Criticism voiced over authority’s handling of council offices sale

Angus Councillor Colin Brown.
Angus Councillor Colin Brown.

An Angus councillor has spoken out against the way in which the local authority has handled the sale of prominent town centre offices in Forfar after an embarrassing U-turn.

Two weeks after a decision was made to proceed with private negotiations to sell 5 to 7 The Cross to pub giant JD Wetherspoon, the item was back on the agenda at a private meeting of the full Angus Council in Forfar on Thursday.

On this occasion councillors agreed to reverse their decision and sell the extensive property on the open market.

News the council had entered into talks with the national chain sparked public outrage, with many questioning how public assets could be sold in such a manner.

Two weeks ago a brief council statement confirmed: “At a special council meeting of Angus Council elected members agreed to proceed with negotiations with JD Wetherspoons for the purchase of 5 to 7 The Cross, Forfar. The sale of the building will be subject to planning permission and licensing.”

However, after Thursday’s meeting, again held behind closed doors, a council spokeswoman said: “It was agreed at yesterday’s meeting of full council that Angus Council will place the property 5-7 The Cross in Forfar for sale on the open market.”

The handling of the situation has been slated by Forfar elected member Councillor Colin Brown who stood up at the initial meeting to plead with his fellow councillors to vote against the sale, asking them not to put “pounds before people”.

Speaking to the ‘Dispatch’ on Monday Mr Brown said: “I am delighted this has gone on the open market which is exactly what I suggested in the first place.

“There is now other interest in this building for Forfar to have a boutique hotel and I would welcome that.

“I was disappointed with the press release issued by Angus Council after the first meeting which stated Angus Council had agreed to proceed with negotiations with JD Wetherspoons. We did not. The vote was 13 for and 12 against. We are a laughing stock at the moment; that is the reason for me to make clear what my thoughts are.”

It has since emerged that Mr Brown spoke out against the private sale to JD Wetherspoons at the meeting on August 26.

He tabled an amendment, seconded by Councillor Craig Fotheringham, to have the agenda item heard in public but lost that vote by 22 votes to five.

Addressing the meeting Mr Brown said: “Following well documented reports in the press I am dismayed by this decision to try to sell 5 to 7 The Cross to allow another licensed premises to come into a town where all existing pubs are struggling to keep open.

“We don’t need another pub especially in the centre of our town, let alone a Wetherspoons outlet.”

He questioned why the council wanted to encourage a franchise that can sell alcohol cheaper than the pubs can buy theirs.

He said: “Forfar had, at one time, 32 pubs - now there are 20. Does that not tell us that the trade is struggling to keep up their pubs; they pay the council a considerable amount in rates. I think we have a duty to support them.”

He referred to Forfar’s 11 restaurants as well as the tea rooms and coffee shops, warning he believed some would close as they would not be able to compete with the multinational.

He warned: “If that is what we want for the people of Forfar and the town that is known to be popular for its small cafe and tea rooms, then so be it.

“But you should take all these concerns into consideration when coming to your decision of pounds before people - not in my book.”

Referring to the asking price for the property - believed to be in six figures, he continued: “We are selling the family silver at a knock-down price.

“It should be put on the open market and get a valuation done by a reputable company to make sure we are getting a fair price, as I can remember the St James House fiasco.”

He warned: “I will not support any sale until we are at least sure we are getting true market value, and probably not even then, as I can see it ruining several smaller businesses in the town.

“And the cost of rehousing the operation at 5-7 The Cross will use almost all of the price realised from the sale and that would not be best value for the rate payers of Forfar.”

It has further emerged fellow Forfar elected member Glennis Middleton, seconded by Mr Fotheringham, moved an amendment at the initial meeting that the council reject the offer from Wetherspoons, contrary to a motion from council leader Iain Gaul, seconded by councillor Paul Valentine, that the council approve the recommendations of the report in relation to the proposed purchase of the council building.

This split the chamber with 13 votes for and 13 against, with Helen Oswald, the Angus Provost, exercising her casting vote in favour of the motion.

Mr Brown, seconded by Councillor Ian McLaren, then moved the council reject the offer and put the building on the open market in order to ensure best value for the council and the general public.

On this occasion the motion was carried by 13 votes to 12 with councillor Middleton choosing not to vote.

The change in thought by the councillors was sparked by a rival bid for the premises made two weeks ago by Forfar businessman Ken Parke, whose Christie P company operates Parkgrove Crematorium near Friockheim.

Despite being contacted, at the time of going to press Mr Parke, along with a spokesman for JD Wetherspoon, were unavailable for comment.