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Sandwell Council legal bill for The Public revealed

Sandwell | News | Published:

Sandwell Council spent tens of thousands of pounds on legal fees drawing up its 25-year contract with Sandwell College to use The Public as a sixth form centre, it emerged today.

The authority spent £43,230.40, excluding VAT, with Ashfords law firm, starting last year, to draw up the papers for the agreement between the two parties.

This will further anger critics of the deal, as the council incurred these costs when it has its own in-house legal team and the firm used was not local – its offices are in Exeter, Bristol, London, Plymouth, Taunton and Tiverton.

The council has however confirmed, after a request under the Freedom of Information Act, that it did not incur any further costs for travelling to meet Ashfords as all meetings with the law firm were held in West Bromwich.

A petition with more than 5,000 signatures had opposed the closure, in November last year.

The authority's closure of the centre prompted critics to say the decision was borne out of a lack of appreciation for the arts, as well as making the original investment in the gallery in vain.

Chiefs have continued to stress that the cash-strapped authority could not afford to continue to subsidise the gallery £1.5m a year at a time when it was being forced to remodel frontline services to make savings of £120 million by 2016 after Government cuts.

Last week, the Express & Star revealed the council would receive around £11.5m in rent from the college over the 25 years of the deal between the two parties. The £11.5m is based on the college paying around £460,000 rent per year, including VAT.

That figure means the council will recover the estimated £5.9m costs of remodelling the former New Street gallery – which it had agreed to loan the college. Chiefs originally said the deal would save the taxpayer £37 million over 25 years as the annual subsidy would stop.

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After the full rent has been paid, the council says it will be nearer to £41.1m better off than if it had not changed anything. Critics still say the return on the gallery is meagre as it will take around 13 years of rent being paid before the college actually repays its loan.

They say including the removed subsidy in the savings figure is misleading – and this deal actually means the council will make £5.6m renting a £72m bespoke arts centre designed by famous architect Will Alsop.

Council leader Councillor Darren Cooper has said he wanted to 'draw a line' under discussions of the finances of the contract and focus on the improvements it will lead to in the borough's educational offer.

Work is already well under way on the new facility, which will be called Central Sixth. It will open in September.

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