Lack of scrutiny over property purchases for temporary accommodation raises concerns
Ted Peskett, local democracy reporter
Concerns have been raised over council plans to purchase properties in Cardiff after they did not go to a scrutiny committee.
Cardiff Council’s cabinet last week approved plans to purchase 25 ‘void’ properties in the city for use as temporary accommodation.
The approval is subject to legal due diligence to be carried out by Legal Services.
However, leader of the opposition at the council, Cllr Adrian Robson, raised concerns that the plans had not gone through a scrutiny committee before being presented to cabinet.
His chief concern was that the council could lose value for money over the properties.
The location of the properties is not yet known as such information, including the proposed price that the council will purchase them for, is in one of the confidential appendices of the report brought to cabinet.
Cllr Robson said at the cabinet meeting on July 14 that he had been told there could be a difference of £138 per square footage for two properties on the same road.
Cllr Robson told the LDRS service: “My concern is that whilst they can act to take an urgent decision, purchasing property without scrutiny means that we are reliant on the cabinet member to confirm that the purchase is value for money.
“A quick, one-item scrutiny meeting could have been that check.
“Bearing in mind that some of the valuations for property which the council have sold off have been highly undervalued, even urgent decisions such as this need an element of scrutiny [I’m referring to the Penhill Road site, Llandaff which was undervalued by millions going to auction].”
In 2017, the council put one of its former offices, The Rise, on Penhill Road up for auction at a guide price reported to be at £595,000.
The property and surrounding land were eventually sold for £1.6m.
When speaking at the cabinet meeting last week, Cllr Robson conceded there are times when the council “has to act quickly” but reaffirmed his stance that this particular plan “could have been looked at by scrutiny”.
Cllr Lynda Thorne responded, saying the properties are “very well furnished”.
She added: “They were previously being used for Airbnb and there was a deadline.
“We would much prefer to have gone through the normal process, but if we didn’t meet the deadline then we would lose those properties and we really do need those properties.”
The report brought to cabinet that day revealed there are about 8,000 applicants on the council’s housing waiting list and 1,400 homeless families and individuals living in temporary accommodation.
Cllr Robson brought up the issue again at Thursday’s full council meeting.
Talking about the way the decision was “taken through”, Cllr Robson said: “I felt that that was a very poor way of taking this through in that short notice.”
He asked the scrutiny chairs to make sure “something like that doesn’t happen again” and that “a scrutiny committee can be called at short notice or some other mechanism by which way it can be scrutinised properly”.
The leader of Cardiff Council, Cllr Huw Thomas said the power used to push through the decision is one that “is used sparingly”.
He added: “It was a particular set of circumstances applying to the cabinet report that required swift action in order to secure a series of properties for use in a housing context.
“There is no grounds to cast aspersions about the process behind this decision. As I said it is used sparingly and with good reason.
“Cardiff has a very well-resourced scrutiny function – five committees, which myself and all cabinet members attend diligently.”
A Cardiff Council spokesperson said: “In the main, the council’s decisions are not exempt from scrutiny call-in, but exemptions can apply when it is shown that taking an urgent decision is in the public interest. This is the process set out in the council’s constitution.
“Under section 13 of the Scrutiny Procedure Rules, this decision was certified as urgent because any delay likely to have been caused by the call-in process would not have been in the public interest.
“The decision was urgent because of the acute need for additional affordable homes in the city and the seller’s requirement for the purchase of the first property to be completed by July 16.
“There was a real risk that the chance to buy these much-needed properties would have been lost if the council was not in a position to do so by that required date.
“The chair of the Communities, Adults and Services Scrutiny Committee was consulted on the matter and agreed that the report should be certified as urgent and therefore exempt from call-in.”
In response to Cllr Robson’s reference to the Penhill Road site, a Cardiff Council spokesperson said: “The Penhill site was not undervalued. The council managed to secure a very good receipt that was significantly higher than the guide price, due to the competitive nature of the auction.
“The decision to sell the land went to the Policy Review and Performance Scrutiny Committee.”
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Act in haste…waste public money and cover-up at leisure…