A CALL for an “open and transparent” discussion on a Pembrokeshire County Council Cabinet decision to grant what is understood to be a loan of more than £2m to help redevelop a prime Pembrokeshire site was defeated today, July 18, with the meeting held in secrecy.

The Cabinet decision over the development of the old school site in Narberth, on July 4, was called in to today’s July 18, extraordinary meeting of the council’s Economy Overview and Scrutiny committee following concerns raised by Councillor Jacob Williams.

The future of the site has been uncertain since Sainsbury’s pulled out of a joint retail and housing scheme in May.

The public and press were excluded from the Cabinet meeting on Monday July 4.

Following the meeting the decisions of Cabinet were published, including:

“(a) That the position in relation to the delivery of the mixed retail and residential scheme on the old school site, Narberth be noted; and continued support to the preferred developer, Abbeymore Estates/Knox and Wells Ltd in bringing the scheme to fruition, be confirmed; but that this support and the contract be withdrawn if the developers fail to secure the tenants and commence the scheme by December 31, 2016.

“(b) That a revised offer from Abbeymore Estates/Knox and Wells Ltd, as set out in the report of the Director of Development, be accepted, in keeping with the independent valuation advice from the Valuation Office.

“(c) That a loan be made available to Abbeymore Estates/Knox and Wells Ltd, as set out in the report of the Director of Development, under the well-being power contained in section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 for the promotion or improvement of the economic well-being of Narberth by facilitating the delivery of the regeneration of the former Narberth school site; and that the Chief Finance Officer and Director of Development be authorised to negotiate and agree terms to facilitate the loan.

“(d) That consideration be given to demolishing the former school building and utilising the site as a temporary car park.

“Reason for Decision: To facilitate the delivery of the important town centre regeneration scheme at the former Narberth school site.”

In his email to the chairman of the Economy Scrutiny Committee, Cllr Michael John, prior to today’s meeting, Cllr Jacob Williams stated: “The areas of concern which led to my calling in the decision relate to the cabinet’s access to sufficient information (within the written report and during the meeting) on the council’s contractual position regarding the purchase/sale of the Narberth site, and also whether sufficient information was provided to cabinet members regarding the terms of the large loan that the council will make, and the background to it.”

Cllr John had agreed to call in the decision.

Councillors had to decide if the extraordinary meeting of the Economy O&S would go into private session or not.

At the July 18 meeting, members were warned that any public discussion could endanger future developer relationships and set a precedent.

Councillor Jacob Williams said: “I disagree that there is a potential to set a precedent - each case on its own merits.”

He added: “I don’t accept that there is commercially sensitive information; it could be that the developer is struggling or failing to attract private investment. I don’t agree there is any confidential information. What is to be gained or lost by considering it in public? What is to be gained is public confidence of what has actually gone on.”

He said it was important in striking the correct balance in public interest.

“I think the Cabinet came down on the wrong side; if we continue in secret today it would be secrecy for secrecy’s sake.

“There’s a lot to gain by going in to public and not a lot to lose, we must come down on the side of public interest.”

Cllr Mike Evans said: “I don’t like the smokescreen of precedent which is used in this council; we are able to make opinions on each issue. What we’re talking about here is public interest and principle, the principle of knowledge.

“We’ve gone from one way this local authority was run to one of more open and transparent running. There is a confidentiality but it’s whether the principle of public knowledge of public funds outweighs this. This is a game-changer, it is innovative. The terms of the loan that this local authority might offer could well open up a new market, this might lead to developers coming in.”

Councillor Jon Nutting pointed out that a good deal of the information was already in the public domain.

The call for the item to be discussed in private passed with eight votes in favour, five against and one abstention.

The public and press were again excluded.