Shropshire Council has threatened Shropshire councillors with police action if we reveal details of a potentially illegal payment to a football club. That is too much for me to stomach. I want to know why a former councillor leader approved a grant to his favourite football team. I want to know why repayments of that “grant” were cancelled on his watch. I want to know why, when he was forced to resign from Shropshire Council, he was immediately employed by the owner of the football team.
The growing scandal about TNS, an Oswestry football club, cannot be ignored. If I knew enough to make the evidence public, I would publish it. I would welcome being reported to the police. I would volunteer for it. That means the police would see paperwork we councillors can’t see. They will have to look at the main issue.
The paperwork is restricted so much that councillors can only read a redacted summary while locked in an office.
It has been a long time since I have had the need to write about Keith Barrow’s reign as leader of Shropshire Council. His legacy was one of running down Shropshire Council leaving it in a weakened position to cope with swingeing government cuts to budgets. We have been in recovery mode ever since.
The TNS scandal uncovered by BBC Radio Shropshire and others requires to me to revisit the Barrow Affair.
I do not believe for one microsecond that Shropshire Council is worried about reclaiming the money from TNS. It knows full well that legal action against TNS will cost more than the “loan” or “grant”. The action could well fail. It would also put the entire matter in the public domain. Court disclosure will mean that everyone can see papers that councillors are not allowed to see, despite us councillors being guardians of public money.
We councillors are not allowed to read the full paperwork on this growing scandal. We can visit an office in Shirehall and view a redacted summary. Even members of the council’s audit committee were not allowed to view the full report.
I do not believe for one moment that this is for legal reasons. The censorship is because this is one of the most embarrassing episodes in Shropshire Council’s short history.
In brief, Shropshire Council gave a £80,000 grant to TNS a privately owned football club based in Oswestry. A zero interest loan would have been illegal under state aid rules. A scheme was dreamt up to make a grant to be voluntarily repaid to the Oswestry Joint Economic Board. Officers were insistent that payments should be voluntary to avoid breaching EU and UK law. This May 2012 email is from an council officer to TNS:
“Within the application form can you state something along the lines of ‘TNS would like to apply for an 80K grant and will consequently voluntarily make grants of £?p.a. (confirm)? years (confirm) to Oswestry Town Council for purposes to be agreed by the Joint Economic Partnership’. This will show that the ‘repayments’ are being made voluntarily by TNS and not as a condition (which will lead us back into loan territory).”
In the same month, a council officer wrote in an email:
“It is a priority for local members, although the initial plan to offer the club an interest free loan through MTRP was not possible due to state aid issues. Therefore a solution is that the funding is given as a grant on the condition that the Club make cash contributions commensurate with the level of the grant to Oswestry Town Council (16,000 per annum for 5 years).”
MTRP in the above email stands for the Market Town Revitalisation Programme run by Shropshire Council. It was a great scheme and paid for the conversion of Ludlow’s Buttercross into an an excellent museum. But quite what a football stand some way from Oswestry has to do with market town revitalisation, I do not know.
After one payment, the Oswestry Joint Economic Board was abolished by Shropshire Council. That meant most of the loan disguised as a grant was not repaid because the repayment mechanism had been abolished.
This all happened while Keith Barrow led Shropshire Council and no one objected. That’s because few knew what was going on. It’s also because no one dared to speak out against him. Officers have complained of bullying in this period.
TNS rejects all criticism against it for not repaying the full loan. Shropshire Council has not provided a statement.
Keith Barrow left the council overnight on 4 December 2015. I said at the time, “If you elevate yourself high, you have further to fall.” I wished Keith well and he fell on his feet.
He got a job the day after he resigned as Shropshire Council leader and councillor. This was working for a newly launched company, BH Inspire. The Oswestry Advertiser reported at the time reported BH Inspire was run by Asa Bailey and Mike Harris. It described Mike Harris as an entrepreneur and owner of The New Saints Football Club. That’s TNS to you and me.
It is time for Shropshire Council to come clean on the Barrow Affair. If I had the papers I’d release them. The public interest – our public interest – overrides any concerns about Shropshire Council protecting its own back.
Listen to Shropshire Lib Dem Leader Roger Evans talking to BBC Radio Shropshire about the threat of police action.