Video call sees debt apology collected

Thursday, 8th October 2020 — By John Gulliver

Brian Lake and Nick Harding 2

Brian Lake and Nick Harding

REVELATIONS about the council’s failure to collect a debt of possibly millions were officially admitted by two senior councillors on Monday – but in an extraordinary manner.

The councillors held up their hands, as it were, in what may be a “first” for the council – a Zoom video meeting with the two Camden campaigners, Nick Harding and Brian Lake, who had been questioning them about the debt.

It could be a significant step in making the council a more democratic body, with councillors linking up by video in debates over local affairs.

None of this would have happened if it had not been for the persistence of retired forensic accountant Nick Harding who has been questioning council officials with emails and requests through Freedom of Information for more than 12 years over a block of flats built at the edge of Talacre Park, Kentish Town.

He discovered that the land was sold by the council for a mere £320,000 around 2003. Within a few years a block had been built and occupied – and sold off privately for several millions. Mr Harding calculated that the owner or develop­er owed the council as much as £3m in failure to honour original agreements.

And that to make debt reclamation difficult for the council their registered office was in the British Virgin Islands – not in Britain’s legal jurisdiction.

After years of council officials essentially ignoring Mr Harding’s quest for the truth – at one time they refused to correspond with him for being “vexatious” – he turned to the New Journal. This column took up his case and saw an email sent by a high-ranking official several weeks ago which disclosed that the council had been advised by outside “legal counsel” that it was a lost cause – that the debt was effectively irrecoverable.

However, following our revelations, the council agreed that two senior councillors, Danny Beales and Richard Olszewski, should meet Mr Harding so that the debacle over the debts could be discussed – perhaps for the first time in public – via a Zoom meeting.

Readers can judge for themselves why the controversy over the Talacre block has never become the subject of public debate before; why, in effect, it had been kept a secret and why councillors – aware of Mr Harding’s one-man campaign – ignored it. Answers to these questions may throw a light on the degree of democracy in public affairs in Camden.

Cllrs Richard Olszewski and Danny Beales

However, the one-hour meeting passed in a civil and mature manner as the councillors and the two campaigners sparred over the council’s failures going back at least 12 years.

Both councillors repeated what this column had disclosed recently that council officials were now claiming that all the officials who had been involved in the shaky original agreements had left, so verification of claims were difficult to establish, and that “counsel’s” advice in 2017 was essentially that the bad debt was a lost cause.

However, this was countered by Mr Harding who showed that a senior official who had been part of the team involved in the early years of the agree­ment was in fact still em­ployed at the Town Hall because his name popped up in recent emails.

When Nick Harding and Brian Lake challenged the councillors with a state­ment that they had been advised by an experienced “property” solicitor that the company in the British Virgin Islands could be taken to a British court, the councillors were of the opinion that that could not happen, that the case would have to be contested in the BVI’s jurisdiction.

Nick Harding also pointed out to the councillors that, contrary to the “legal opinion” of 2017 dismissing all chance of reclamation of the debt, a recent missive sent to him by a Town Hall official stressed that the possibility of a legal challenged was still being investigated. The councillors did not seem aware of this. It should be understood that the councillors – who were not, I believe, involved in any way with the original agreements – were relying on a briefing document drawn up by officials.

Nick Harding also questioned them about the failure of the owner or the developer to adhere to an agreement to provide traffic “marshals” to allow parking for the clientele of the popular Talacre sports club that lies a few hundred yards from the block of flats.

Generally, Mr Harding was saying that there was enough evidence for the case to go before a court of law and that the council could claim forfeiture and take over the block.

Does all this belong to the past? No. Because an agreement to sell public land in Somers Town was made a few months ago so that an overseas company – thought to be based in a tax haven – could build one of the tallest blocks of private flats at the edge of the King’s Cross scheme.

Apparently, it was agreed that in exchange for the purchase of the land the developer would pay several million for a revamped local school as well as a small number of “social housing” units.

What happens if something goes wrong with this deal? Would the overseas company be out of the legal reach of the council as it is, apparently, with the controversial Talacre block? Have any lessons been learned?

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