Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Dirty deeds done dirt cheap?

A number of land sales by an arms-length Welsh
Government body have raised concerns about transparency.
Is this an innocent business deal?  Or something sneakier?
(Pic : BBC Wales)
The backstory

The Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) was set up by previous Economy Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones (Plaid, Ynys Mon). Its goal is to market and sell Welsh Government owned property to match European Union funds used for regeneration projects in the Objective One area. It's an "arms-length" public body, but is ultimately responsible to the Welsh Government. To date it hasn't done very much.

16 parcels of land across Wales were sold recently by RIFW - total value of approximately £20.6million. The parcels include land in Wrexham, Llandudno Junction, Pyle in Bridgend and land around Cardiff.

Byron Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) referred the sales to the Wales Audit Office a few weeks ago. More on this at Inside OutDaily Post, and BBC Wales.

So RIFW is doing its job?

By the look of things, yes. Land has been sold, and presumably the money will be used in regeneration projects in the future, though as I said RIFW don't appear to have done much with it so far.

The controversy surrounds land price speculation, lack of transparency and tax avoidance. Byron Davies is an ex-detective, and might've picked up the scent of something more serious too.

What's Cardiff's LDP got to do with it?

Before May's local elections, the ruling Lib Dem-Plaid Cardiff Council coalition ruled out developing "greenfield land" for housing - instead wanting to build all houses on urban "brownfield" land. This got them into trouble with the Welsh Government, as population projections showed that there was a need for signifcant housing development in Cardiff. The council were told to rip up their Local Development Plan (LDP) and start again.

The incoming Labour administration didn't mention plans to build on greenfield sites in their local election manifesto. That's probably sensible - they wanted to wait and see. However, Labour vehemently denied they had any plans to "concrete over greenfields" and accused those who suggested such of lying.

Within months of winning back control of Cardiff Council, the Labour administration leaked plans (Carwynisation of Cardiff's LDP) for concreting over greenfields 40,000+ new homes in the pre-proposals for the new LDP.

As you might expect, the value of the land set aside for these housing developments will have risen dramatically. Those who bought the land will be sitting on a nice little earner once the developers come knocking.

One of those lucky buyers was South Wales Land Developments (SWLD) - who were sold land in the Lisvane area by RIFW (as well as all the other parcels mentioned above) before Cardiff Council's "leak". The value of land sold to SWLD in Cardiff alone will have risen from (using quoted figures from the BBC) £1.8million to around £120million.

To avoid accusations of hyprocrisy, I've said on several occasions that opening up some greenfield land for housing in and around Cardiff is the right thing to do – I still think it is - but not under questionable circumstances like this.

Why is this "dodgy"?

SWLD (despite the name) are based in Guernsey, which has low business taxes. In these times of austerity, you have to question why a Welsh Government body will have sold land to them knowing how it would look.

There might be a reason.

The only information that has come out of SWLD so far has been from a former director and company secretary of Cardiff Hub Ltd – Langley Davies – who's involved in other property-related businesses too. That's not to single him out. Considering the company name, I imagine many of the other people involved will have similar business interests. However, there are scant details on SWLD, who appear to have been set up suspiciously quickly and quietly.

Cardiff Hub have/had ambitious plans for a business park and transport interchange in the St Mellons area. At the time, the plans were trumpeted by the Welsh Government and Cardiff councillors, including Lib Dem ward members and current Cardiff Council cabinet member for planning and transport, Ralph Cook.

It's not a big stretch of the imagination that a notional £100million+ could go some way towards funding Cardiff Hub or different projects.

It suggests someone - whether in local government, Welsh Government or RFIW's fund managers - might've "tipped off" SWLD - and SWLD alone - about the land and Cardiff's LDP revisions.

That might qualify as a form of market abuse ("insider dealing"). In extreme cases, it's punishable by up to seven years in prison or an unlimited fine. It might not be illegal when it comes to land sales as far as I know, but it certainly stinks, as land should be sold on the open-market to developers directly.

You also have to question why so many parcels of land were bundled into one deal with one company.

Overvalued land:

  • Could lead to more houses being built than expected
  • Could create an "asset bubble" where house prices are set artificially higher to recoup building costs
  • Could result in communities being planned "on the cheap" with a lack of proper facilities (i.e green space)
  • Impacts a developer's ability to deliver things like affordable housing

What happens next?

The Wales Audit Office will probe what Byron Davies has brought to them and issue their own assessment.

The most likely proposition is that this was a poor (or knowingly poor) sale by RIFW. SWLD could be acting as a legitimate "land bank" and couldn't believe their luck when they saw the parcels on sale for a low price, knowing "instinctively" that Cardiff Council would need the land for housing as soon as they changed the LDP. That still doesn't explain how only SWLD seemed to be interested in such an obvious opportunity.

My hunch is that the Welsh Government are in the clear. There's claw back arrangements should land values rise. But the heart of the matter is that RIFW/Welsh Government (and by extension, the Welsh public) may well have been diddled out of a potential £100million windfall deliberately.

When you look at it like that, you have to wonder why the Welsh Government have been so coy? Is it embarrassment at having "overseen" a really bad deal? That's my guess. Or is it plausible deniability?

Here's a more outlandish tin-foil-hat suggestion. The Welsh Government - in cahoots with someone with a keen interest in RIFW funds, or a friendly Labour-run Cardiff Council - saw an opportunity to raise money for RIFW projects in Wales – Swansea for instance - while at the same time helping a private company raise funds to invest in Cardiff or elsewhere (because some EU funds can't be used outside the Objective One area).

That's still sleazy, but admittedly it's clever too. There's plenty of opportunities there for Welsh Government ministers and council cabinet members to be photographed in hard hats "saving the economy", plenty of new houses would be built in Cardiff and they can pat the backs of company directors "investing in Wales". Just don't mention the tax-dodging. Perhaps I'm giving them too much credit and going down the route of Machiavellian conjecture there.

Whichever way, someone should be in hot water, and my guess is it's someone at the local government end – whether that's Cardiff or somewhere else.

I wonder who they could be?


  1. the question is do we really want Cardiff to grow to that extent? where are the people coming from?

  2. I'm sure it was in the last Welsh Conservative manifesto that the Welsh Government should sell more land to developers. Have a look, i'm sure its there.

    That said, it's right for the Wales Audit Office to investigate it. I'm not one of those people who thinks Wales is mired in corruption. I think alot of stories get exaggerated. But we need a strong independent auditor to take a full look at this.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Cibwr - Anywhere I'd imagine. What worries me is that Cardiff's LDP stipulates for the creation of 40,000 new jobs, yet 45,000 homes equates to around 100,000 extra people. I think the bulk of them will be people who otherwise would move into commuter settlements in the valleys. It's probably better in terms of commuting/environment that as many people as possible, who work in Cardiff, live in Cardiff.

    Anon 15:51 - It's hot on the heels of the Green Investment Bank bid, AWEMA, the stuff happening in Carmarthenshire and the tit-for-tat with regard the Welsh NHS. I usually only concentrate on these bad news stories when they warrant it. When you're talking about "losing" a potential £100million because of a dodgy-looking land sale to a slightly shady sounding offshore company, that's pretty serious in my book.

    It isn't necessarily corrupt, but if people keep getting away with things like this that's where we're heading. I wonder if Welsh has an equivalent for the Irish terms "cute hoor" and "gombeen".

    On the manifestos, the Tories did mention an "enterprise-focused planning policy....including the release of more land for affordable housing." (p22) Plaid = "Planning policy should work to provide more public and economic benefits on privately-owned land." (p48)

    Welsh Labour also had a similar pledge - "making public land available for housing" and "ensure....planning policy at a local level helps address the shortfall in housing."(p64) It's very easy to put two and two together there.

    There's nothing wrong with RIFW as it is though, it's doing one half of its job (raising funds). It's just the circumstances – or lack of transparency - surrounding this particular deal that are more than a little bit fishy.

  4. The BCBC Cabinet on the18th September, Item 15, updated Members in relation to the Porthcawl Regeneration Seven Bays project and to obtain approval from Cabinet to present a report to Council proposing a revision to the capital programme for 2012/13 and 2013/14.

    A key paragraph;
    • 4.4 It is proposed that the capital programme for 2012/13 – 2021/22 be revised to allow these works to proceed, subject to agreement being reached with a new developer for the sale of the site and a revised Owners Agreement to reflect the increased financial risk being taken by the Council.

    What does this mean and why did the report not contain any risk assessment/evaluation that Porthcawl resident and others throughout the county can evaluate themselves..

    • What are the risks besides the ‘financial’?

    Project Cost inflation.
    Unexpected additional costs.
    Failure to agree with the other owners.
    Will Tesco come back in after all the risks have been taken by BCBC and negotiate a price that suits them not the citizens?

    • What are the financial risks/costs?

    Will the other owners (Evans Families) agree to amend the percentage they take?
    Will the other owners (Evans Families) agree to a delay on their capital receipt?

    You and readers will probably remember the controversies of the 60/40 split and that the (Evans Families) would get their capital receipt up front/first.

    The Seven Bays project is in its death throes obvious to all especially Porthcawl residents. With the demise of Chelverton Deeley Freed (supported by Tesco) BCBC is trying to develop political credibility by stepping in through ‘prudential borrowing’ to put in place the necessary infrastructure. This latest move is despite the Porthcawl residents not really in favour of the project.

    Surely the Cabinet decision will be called in, surely the Wales Audit Office should examine this this latest high risk strategy, surely Labour Councillors will want to scrutinise the risks!?

  5. Thanks for flagging that up, Anon. I hadn't checked the council cabinet documents yet. It's probably worthy a blog by itself and I'll try and get something done for the weekend.

  6. Even better if the jobs were in the valleys and people didn't have to commute into Cardiff.

  7. That's a good point, Cibwr. There's no reason to ignore the valleys for job creation, in many cases it'll be the smarter option. However high-end business has a fetish for the urban, and that means Cardiff or Swansea for the big-bucks jobs in things like finance. It also means a better airport, and better ways for people in the valleys to get into Cardiff. Hopefully, the south Wales metro plans will help that.

  8. Only a guess but could the Directors of SWLD be some well known "local" businessmen?
    And which firm of surveyors is selling the land on behalf of SWLD -and is it the same firm which advised RIFW?

  9. Nobody knows who they are Anon 00:32. The only person who has come forward so far has been Langley Davies. As I said, SWLD could be acting as some sort of "Land Bank", which might attract investors from around the UK or further afield.

    I suspect/hope the WAO are asking the same questions you are.

  10. I've heard it said that certain prospective purchasers who approached the selling agents were, effectively, told to "s*d off" - because the agents involved were only interested in recommending a sale to a specific party, for whom they would be acting after the sale...

  11. That's interesting, Anon 00:23. I wouldn't be surprised if it were true. I just hope the Wales Audit Office can pick out these details. Heh heh. Ha hahahahah. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

  12. Word is that, following a preliminary view, the Auditor is to widen the scope of the investigations.........more than one or two people (especially in the public sector)running for cover now....he he!

  13. I have heard the Audit Office has widened the scope too, Anon. I suspect it'll be the agents who'll have most to worry about, but if it starts to involved key public sector officials, then things will start to get interesting.

  14. BBC Radio Wales News at 6:00 p.m. - RIFW "suspended" pending two separate Auditor General investigations.......it's starting!!!!!

  15. Yeah, thanks Anon. I've just read the BBC report on it. I was going to come back to it when any WAO investigation was published anyway. We'll see what comes from it, but it looks as if some of Byron Davies', my own and other's suspicions may well turn out be correct.

  16. Not knowing the usual process in these cases, does anyone know whether all these investigations will be public and the key individuals (WAG officials, RIFW directors, sale agent etc) are to be questioned on the public record. If so I'd be very interested to know how many parties were properly offered this frankly mostly extremely prime land and how the 'value' was ascertained. Judging by page 13 of their presentation on the EIB.org (websitehttp://www.eib.org/attachments/general/events/cook.pdf), RIFW recognised early on that there was potential to add value via planning gain. However, the driver of the 'asset realisation plan' would appear to have been mainly to raise a certain amount cash (for matching purposes) for their fund. In that case, where's the incentive to get the best price above that level. The exact 'clawback' details would also be interesting to know and do they relate only to what RIFW achieved or later purchasers also...?

  17. Thanks for the info, Anon 09:18.

    Although I was waiting for a WAO report into Byron Davies' concerns, I'll come back to this in more detail next week.

    WAO reports are published routinely, including conversations with relevant individuals. Welsh Government internal investigations I'm not sure about. I suspect that'll come down to questions from AMs in committee or plenary. However, now that there's an "internal investigation" Huw Lewis can point to that and "waiting for any outcomes" to stall them. Also, the earliest questions can be asked on this is a week Tuesday.

    The whole "dodginess" of this surrounds that issue - how many parties were offered this - as it appears to have only been SWLD. Judging by the EIB document you provided it looks as though they wanted a private sector investor as quickly as possible, perhaps to meet targets.

    I think everyone understood the "adding value" part. It's just this deal appears to have been particularly bone-headed despite claw back agreements, simply for the sheer amount of money RIFW (and by extention, us) have been diddled out of - potentially up to £100million.

  18. Owen 11.33

    OK - should all be very interesting, both what does (and also what doesn't) come out.

    Not sure RIFW itself is the 'diddled' party, given the assets were effectively owned by the Welsh Ministers (WM - i.e. the public) for sometimes decades up until shortly before their transfer to RIFW and subsequent rapid sale . My understanding from its website blurb is that "The Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales is the new Urban Development Fund created by the Welsh Government specifically to encourage and promote sustainable development across Wales". The blurb says the Fund Manager is Amber Infrastrcucture (AI) and the Investment Manager is LSH. It also says the members of the fund are WM and AI, with a Management Board with representatives of WM being advised by AI and LSH. I repeat all this as surely the buck stops with the RIFW Management Board and its advisors in terms of the decisions to market in a particular way, as well as sell at what price and to whom.

    It seems what also need clear clarification is who 'valued' the sites and on what basis at the point of transfer to RIFW and then who within what entity (presumably the RIFW board with WAG input) approved the marketing approach, the sale and price agreed, and any conflicts that might be apparent.

    Out of interest, if they had achieved £100m where would the surplus have gone, as it seems only c. £20m was needed for match funding. Presumably, it would not have stayed in the RIFW pot and would not have gone as bonuses to the agents and fund managers...!

    Lastly, I don't think that the south wales property community was unaware these assets were for sale, but the marketing campaign was, shall we say, unconventional.

  19. I imagine one of the key issues for discussion will be who valued the sites. They would've had to have been oblivious to not have expected the Cardiff land, at least, to be prime real estate. That's what makes the whole thing odd. As you pointed out, they seemed keen to get some sort of "cash flow" as quickly as possible - perhaps not realising what they were sitting on. Tha'ts not really corrupt, just negligent.

    I would like to think any surplus would simply have be kept in a pot, or match funded to pay for something really significant (i.e. a complete regeneration of Swansea, perhaps significant regeneration of the major towns out west like Haverfordwest or Aberystwyth). In fairness, if they did get that much, the agents would've deserved some sort of bonus, but I doubt the WG would've let them.

    As for the marketing, again I imagine that's going to be one of the key questions asked. It looks like Huw Lewis is going to look at that specifically too.

  20. It is understood that no valuation was done "at the point of sale" -the disposal relied on a 2009 "Asset Valuation" ie a "forced sale" valuation carried out 3 years before the actual sale (in March 2012).

  21. "Intermal Peer Review" of RIFW - classic Civil Service ploy to whitewash the issues and "kick them into the long grass".

  22. What the reviews also need to investigate is who is/was lined up to get this funding, and were certain applicants being given an easy ride. I've heard of one project which was going to create 200+ jobs, and all sorts of obstacles were put in the way of it by RIFW to prevent it proceeding!

  23. I know an ex WG official who told me that "overage" on property deals is usually a minimum of 50% of the uplift in value after a sale (sometimes up to 100%).
    Any bets on what the percentage is in this case? - I'll go for 30%...

  24. Interesting stuff. Obviously I'll leave those sorts of things to be confirmed one way or another by the auditors - or even perhaps eventually, the police.

    I think everyone realised that these "internal reviews" kick things into the long grass. It's not too surprising.

    There are (presumably) strict EU rules on what can or cannot be suitable for this sort of funding. I always believed that RIFW was involved in physical regeneration projects (i.e. the sort of thing currently ongoing in Bridgend town centre, and the project in Neath). It does look like it covered renewable energy projects too. But I don't think it was set up to support businesses directly.

    Maybe the "claw back agreements" would take it towards the 50% figure. But I wouldn't be surprised if it were - because of the rise in land values - an embarrassingly low figure.

  25. Even on a clawback of 50%, I'd take 50% of £100m - £20m for a sweetheart off market deal with very little, if any, downside...! Lol!

  26. BTW - Interesting to see our First Minister's reaction to the latest EU funding settlement - shock horror a real terms cut... bad for Wales... etc etc. Does he not know that there has been a major credit crisis and people (i.e. taxpayers and private sector companies) are feeling the pinch. Why does Wales need to suck endlessly on the EU/English taxpayer teet...? Is it because we sell our quality public assets off on the cheap and nationalise other loss making ones (airport anyone)...?

  27. I'll be posting on this tomorrow, Anon.

    I'd like to think this "sweetheart deal" was nothing more than just incredibly lazy working by RIFW (or whoever was working on their behalf). People have been talking of building in the Lisvane/Pontprennau area for the best part of a decade. You would've had to have been a dunce not to have seen the potential there. That's before mentioning all the other land!

    The EU itself has dropped a bollock by cutting funding to growth-related activities and protecting - or trying to protect - things like CAP and its own administration budgets.

    Carwyn may well be right to say Wales will be hard done by, but you have to look at the track record of Convergence spending in Wales. There doesn't seem to be an co-ordinated approach to tackle the big problems like relative poverty, just propping up loads and loads of "little" schemes. As for all our other quality assets - things like energy and water - they were sold off years ago. It's going to take something big to get them back.

    I think "nationalising" the airport is the right thing to do though - on the condition that it's well managed and there's clear oversight, perhaps by the relevant Assembly committee. But, I'm starting to lose confidence that the Welsh Government and its partners are capable of doing those sorts of things. This RIFW "problem" is a case in point.

  28. I forecast that it will turn out that the "incredibly lazy working" will be found to be the fault of Welsh Government officials, who did not take and maintain "ownership" of the RIFW project. I just hope that the real culprits ie the private sector elements in this fiasco, who have potentially ripped off the tax payers, are brought to book.

  29. Owen 17.37 - Either a dunce or a London based fund manager with no local knowledge or on the ground presence allowing the local property boys to run rings around them. No excuse for 'incredibly lazy working' given the fees these people take out of these mandates year after year. Agree with Anon 18.40 that WAG officials have to maintain responsibility for these structures and exercise some proper controls to stop this sort of thing happening.

  30. Latest on WOA investigation - unlikely to be completed until end of year..........Fraud Squad anyone?

  31. Thanks for the update, Anon.

    I would've expected WAO to have reported back by now, or at least released some sort of interim statement. I think the delay is probably to factor in the Welsh Government's internal investigation, though I wouldn't rule anything else out.

    It does look like SWLD are "innocent" in this though, as they have at least put in legit planning apps. Emphasis shifts back to the agents and Cathays Park IMHO.

  32. The delaying factor is that WAO feel obliged to submit it's draft report to Welsh Government,and to named private sector organisations and individuals. All those named (and critisized) are then able to "edit" and water down the findings, as well as delay inordinately.....democracy at work?

  33. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  34. Thanks for the update, Anon.

    I couldn't help laughing at that. The mind boggles. They're probably going to have to bite the bullet and buy the land if it's needed, though. If I'm honest though, I'm frustrated at the speed by which the two investigations are going at the moment.

  35. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  36. Um, that's a complete load of bollocks I'm afaid, Anon 00:34.

    Here's the job advertised on Bangor University's own website (in English).

    I've deleted your comment as it broke my comments policy - "Mentioning the Welsh language, Welsh language activism/regulations/laws or Welsh language education, in response to a post or discussion that's completely unrelated to it."

    I can't seem to find any evidence of Byron Davies's statement either, so I've had to delete that - even though I think there's an element of truth in it - lest I be accused of putting words in an AM's mouth. I'll reinstate it if it turns out to be true, or if you can provide a link.

  37. The (written)question was submitted by BD to Leslie Griffiths A.M on Tuesday 2nd July. As with all questions to Ministers, it should have appeared on the Welsh Assembly Government's website within 48 hours - but hasn't appeared yet for some reason ?????

  38. If you're still following this Anon(s), there might be a reason why the question/statement was withdrawn - the deal's been referred to the Serious Fraud Office by the WAO (according to the BBC). Things have just shifted up a gear big time.

    I'll try to come back to this later this week.

  39. By the way, the Anon who posted the BBC article word for word - your post was too long and was caught up in the spam filter. Here's a link instead (here).

  40. It stinks.