Top Tory accused of `sleaze' over dockland deals

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the key companies in the £1bn scheme to regenerate Cardiff Bay has received favourable treatment because of the presence on its board of a former Conservative Secretary of State for Wales, according to a Labour MP. Associated British Ports, (ABP), the privatised docks operator, has been given special advantages potentially worth many millions of pounds - according to Cardiff West MP Rhodri Morgan - because one of its directors is Lord Crickhowell, who as Nicholas Edwards was Margaret Thatcher's Welsh Secretary from 1979 to 1987.

In a Parliamentary committee last week Mr Morgan said that in one deal in particular in Cardiff Bay, an ABP subsidiary was "an example of government sleaze of the kind with which we have become all too familiar".

The then Mr Edwards himself signed the order setting up the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation to breathe life into 2,700 moribund acres south of the city in January 1987, six months before he retired from Parliament and was made a peer.

The regeneration scheme is second only to London's Docklands in size and scale, and the corporation was given the power of compulsory purchase over all the land within its boundaries.

However, in May 1989, the corporation announced that two valuable parcels of land were, uniquely, being excluded from compulsory purchase. They were 100 acres at Roath Basin, a plum, central waterfront area - estimated to be worth £50m when the development is advanced - and 60 acres at Ferry Road on the west of the bay.

Both sites belong to ABP. Lord Crickhowell had joined the ABP board the year before.

The sites were being excluded from compulsory purchase, it was announced, in return for ABP contributing to the development corporation's infrastructure costs.

However, a new £135m underground road, linking the M4 with the bay area and passing right by Roath Basin, opens shortly, with none of its cost, or of that of any of the bay infrastructure, having been paid by the company. And last week, the Welsh Office,in a Parliamentary answer, revealed that the agreement releasing ABP's land had been superseded by another secret deal struck in March 1991, under which ABP agreed with the development corporation merely to do its best to "secure an appropriate level ofdevelopment" for the land.

In other words, to attract tenants and new business to its land - but not to pay towards the cost of reshaping the bay.

Mr Morgan said yesterday: "This is yet another example of the soft landings the Government arranges for its ex-Cabinet ministers.

"All of those businesses and land-owners located in Cardiff Bay who did not want to be [compulsorily] acquired are bound to ask, why was ABP treated so differently?" he added.

"Was it because they had an ex-Secretary of State for Wales on the board?"

Mr Morgan's allegation of government "sleaze" was directed at the renting of premises from Grosvenor Waterside, a subsidiary of ABP, by a large quango, the Welsh Health Common Services Authority, The Welsh Office ordered the WHCS to relocate its headquarters to new £20m rented premises on Roath Basin.

Called Crickhowell House, the building costs the quango £14 a square foot to rent, but comparable companies such as Welsh Water have bought freehold offices in Cardiff for less per square foot than WHCS is paying in rent.

Freddie Watson, Grosvenor's executive director, was a senior official at the Welsh Office under Lord Crickhowell, being assistant secretary in charge of economic and regional planning matters when he left to join the company in 1989.

Mr Morgan told the Commons committee: "Two years after Lord Crickhowell ceased to be Secretary of State his company was able to have the benefit of a Welsh Office decision to send a body down there paying a ludicrously high rent, to give a boost to an urban development corporation and its project.

"This is perceived by the staff of the Welsh Health Common Services Authority as an example of government sleaze."

Lord Crickhowell, who is chairman of another quango, the National Rivers Authority, said yesterday: "After I left the Welsh Office, having got into train the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, I was anxious to continue to help in the development of thebay and was delighted to be able to do so.

"All the arrangements entered into were open and known about." ABP's land was excluded, said Lord Crickhowell, "because one of the essential features of the development is the partnership between the public and private sector". He stressed he had played no part in any negotiations.