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Sunday, January 04, 2004

That land deal

The headline in the Western Mail was "Outrage at £750,000 secret deal" but I am still not sure whether the outrage was at the fact that it was decided in secret or at the deal itself. The proposal was to buy a piece of land next to the new Assembly Chamber that has been earmarked for a six-storey office block. The rationale was that the office block will dwarf the new building and diminish its status as the home of the Welsh "Parliament". According to the Western Mail this purchase is going to cost the Assembly about three quarters of a million pounds. The decision was taken by the House Committee, which is the executive arm of the Presiding Office, or the Parliamentary side (as opposed to the Government side) of the National Assembly. It is to be paid for out of the accumulated underspends of that Committee's budget, currently standing at between £6 million and £7 million. Once bought, the land is to be landscaped although in recent days the water has been muddied a bit on this with some people claiming that we might resell it at a profit, presumably so that somebody can build a six storey office block on it.

As avid readers of this blog will know, I am a member of the House Committee and have long argued that it should meet in public. It would do this with a two part agenda, the open part containing most of the business and the second part containing other items that need to be held behind closed doors because they are commercially confidential or deal with staff matters. Even I have to admit that the purchase of this land would normally fall into the closed part of the agenda, which is why I did not comment on it publicly until the matter was already in the public domain. I was one of two members to vote against this proposal and my vote is recorded as such in the minutes. It is my view that the Assembly should not be using public money to either engage in land speculation or to buy land for which it has no use. The reasons for buying this land did not amount to value for money in my opinion and I find it incredible that anybody, even a public body such as the Assembly, would even contemplate spending £750,000 on land just to cover it in grass. It is likely to become the most expensive grassy knoll in Welsh history.

I supported the new Chamber building because it is the sort of prestigious development that will add status to the Assembly and to Wales. In doing this it can actually help with attracting investment into the Country. However, I still believe that it looks like an enlarged petrol station (though some youngsters I showed around the Assembly before Christmas did remark on its similarity to the Tesco's store in Swansea Marina), and a six storey office block may actually improve its outlook. It certainly is not of such outstanding architectural merit that we can justify spending that much public money on protecting it in this way. Could it be that in our quest to have this building erected we are no longer leading public opinion but running too far ahead of it and losing touch with reason?

Anyway it is now being hinted that we will get a debate on whether to buy this land in an open Assembly Plenary session. It is amazing how views on openness and public accountability change in the face of a bit of bad publicity.

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