Wi-fi’s dead — long live wifi!

The report to next week’s special cabinet meeting of Swindon Borough Council makes it clear that their venture with our money to bring wifi to the whole of Swindon is dead.

So far as the Council’s interests in Digital City is concerned, further legal and financial advice will be required in this matter following which it is suggested that the Chief Executive, in consultation with the Cabinet Member for Finance, be authorised to take such action as he considers necessary to protect and, if appropriate conclude, the Council’s interests in Digital City and ensure that the network assets deployed in Highworth are transferred in the first instance to the Council’s ownership.

Conclude the Council’s interests, i.e. dead, finished, failed. And do we get any apology for that failure? No. Far from it. In fact, reading the report you could be forgiven for thinking the project had been a success.

Despite Digital City having failed to make interest repayments since late 2010, the granting of the loan has still proved to be financially advantageous for the Council. Sums received in interest and arrangement fees total £10.5k, while investment of the sums advanced to the company would have generated £6.9k to date at the Council’s average investment rate of return.

Let’ forget, shall we, that the original proposal said that Digital City would have repaid its £450k loan from us, the tax payers of Swindon, in full within two years. Instead, lets just be grateful. for £10.5k.

In place of an apology, we get a new proposed scheme, between Swindon Borough Council, an unnamed investor “under the ultimate ownership of a Global Telecommunications Company with annual revenues in excess of $3b US.” and that company well known for successful IT projects, Capita. Capita already provides numerous services to Swindon Borough Council. The report gives no indication as to whether Swindon Borough Council would have to stump up more of our money for this deal to go ahead. It also tries to suggest that the return on this new investment will constitute a return on the investment in Digital City (UK) Ltd.

The financial return to the Council is, therefore, enhanced by its investment in Digital City and the resulting Highworth pilot and the Council will now get a return on its investment. This will equate to the loan advance of £400k plus interest by year five or earlier depending on revenue share and this financial benefit will continue to accrue in future years…. Through these arrangements with Capita, SBC has the potential to receive significant return based on sales targets being achieved over 5 years, part of which will be credited against the loan of £400k to Digital City, and accumulated interest. Current indications are that this amount is likely to be repaid over approximately 5 years.

5 years? That’s in addition to the 2 years over which the loan to Digital City (UK) Ltd was meant to be repaid. And unless this new investor is going to take over the assets and liabilities of Digital City (UK) Ltd, then to suggest that this is a repayment of the loan to that company is the most creative of creative accounting. As the report makes clear, no such takeover is envisioned.

The Council’s intention will be to secure an orderly extraction of our interests from Digital City, with its assets being transferred to SBC to ensure that the Highworth infrastructure is kept intact. To ensure this happens, it is suggested that the Chief Executive be authorised, in consultation with the Cabinet Member for Finance, to take such action as he considers necessary to protect and, if appropriate, conclude the Council’s interests in Digital City and ensure that the network assets deployed in Highworth are transferred in the first instance to the Council’s ownership.

So effectively, Swindon Borough Council will exercise its rights under the loan agreement with Digital City (UK) Ltd and take over the company’s network assets. It will then enter a new venture with Capita and an unnamed company. On that basis, the new venture will owe nothing from the first, despite what the report may try to suggest.

The report to Swindon Borough Council’s cabinet is written my Mr Hitesh Patel. Mr Patel is an ex-director of Digital City (UK) Ltd. Mr Patel was also an author of the original recommendation to councillors to invest in Digital City (UK) Ltd. Perhaps, then, it’s unsurprising that he writes about that investment in such glowing terms. But given how poor his advice was the first time around, and that he didn’t know he was already a director of the company he was recommending an investment in, would anyone with any sense really trust his advice again? But then, would anyone with sense have made the first investment? Answers to that on a no-questions-asked cheque for £450k please.