A COUNCIL official said he regrets the anxiety that the process of deciding the future of a popular Cardiff cafe has caused its owner.
Cardiff Council’s head of economic development, Neil Hanratty, made his comments at a scrutiny meeting on Thursday, August 3, where committee members discussed the local authority’s plans to put a new management agreement for the Secret Garden cafe, in Bute Park, out to tender.
With the lease of the current cafe operator coming to an end and following unsuccessful lease renewal negotiations, the council decided in June to commence a procurement process.
However, the decision was called in for scrutiny following a request made by former leader of the Liberal Democrats at Cardiff Council, Councillor Rhys Taylor.
The councillor argued that the process followed by the council does not represent the best value for money and criticised the local authority for taking too long to seek legal advice and realise which route it should take for the future of the cafe.
“This isn’t about maintaining things the way that they are,” said Cllr Taylor at the special economy and culture scrutiny committee meeting.
“This is about whether or not the process that has been followed has been fair to the tenant, whether or not the process has failed the tenant and whether or not the choice that has been made around the preferred route can be evidenced as the best way forward for both the business and for the council.”
The council and Secret Garden cafe owner, Melissa Boothman, entered into lease renewal negotiations in summer 2022.
It wasn’t until the beginning of this year that legal advice was sought on offers put forward by Ms Boothman and for the council to realise that a management agreement, instead of a property lease agreement, was the right way forward.
Ms Boothman’s representative was informed in February that the offers would not be accepted.
Mr Hanratty said: “I personally regret the anxiety that this process has caused to Melissa and her staff and I know that [the] cabinet member feels exactly the same about that.
“I want to put on the record that the council is very happy with the job that Melissa and her team have been doing in Bute Park and I absolutely encourage Melissa to bid when we do take this out to the market and I really hope that she does do that.
“I am prepared to give an apology as well for the time period that it took for us to get to the point where we understood that this was a concession agreement.”
The procurement process for the new management agreement and associated lease was set to be openly advertised to the market through Sell 2 Wales and the procurement portal, Proactis.
Mr Hanratty added: “I firmly believe that it is the right thing to do. We should be putting in place correct and fit for purpose arrangements moving forward.”
Cardiff Council offered the current cafe operator an extension to what is called a Tenancy at Will, pending the conclusion of a procurement exercise, which allows them to continue running the cafe through the transition to any new arrangements.
If the current operator puts in a successful bid, they will continue to run the café under the new arrangements, after that point.
At the end of the meeting, most of the scrutiny committee members, apart from Councillor Rodney Berman, said they did not wish to recommend that the council’s decision on the procurement process should be called in.
Cllr Berman, the current Liberal Democrats group leader at the council, said: “I think it is important that we learn all of the lessons on what may have happened here before we go ahead with any such changes.”
However, there was consensus among the committee members that there should be a pause to the procurement process to allow the council more time to review its original decision making and consider other potential procurement routes that are available.
This is the recommendation that was made by the committee, however, a meeting will take place between the council and Ms Boothman before a decision is made.
Mr Hanratty said: “In terms of the proposal to a delay, I think… the right thing to do really is for me to receive your response to this and to digest it and review it and consider it, but to then have a conversation with the tenant because it might be in the tenant’s best interest to actually move on with this and just get on.
“We will determine that through some conversations that I will get personally involved in in due course.”