Hibs owner in demand for answers to land sale

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SIR TOM FARMER is demanding answers over a controversial £12 million deal which saw Hibs miss out on sought-after land they wanted to develop to fund a new stand and community facilities.

The millionaire Kwik-Fit founder and Hibs owner asked for all the paperwork relating to the sale of a council-owned 12-acre butterfly-shaped area south of Easter Road stadium in 2000.

The request was made last year under Freedom of Information laws but council chiefs turned it down on the grounds it would cost too much to collate and would breach commercial confidentiality with project operator Lochend Butterfly Project Ltd.

Sir Tom wanted to know if the deal for the site represented value for money for taxpayers and why his consortium, led by Hibs parent company HFC Holdings, missed out on the site, claiming it had not competed on a level playing field during the bidding process.

Information commissioner Kevin Dunion has now backed the council's stance but Sir Tom today called on the council to release the files to tackle "unanswered questions" about the deal.

The appeal comes as council officials are thrashing out a 5.9m deal to sell land to Hearts to help them expand Tynecastle.

A consortium involving HFC Holdings, the Bank of Scotland and developer Morston Assets, lost out on the Lochend Butterfly in 2000 to a bid from the Lochend Butterfly Project Ltd.

At the time consortium bosses claimed council officials had misled them by originally telling them should not attach any strings to their bid. They were also upset because councillors deciding on the bids were not told that the Hibs consortium intended to use the money from its plans for Lochend towards redeveloping the club's east stand and putting in more community facilities, including a health and fitness centre.

The then council leader Donald Anderson apologised after admitting the decision on the multi-million-pound development by Hibs was based on inaccurate information from officials.

Sir Tom said today the request, made in January, 2005, had been to get to the bottom of the why the council went for the rival bid.

He said: "What surprised me was that it was going to cost over 600 to pull together. If they had told me that I could have made a contribution to the cost.

"The second thing that surprised me was this commercial confidentiality issue. We are not talking about state secrets that put the country or city at risk here.

"I thought the whole point of the FoI laws was to allow people access to information that was in the public interest but not publicly available. If you look back at the whole affair there just seems to be some unanswered questions.

"There was a missed opportunity with the Butterfly, it was a scheme that could have secured the future of Hibs and provided greater community facilities."

The Hibs consortium originally offered 2.5m up front, plus a percentage of the future value of the land. That was rejected in favour of the Lochend Butterfly Project Ltd's offer of 12m, which was conditional on planning permission being given for houses.

The Hibs consortium then offered a higher figure but this came after the deadline for bids. A legal challenge to overturn the decision was rejected in 2001.

The company now in charge of the project is called Eastgate and they were granted planning permission in November, 2004 to build 384 flats.

Nobody from Eastgate was available for comment but work has started on building homes on the north part of the site.

A council spokeswoman said: "When Sir Tom Farmer put in his FoI request, we considered it and we made a decision to withhold most of the information based on grounds set out in the Act, namely on the grounds of commercial confidentiality and the fact that the cost of providing this information was over the prescribed monetary limit.

"This decision was appealed to the information commissioner who then considered this appeal and we accept his decision."