Kirklees Council is to open up negotiations with Huddersfield Town over taking “full operational control” of the John Smith’s Stadium – but that’s only half the story.

The council’s ruling Cabinet is prepared to hand over the stadium on a long-term lease to the football club with a “strong sub-lease” to Huddersfield Giants. The council would retain the freehold to the land on which the stadium is built.

The Cabinet meeting at Huddersfield Town Hall was told the original stadium deal was no longer fit for purpose and had left the stadium company, Kirklees Stadium Development Ltd (KSDL), on the brink of collapse.

Two reports were presented to Cabinet members but only one was made public. The other was taken in private session because it contained “commercially sensitive information.”

Opposition councillors expressed concern that council taxpayers – and fans of Town and the Giants – were being kept in the dark.

The Cabinet meeting went into private session to hear a presentation from an unknown individual who had requested a personal hearing.

It emerged that on Tuesday – 24 hours before the Cabinet meeting – members of the Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee, a watchdog committee of cross-party councillors, had had a private briefing about the scale of the problems facing KSDL.

Opposition councillors, clearly frustrated, had to bite their lips and choose their words carefully so as not to reveal in public on Wednesday what they were told in private on Tuesday.

Clr Andrew Marchington at the Cabinet meeting

That clearly vexed Liberal Democrat Clr Andrew Marchington who said: “I will go on what’s in the public domain because I think for the sake of integrity that’s the best information for me to draw on rather than what we were briefed on at Scrutiny yesterday.”

He added: “All of us want to help but we found ourselves put in a very difficult position because we’ve been excluded from some of the information you’ve been privy to in some of the discussions.

“So when are we going to see all the information in the public domain which is clearly not exempt under the 1972 Local Government Act…because the only figure in the public domain right now is the £8 million to £10 million figure which is causing great concern.”

The “£8 million to £10 million” figure appears to refer to the estimate of repairs and maintenance needed to the near 30-year-old stadium.

But the unspoken implication of Clr Marchington’s words was that the financial position and debts of KSDL were far worse than that – and he thought the public needed to know.

KSDL is owned by Kirklees Council 40%, Huddersfield Town 40% and Huddersfield Giants 20% and the meeting was told that the rent paid by the two clubs had never covered stadium operating costs, leaving the company’s finances in a precarious position.

Both Town owner Dean Hoyle and Giants owner Ken Davy have resigned as directors of KSDL in the last few weeks. That was to avoid any potential conflict of interest over deciding the stadium’s future.

At the Cabinet meeting questions were asked over council-appointed directors on the KSDL board and why concerns about KSDL’s financial position weren’t raised sooner.

Those concerns were also apparently aired at the Scrutiny meeting and “governance issues” were one of the lessons to be learned from what the council’s Liberal Democrat leader Clr John Lawson described as a “mess.”

Clr Marchington also demanded to know when a fuller picture would be made public. He said it was clear there was information “which is clearly not exempt under the 1972 Local Government Act” which could be made public.

Here is a transcript of the debate in the Cabinet meeting:

Clr Graham Turner, Cabinet member for regeneration, said: “KSDL has been in financial difficulties for some time now and it’s clear that an alternative business model is required. Over recent years there has been negotiations with all the relevant shareholders as to the best way forward.

“I believe by allowing HTAFC to take full operational control of the stadium, the stadium will be in safe hands and would be better placed to sweat the asset. It will also help in the current proposed sale of the football club.

“I wish to assure fans of both the football club and rugby club that this is the best way to secure the stadium’s future and ensure we continue to see high quality sport played in Kirklees.

“It’s been brought to my attention that at yesterday’s Scrutiny session several issues were raised in relation to this item, three of those we have discussed in the private session.

“It was suggested that lessons are to be learned for the future and I would agree but that’s always the case and we always take lessons from past deals and decisions and I am sure we will in this case.

“We have always had board members on KSDL and they have been there to protect the council’s interests and the company’s interests.”

Clr John Lawson at the Cabinet meeting

Liberal Democrat leader Clr John Lawson said: “It says in the report that this is an unfortunate situation. I think we can be a bit stronger than that. It’s a mess, isn’t it?

“How have we got here and who’s responsible. Those are two questions we need answering. I will tell you why we need those questions answering because if we don’t it will happen again.

“Could we have a couple of comments on how we got here, who’s responsible and who is going to take responsibility?

“We need this to be open and accountable and we need to know what happened and we need to know who is actually going to take responsibility for this.”

Clr Turner replied: “You can use the word ‘mess’ I would use the term ‘financially difficult.’ Covid did not help and I am not totally blaming Covid. There were no fans in the ground, there was no money going through the tills, no events so that didn’t help.

“As we all know professional sport in this country is always on a knife edge no matter whether you are Man United or Liverpool everybody spends to the limit, so it’s always on a knife edge. That break did not help matters.

“One of the problems harks back right to the very early days. The original deal did not take into account rising costs and the rent paid by them has never covered the operating costs of KSDL.

“It was never included in that deal that it would rise with inflation or above inflation so in effect KSDL has always been operating at an operating loss from the sports facilities.

“Obviously it made money through advertising, corporate hospitality and all that sort of thing but the actual rent paid by the professional clubs was never enough to cover the operating costs so it’s always been a financial issue and all this has come to a head now. We have inflation now which hasn’t helped.

“While it was a good model 25 years ago, 27 years ago, and I have to commend the people who were involved – I thought it was a good model then – we have moved on and we need to take stock of it and let the football club be the master of its own destiny, with a very strong sub-lease for the rugby club so we can maintain professional sports in Kirklees in a fantastic stadium.”

Clr Graham Turner at the Cabinet meeting

Clr John Lawson said: “Given there were so many resignations over the past year (on the KSDL board) this has obviously been current and you have known about this for quite a while.

“Can I ask what responsibilities the members of this council have on that board and were they fully aware of their duties and responsibilities and what kind of support they had during the last year?”

Clr Turner: “KSDL is a separate company whilst we own 40% and there are other external shareholders so, in effect, it runs itself.

“We have directors on that board that we appoint to look after our interests, the clubs’ interests, the directors’ and KSDL’s interests.

“They should have been aware, and I hope they were by doing their jobs properly as a board member, of the operating problems within KSDL. They should have taken that into account and be dealing with that as well.

“There’s been a number of resignations, some of those for obvious reasons. As operations were scaled back some of those roles were not needed, some people moved on.

“Changes within the football have also impacted on that and given we are now looking at the whole future of KSDL it’s perfectly responsible for both Ken Davy and Dean Hoyle to resign from the board so there’s absolutely no doubt there’s no conflict of interest in any decisions.

“I don’t think they had to do that mandatory, they have done the honourable thing and stepped back. It was the right thing to do.”

Clr Andrew Marchington said: “I have some governance questions. I will go on what’s in the public domain because I think for the sake of integrity that’s the best information for me to draw on rather than what we were briefed on at Scrutiny yesterday.

“We do need to make sure that going forward that we do the best that we can do. I don’t disagree with anything you said, Graham, but there’s concerns about it and there are lessons to be learned and it’s part of a pattern.

“There are governance questions. I understand you were having a presentation in the session in private but why weren’t we presented with that with the exempt information excluded from it so we can see the debate? We’ve heard you’ve discussed this in private.

“For the sake of the people of Kirklees, all of us want to help but we found ourselves put in a very difficult position. We’ve been excluded from some of the information you’ve been privy to in some of the discussions so it’s actually very difficult.

“So when are we going to see all the information in the public domain which is clearly not exempt under the 1972 Local Government Act so not just us as representatives of the public but the public in general, who have an interest in the future of the stadium and particularly the two clubs, are going to be able to make informed decisions because the only figure in the public domain at the moment is the £8 million to £10 million figure which is causing great concern.”

Clr Turner replied: “Cabinet should always have the right to discuss commercially sensitive issues in private, which is what we did. We had a discussion amongst ourselves following the presentation.

“We have reached a decision. The reason for having that presentation in private was because the person in question asked to come and speak to us in private. So we took that on board as decent and honest human beings.

“Some of the information he shared with us he would not necessarily want to be in the public domain. Some of that was his personal thoughts, his own personal wishes so again we respect that.

“As with the rest of the information, as always with private documents, they will be released at the appropriate time.”

Tory deputy leader Clr John Taylor said: “My observation is sometimes as councillors we appoint people to external boards but perhaps then there isn’t the on-going support nor is there a feedback mechanism to the council to make sure all that information is available across the broader group of councillors. Maybe that’s a lesson we can learn.”

Clr Turner replied: “As always if something doesn’t turn out as well as you expect you learn lessons.

“From the directors’ point of view there could be lessons for them to learn. We have had that discussion and will be looking at alternatives on what can be done in the future.”