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Prime school site was sold for less than market value.

FINANCE Minister Edwina Hart is to be asked why she allowed a prime development site in Wales's biggest holiday resort to be sold for less than the market value. Secret documents forced into the open by protesters show there was huge interest in the site of Ysgol John Bright in Llandudno - and that the local authority asked for Assembly permission to sell the site for less than its market value.

The site was on offer as part of a controversial Private Finance Initiative deal, which will create a replacement school on a former waste site on the town's outskirts.

Conwy County Borough Council and Asda refuse to disclose the selling price of the land, which is just off the main A470 trunk road from Cardiff. Conwy AM Gareth Jones said, ``If in fact it is true that Asda has acquired the John Bright school site for less than the true market value, then I think the Labour leader of Conwy council has some serious explaining to do. ``How can that be in the best interests of the community?

``The National Assembly apparently allowed the council to do this despite massive demand for the school site from other developers, yet it seems Asda has benefited at the expense of local ratepayers and the business community.

``Assembly Finance Minister Edwina Hart ought to explain why she allowed this.''

The council maintains that selling the site in Llandudno was separate from the school deal, but the sale was discussed by the group which progressed the ``three schools'' PFI project, which includes improvements at two other schools.

Minutes of a group meeting in November 1999 record that ``the site had been offered on the open market by way of an advertisement appearing in the Estates Gazette and, as a result of which, 108 inquiries had been received to date.''

One North Wales surveyor said yesterday the school site would attract a premium because of its town-centre location, good road access and utility connections.

``Asda have wanted to expand in Llandudno for a while. They need more space to sell white goods, electrical goods, clothes etc. The store they've got now is too small. ``Conwy council can realise some money in selling the current site and relocating the school to a lowervalue site on contaminated land where no private or commercial operator would go.''

Conwy council said it was not obliged to sell to the highest bidder. ``The bids received were assessed against various evaluation criteria,'' said finance director Ken Finch.

``The evaluation was not solely on price but took into account other factors including planning.''

Mr Jones said he would ask the Assembly's audit committee to examine the council's deal.

Children's rights campaigner Lesley McCarthy, who extracted the information from the Assembly, said, ``A publicly-owned piece of land has been sold, supposedly for the benefit of the public - and the public can't find out anything about it.

``We don't know what factors were taken into account in deciding Asda's bid offered the best value. If there were 108 expressions of interest, how were they followed up? ``If you look today at the supermarket wars, that site is incredibly valuable.''

Many parents of future Ysgol John Bright pupils are worried their children could suffer ill health by attending a school built on a site now contaminated by a cocktail of chemicals including methane and lead.

But the council has assured them the site will be fully cleaned before the school is built.

The row comes after the Audit Commission reported that the first PFI schools built were ``significantly worse'' than other new schools. They were not better value for money, better designed or easier to maintain.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jan 21, 2003
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