Guest blog by Philip Grant in a personal capacity:
Last month I wrote about these heritage murals, and my surprise at discovering that Council Officers had agreed a three-year extension to the lease which allows Quintain to use the Bobby Moore Bridge at Wembley Park for advertising purposes. The initial response to a Freedom of Information Act request I had made suggested that this might be a “dodgy deal”. Further details extracted from Brent Council under that FoI, and two further information requests, now mean that I can set out what happened over the lease extension, and there were some very “dodgy” aspects to it!
The Bobby Moore Bridge from Olympic Way, March 2020.
Although the lease extension only became public knowledge in January this year, the events leading up to it started more than two years ago, so let me set the scene. Council Officers had first given Quintain a four-year lease over the bridge and subway in 2013, and this was renewed for a further four years, to August 2021, by a Brent Cabinet decision in January 2018.
By 2017, Brent and Quintain were proposing major public realm improvements to Olympic Way. In July 2017 Brent’s Cabinet agreed to give Quintain £17.8m of Community Infrastructure Levy money to help pay for these (mainly, but not exclusively, towards the cost of replacing the “pedway” to the Stadium with steps). One of Quintain’s proposed “improvements” was upgraded advertising panels on the Bobby Moore Bridge.
Tile mural scenes on the east wall of the Bobby Moore Bridge subway (when they were visible!).
During 2018, Wembley History Society had called on Brent and Quintain to put the heritage tile murals, on the walls of the Bobby Moore Bridge subway, back on permanent public display, rather hide them with adverts. Following discussions with the Society, Quintain agreed to put the large “footballers / twin towers stadium” mural, on the east wall, back on display, and to periodically uncover some murals on a wall in Olympic Way, just outside the subway.
Because it was “investing” money in buying new advertising screens, Quintain’s Wembley Park company wanted to be sure that it could use them for at least five years. This seems to have been what caused one of its managers to approach Brent Council about extending the advertising lease beyond August 2021. As I have sent a report on my findings to the Council’s Audit & Investigations team, I will not give the names of any of the individuals involved. I will simply refer to this Quintain employee as “WPmanager”.
Although leases of Council land or buildings are the responsibility of Brent’s Property & Assets team, WPmanager instead approached the head of another department he had dealings with (who I will refer to as “Head”). A meeting was arranged for 19 December 2018 with Head’s line manager (who I will refer to as “Director”).
Director has confirmed to me (in response to an FoI) that he met with WPmanager and Head at the Civic Centre on that date. I had asked for a copy of the minutes of that meeting, but his reply was: ‘I confirm there were no notes taken of the meeting to my knowledge save for the email [Head] subsequently sent to [WPmanager] that I believe you already have.’
I had been sent copies of some email correspondence, by Head, in response to an earlier FoI request. In fact, WPmanager had sent an email to Head within an hour of the meeting. The redactions in black, about the figures involved, were made by Brent before the copy emails were sent to me. I have used blue to hide the names of the individuals involved (who were clearly on first name terms).
The email from WPmanager to Head on 19 December 2018, confirming the offer made at the meeting.
The final sentence in the email above suggests that WPmanager had left his meeting with Director and Head at the Civic Centre confident that the offer he was making on Quintain’s behalf would be accepted.
This was confirmed, subject to certain conditions, when Head replied to him on 4 January 2019. Although the lease extension was not formally signed until November 2019, the basic “deal” had already been agreed in principle by early January, and apparently without any involvement by the Council’s Property & Assets team! Although the figures agreed were blacked out, when I “copied and pasted” some of the text into another document, it showed that the basic annual rent would be £XXX,XXX, plus a 50:50 split of any advertising revenue over £XXXk each year.
Head’s email to WPmanager of 4 January 2019, copied to two Brent employees.
As well as copying his email to a Brent property lawyer, who could start liaising with Quintain’s property lawyer over the legal documents, Head also copied it to a more junior officer (who I will call “Officer”) in his department. WPmanager was told that she would ‘be able to help facilitate early conversations with property/highways and planning ….’
Further email correspondence during the first half of 2019 made clear that no formal agreement to extend the advertising lease could be put in place until Quintain had planning and advertising consent for the new screens that they wanted to install, on the parapets of the Bobby Moore Bridge and the walls of the subway. It was April before Quintain put in the applications.
Advertising at the Bobby Moore Bridge, and the proposed screens from a planning application drawing.
Readers may remember the battle over those applications, with over 320 people signing a petition against them. I was one of two objectors who spoke against Quintain’s Bobby Moore Bridge applications at the Planning Committee meeting on 16 July 2019. The opening paragraph of my presentation was:
‘You’re being recommended to grant consent to these applications by Reports that are flawed. They’re inaccurate, ignore or misrepresent valid planning points made by objectors, and give misleading legal advice.’
We did have some success, persuading two councillors to vote against, but five committee members accepted the Officers’ Recommendations, and the planning and advertisement applications were approved. What we didn’t know then was that the Council would get increased rental income if those applications were approved. I can’t help wondering whether Brent’s planning officers had been made aware of that.
Although Head had agreed terms with WPmanager in January 2019, he wrote to him on 6 June saying: ‘Once we have an agreement in principle I’ll also need to get final sign off from [Director].’ I asked for information and documents on this “sign off” in an FoI request to Director, and his reply was:
‘No I did not sign off the lease that was done by the Director of Property Services. [Head] was referring to my verbal agreement as his line manager so he could proceed to work with Legal and Property Services to extend the lease.’ and;
‘There was no approval process relating to me. As set out above that that all resides with our Property Service.’
But Brent’s Property Service had not been involved in the discussions over this lease extension at all, so how could they know whether it should be approved? It all came down to a Delegated Authority Report, prepared by Officer in October 2019. This provided the information on which the top officer in the Property team (who I will call “ODPA”) authorised Brent’s Legal officers to sign the “Deed of Variation” (prepared by Quintain’s property lawyers!) that sealed the “deal”.
A redacted copy of that Delegated Authority Report was one of the first documents I received under my first FoI request. In my 10 February blog, I mentioned this claim in it:
‘The Borough Solicitor has confirmed that pursuant to the Council’s New Constitution Part 4, paragraph 4.3 you have the delegated authority to approve of this letting.’
It’s many years since Brent’s top legal officer was known as the “Borough Solicitor”. The extract from Part 4 of the Constitution, included in the Report, showed that: ‘Only the Strategic Director Resources may acquire or dispose of an interest in land or buildings.’ It also said that he could not agree leases if ‘the annual rental value … exceeds £50k’, which this one clearly did!
My FoI had asked for all the communications in respect of the authority for the lease extension, so I pressed for the documents I had not been sent. Among the further items I received was a copy of Part 3 of Brent’s Constitution. The rules about interests in land had been in Part 3 (not Part 4) since at least May 2018, with the limit on ‘annual rental value’ increased to £250k.
Head had still not provided the documents under which Officer had sought and obtained confirmation from “the Borough Solicitor” that ODPA had ‘the delegated authority to approve this letting’. I pressed again and, at the third time of asking, was told: ‘there are no further emails or correspondence relating to [ODPA]’s authority to approve this lease extension.’ The statement in the Report about confirmation of that authority was a lie!
The ODPA had either not read the section of the Report that quoted “Part 4”, or ignored it because it was out of date. As the Council is hiding the figures involved, I don’t know whether the ODPA did have the delegated authority to approve the lease extension. One of the restrictions, in Part 3, on that power is: ‘where any leasehold interest has an annual value over £100k or below £250k, he or she shall consult with the Lead Member.’ No evidence has been supplied to show that the Lead Member (for Regeneration?) was consulted in this case.
Part 3 also sets out another very important responsibility for the person authorising the lease:
’11.6 The Strategic Director Regeneration and Environment [or ODPA] may not sell or grant any lease … or otherwise dispose of any land or buildings unless the consideration received, as confirmed by them is the best that can reasonably be obtained.’
As the ODPA had not been involved in discussing the terms for the lease extension, how could he confirm that the rent paid would be the best value that the Council could obtain for the Bobby Moore Bridge advertising rights? He appears to have relied on the Delegated Authority Report. And that Report relied on what Brent’s Chief Executive advised me (in good faith, I believe) was a ‘market appraisal … carried out by an independent advertising consultant who recommended the lease extension.’
Again, although I had been sent this document, I had not received the emails etc. associated with it. I had been told that it had been requested by ‘phone, but how did the advertising consultant (who I will call “Consultant”) obtain the details about the proposed deal on which to base his appraisal? Having pressed further, Head supplied me with an email thread which is worth close examination.
There were just three emails, in a space of less than 24 hours, headed ‘Delegated Authority Report on Bobby Moore Bridge’. On 17 October, Officer sent Consultant a copy of that Report (which she’d signed off that day) with the brief message: ‘This is background information as discussed.’ Her Report had referred to a market appraisal:
‘conducted by an independent outdoor advertising consultant, [Consultant] from Fortuna, who has recommended lease extension for three years on the basis of current market conditions.’
The October 2019 exchange of emails about the market appraisal for the lease extension.
On 18 October, Consultant sent Officer his market appraisal letter (see above). His email was copied to Head, who the letter was addressed to. The email offers to “tweak” the appraisal letter, if required (which is hardly what you would expect from an independent consultant!). But Officer was happy with the letter as it stood: ‘Thanks [Consultant], this perfect.’
Brent Council’s online “Transparency - Our Spending” records for this quarter show a payment to Fortuna Associates of £1,123-48 on 18 October 2019, under the cost heading “Advertising”. I’m sure all of the businesses that supply Brent would love to receive such prompt payment!
You may have noticed that the Fortuna letter was dated 15 October, as if it had been written before the Delegated Authority Report. It appears that it may well have been written after Officer sent the Report to Consultant, using what she had said to justify approval for the lease extension as the basis for the “Advice Note” relied on as evidence for that recommendation. If that was the case, the “market appraisal” was a false document, and the actions of those involved with its creation potentially fraudulent.
A closer look at the FoI responses I received in 2018, over the renewal of the original lease until August 2021, showed a very similar situation. Consultant had provided an Advice Note in September 2017 for a Delegated Authority Report, but it was found that the rental value was too high for it to be approved by a Council Officer.
When it went for a Cabinet decision, the tile murals were not even mentioned. Members were told that bids had been sought from four advertising companies, and that: ‘Wembley City Estate Management submitted the best value bid, details of which are set out in the confidential appendix.’ In fact, no other companies had been invited to bid, and the only offer was that from the Quintain subsidiary. The Officer Report in January 2018 misled Brent’s Cabinet
A week ago, I sent a formal letter of complaint to Brent’s Chief Executive (see below), along with a detailed report that also went to the Council’s Audit & Investigations team. As well as the alleged misconduct over the lease extension, I complained about the general attitude of council officers over the Bobby Moore Bridge tile murals, ever since 2013. They have been too willing to give Quintain and its subsidiaries what they want, without regard to the cultural and heritage value of those murals, and without any competitive tender for the advertising rights. The Council’s relationship with Quintain has been far too “cosy”.
The 1948 Olympic torch relay mural, currently hidden, and the Wembley heritage it celebrates.
I have asked for an assurance that the actions of council officers over the lease extension will be properly investigated. Nothing can be done to end the advertising lease before August 2024, but I am seeking a commitment from Brent Council now:- that any new lease will be open to competition, that it will include an option to advertise only on the bridge parapets, and not covering the tile murals, and that it should be considered and decided openly at a meeting of Brent’s Cabinet. That is the least we deserve!
Postscript: After submitting this blog article to Martin, I received a reply from Brent's Chief Executive, Carolyn Downs, which included these responses to my letter of 24 March:-
'Firstly, I can give you assurance that the circumstances around the approval of the lease will be investigated by our Audit and Investigations team and that any appropriate action necessary will take place as a result.'
'I agree that the Council will undertake the renewal of the advertising rights as you outline.
Can I thank you for the time and effort you have put into this matter.'
Philip Grant's Letter of Complaint (Click bottom right for full page)