While disclosure of the Option Agreement for the sale of Kensal Rise Library is awaited, it’s worth remembering that the only third party to date to have seen the document is Brent’s legal counsel. He was forbidden to make a copy. Whether he shared the significant information it contained with council officers and/or elected members is unknown but a waiting-game certainly seems to have been played regarding the securing of vacant possession by 31 January.
Democracy, eh - and elections are coming...