Published: 10th June 2014
As rival bidders, WSR plc and the West Somerset Railway Association waited with bated breath for the anticipated June decision on which organisation would be chosen to purchase the freehold of the West Somerset Railway, Somerset County Council threw an unexpected curve ball with its May 20 announcement that it had decided to shelve the sale plans.
Last year, months of disagreement between the WSR plc and the railway’s charitable supporting organisation the WSRA brewed to the point where it was revealed in September the WSRA had lodged a £250,000 offer to buy the Council-owned freehold. This was swiftly followed by the WSR plc making its own offer. The WSR plc holds the land and buildings related to the railway under a 99 year lease granted in 1989.
Earlier this year Somerset County Council (SCC) Cabinet Member for Resources, Coun. David Huxtable, accepted an officers’ recommendation to sell the freehold. The remaining decision, who the purchaser should be, was to be established by a due diligence process with the rivals submitting proposals to the Council to meet a May 12 deadline. Further discussions with the bidders were anticipated, with the expectation of a decision being announced in June.
The Council’s May 20 statement commented that in the week following submission of the bids, “they have been assessed by council officers who have now concluded that neither proposal fully met all the criteria required. A decision will be published to confirm that based on this evaluation neither proposal will be taken forward.” So, the Council has opted for a U-turn, thus maintaining the status quo.
Somerset County Council -
“Our priority throughout this proposal has been to safeguard the future of a much-loved railway," said Council Leader, John Osman. “In the end it all comes down to the simple fact that neither proposal fully met our criteria. There were very good reasons to take this sale forward but if the proposals do not match up with our criteria then we can’t proceed.”
WSR plc -
“Although surprised at this change of direction in the context of all the time, expertise and costs expended by all parties, we welcome the confirmation of the priority, as expressed by John Osman, to safeguard the future of our much loved railway,” commented WSR plc chairman, John Irven.
“We anticipate receiving clarification of the reasons behind this decision and working through any resulting impacts for the railway and SCC. We also look forward to continuing our professional discussions with officers over the terms of an extended lease as was originally offered to us some two years ago, before the decision to sell was put in train."
“We are pleased that the County Council will continue its interest in the Railway for the time being, but remain concerned that the line in its current form remains vulnerable to sale beyond the present two interested parties, an outcome which would be in the interests of neither the Railway or the wider Somerset economy,” said Steve Edge in a WSRA statement.
“A model whereby the charity owned and safeguarded the freehold and the PLC retained the commercial and operational functions remains a sound proposition, and it is up to both parties to ensure they can work sensibly and harmoniously together, respecting each others' positions, so that the Railway
can control its own destiny.
Mr Edge added that the WSRA favoured working with the plc to submit a joint bid which would vest the freehold in the charity, which in turn would then be in a position to provide the extension of lease that the PLC has been seeking for four years.