Concerns raised over ‘conflict of interest’ with marketing of Sidmouth’s Drill Hall site

The front of the drill hall has been called untidy and a mess by resident Dave O'Connor.

The front of the drill hall has been called untidy and a mess by resident Dave O'Connor. - Credit: Archant

The company appointed to market Sidmouth’s redundant Drill Hall site for redevelopment has been accused of having a potential ‘conflict of interest’.

The front of the drill hall has been called untidy and a mess by resident Dave O'Connor.

The front of the drill hall has been called untidy and a mess by resident Dave O'Connor. - Credit: Archant

Questions were raised about East Devon District Council’s (EDDC) appointment of Exeter-based JLL, at a meeting last week.

Once the bidding starts, community groups will have six months to come forward with a proposals for the site, while commercial operators will only have three months to submit a bid.

Councillors have now raised concerns, questioning why JLL was the only agent that responded to the opportunity to market the site at Port Royal, through the tender process.

Cllr Cathy Gardner said: “Given that there are many commercial property agents to choose from with wider sales expertise, why did JLL make the shortlist for EDDC in the first place?”

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Cllr Gardner also asked why effort was not put in to secure an agent that was not a potential purchaser of the Drill Hall site.

She said: “As they were the only one of five agents who responded to the tender – that does not make them the best for this task. Were the other agents asked why they did not bid, or were the wrong kind of agents invited to tender?”

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EDDC’s chief executive Mark Williams said: “JLL are an experienced and multi-skilled company, well-versed in marketing and managing land and property sales and are also locally based, so understand the local market. It is entirely reasonable and appropriate that they were among the companies invited to pitch for the role. Furthermore, we would expect property agents, worth their while, to have good contacts among relevant investors. That may include having specific clients who the agent, in this case JLL, is open and transparent about. An agent that did not have links to potential investors wouldn’t be a very good agent.”

Cllr Gardner also raised concerns about JLL having a ‘serious conflict of interest’ because Whitbread was one of its clients and John Kinsey, the person liaising with potential bidders, was the same person who, according to JLL’s website, actively searched for Premier Inn sites.

She said: “Given that no potential community or even other commercial bidders can trust the probity of the process, will this council now immediately terminate the contract with JLL and appoint an agent without such conflict, thus allowing all parties, including potentially Whitbread, to compete on a level playing field?”

Mr Williams said: “JLL have a client base that it seeks sites for and they are open about that.

“Their marketing work reaches a broad range of potential investors and developers. JLL are also professional and scrupulous in their protection of privileged information in the process.

“I am happy that anyone who wants to take a serious interest in the site will be treated equally in a transparent and open process.

“It is an open invitation to the community and private sector to come forward with proposals and then we will see if any make sense. Something may happen or nothing may happen to Drill Hall.”

The meeting was told, once bids were submitted, a core group of district and town councillors would work with JLL and council officers to ensure rigorous and even consideration was given to all the bids.

Cllr Geoff Pook, chairman of the council’s asset management forum (AMF), said there would be a detailed process and a criteria and the quality of the applications would be scored by a matrix, by the core group.

He added: “There is a lot of democratic input there.

“The bids will go to the AMF and to make a recommendation to cabinet, where they will reassess them. I am more than happy there is a full democratic examination of the bids as they come through.”

The redevelopment of Drill Hall comes after 18 months of consultation – a quality restaurant and bar with an outdoor terrace or a patio were among the favourites.

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