A councillor believes there are “significant questions” for Wirral Council to answer after a half-a-million pound contract was awarded to consultants involved with the sale of borough assets.
A £495,000 three-year contract has been handed to Lambert Smith Hampton, with the firm helping Wirral Council sell off 23 of its assets, which includes car parks, libraries, the site of a former town hall, and a sports college.
Wirral Council said the contract was to “provide capacity” and support the council’s “small in-house team of general practice surveyors.” The decision to award the contract did not go to a council committee for scrutiny.
Assets put up for sale by the local authority at a 12 July meeting included the current site of the Clare Mount Specialist Sports College, the former Seacombe library, Price Street car park, Tranmere’s Marine Technology Park, and former council offices in Liscard. This is to pay back £12m of emergency government funding.
However, Cllr Jo Bird said, “It seems odd that the contract is only 1% under the half-a-million pound threshold that would have required public decision by a committee of elected councillors.”
While she said the council sometimes has to outsource work due to capacity, Cllr Bird added, “It is hard to tell because of the lack of information that has been provided to all the councillors about that decision. There are significant questions for council officers to answer about this contract.”
Conservative group leader Cllr Jeff Green also said, “As the public know, I expect council activities to be carried out by council employees without the need to employ consultants. If there is a lack of capacity or expertise within the Ccuncil, then of course it makes sense to utilise an alternative and this would normally be discussed by the committee.
“I find it worthy of note that the figure of £495,000, over three years, is just £5000 below the amount that would trigger a discussion by committee.”
The sale of some buildings and land by Wirral Council has been controversial, particularly Bromborough Civic Centre which up until July had been moving through a process of community asset transfer. This could have seen it moved into the hands of one of two community groups.
Labour and Conservative councillors voted to put the civic centre and library up for sale, prompting widespread condemnation from the Liberal Democrats, Greens, and people in Bromborough.
Wirral Council’s leader Cllr Paul Stuart has defended the sale, saying it was based on clear advice from council officers about the local authority’s financial position. He also said the sale was not just about paying back emergency government funding borrowed by the council but also “about replenishing reserves and raising money for regeneration projects.”
Pointing to the £600,000 value of Bromborough Civic Centre, Cllr Bird said, “That is almost the same as the contract to sell these assets which is a huge amount of public money and it is an extraordinary waste and a brazen waste of that money, to give half a million of our money to privatise much-loved assets.
“Half a million used for property consultants, how was the value of the contract determined? How would the council ensure that it gets the best value rather than just sell them at a lower price to get a sale more quickly?”
Cllr Bird argued that political decisions were being presented as financial ones, adding, “We are saying that there are a whole bunch of assets to sell off because they weren’t needed by the community.
“We are fine with selling those assets off but we are not okay with selling off assets that are good for our communities. We need to keep assets that are good for the environment and we need to keep our assets that bring in revenue income into the council. The problem is that the council is selling assets that should be kept in public ownership.”
Cllr Paul Stuart said, “Comparing the total value of the contract award to one asset is political posturing. The contract award will assist the Estate management team in various asset management tasks.
“These tasks include advising on new environmental standards while enabling the council to dispose of numerous assets, delivering diverse, flexible expertise, providing the capacity and specialisms when required, and supporting the timely delivery of the Asset Strategy.
“The award is a call-off contract conducted rigorously through the Crown Commercial Services Framework for specialist services over three years.
“Cllr Bird’s claim of a lack of information seems to be a selective issue. Cllr Bird had enough information to be willing to sell assets she agreed to and voted for alongside all other political parties.
“This is typical of Cllr Bird shifting principles and politics to suit a narrative she wants to push without providing the detailed background information she can access.”