From today's Glasgow Herald
One of Scotland's oldest football clubs has been plunged into turmoil after a social care charity who are part-owners pushed a 'secret' plan to seek £2m of public money for a well-being centre for disadvantaged children on its land 'without permission'.
One former director of St Mirren FC has revealed he resigned from the fan-owned board at the end of last year after discovering the plan for the £13.4m project while pushed by the Paisley-based social care charity and leading social enterprise Kibble, who three years ago bought a 27 per cent stake to become part-owners of the club.
Alan Wardrop, a lifelong Saints fan who made the step up to the club's board in July 2016 has accused Kibble club board representatives, Jim Gillespie and Mark MacMillan of having a "conflict of interest" by failing to disclose to directors, shareholders and fans of the bid to build the centre that the care charity would run on club land in Paisley while it appeared to wrongly have St Mirren's stamp of approval.
As the dispute emerged, Kibble said the drawings showing the project would be on club land were an error.
Formerly one of four representatives of the St Mirren Independent Supporters Association (SMISA) on the board having played a big part in helping the club moving into fan ownership, Mr Wardrop is now seeking the removal of Kibble representatives on the board.
Applications for public funds to support the project described it as "the St Mirren Masterplan" with an "innovative partnership" with "St Mirren Football Club’s Charitable Foundation cited as one of the three partners with Kibble and the council.
But the foundation has sent a letter to Kibble saying that they had no knowledge of the project when the application for funds was sought in June "much less that its name would be associated with any submission for government funding".
It said it only found out through a third party in October, after a second stage bid was being made. It decided not to "interject itself" from the process as there was "insufficient time" to make an assessment.
It has called for a "full explanation surrounding the application process" and why there were "material misstatements and representations in support of Scottish Government funding".
It said: "We are deeply concerned that this unilateral action on the part of Kibble was submitted without our knowledge and associates the Foundation with statements and representations of fact that we do not recognise."
In seeking election to join the SMISA board Mr Wardrop says that he and many others, "no longer have trust and confidence in Kibble’s directors serving on the board of St. Mirren FC" and that he put forward his application "on the basis I wish to remove them".
It comes three years after Police Scotland launched an investigation into financial irregularities at the club, which is currently sitting sixth in the top tier of Scottish football.
The club alerted police after concerns surfaced over commercial agreements, sub contracts and possible non-payment of tax and national insurance.
The Scottish Premiership club then called in forensic accountants to carry out what they call a "thorough review of a number of areas of its operations".
Renfrewshire Council initially applied for a £2.65m grant for what was titled the "St Mirren Regeneration and Well-being Masterplan" through the Scottish Government's Regeneration Capital Grant Fund in June, last year.
The proposal documents stated the project was due to start on April 3, this year and finish on March 3, 2025.
Project details put to the Scottish Government confirms that Kibble produced a business plan for the well-being centre on the derelict site which would support vulnerable young people and "provides evidence" that it is "financially viable".
It states that Kibble "will deliver personalised, tailored approaches agreed alongside the child and their family".
The plan stated: "The centre will be the first of its kind, to support children & young people with complex mental health needs who are currently falling through the gaps of existing Scottish mental health provision. The centre will provide a safe, nurturing environment for those who have experienced significant trauma."
It stated that "collaboration is crucial to the delivery of the St Mirren Masterplan and will require collaborative working between Renfrewshire Council, Kibble, St Mirren Football Club, residents, local stakeholders and businesses."
Mr Wardrop, who is an SMCF trustee and a retired financial advisor, says the application was not disclosed to other SMISA club board directors and no prior agreement was secured before the funding application was initially sought in June, last year and it was only discovered in September, when a second stage submission was made.
Mr Wardrop said: "The situation is scandalous. I have taken legal advice on this. At the very least it is secretive, it has not been transparent. It is not in keeping with the values of fan ownership or the way you should conduct yourself as company directors acting in the best interests of the football club to put in an application for government money and build on St Mirren land, and you don't share it with fellow directors for a period of three months.
"SMISA directors had no idea about the application when it was put in. I challenged at every turn, and the answers I got was there was nothing to see. St Mirren were never going to be a beneficiary of this project. It is a Kibble-run centre, they would operate it and get money from the government.
"The application is full of the use of the word 'collaboration', but there has been no collaboration with St Mirren Football Club. It is unbelievable what they had done."
He added: "As a born and bred Buddy, from the high flats at Stock Street, Paisley, I have supported St. Mirren since a child in the mid 70’s when Sir Alex Ferguson’s, Fergie’s Furies got me hooked. I simply want to serve in the club’s and fans’ best interests and protect and build a successful future for our wonderful club."
Plot drawings submitted as part of the application to Scottish Government, seen by the Herald, confirm that the land earmarked was owned by St Mirren.
According to the grant application submitted in September, the sale of the land "has been agreed" and that the land ownership would transfer on January 2023.
As disquiet about the project began to surface, an email sent by Mr Gillespie on Monday and shared with candidates standing for election to the board of SMISA said that the council "wrongly shaded in an area of land owned by St Mirren" and gave a "categoric assurance" that club land would not be used.
According to submissions to the Scottish Government, the project aimed to develop 10 acres of land - the equivalent of around five football pitches - and create a well-being centre "which will support inclusive growth in the Ferguslie Park area of Paisley, an area consistently ranked in the top 10 most deprived SIMD data zones in Scotland".
The application stated: "The partnership aims to effectively demonstrate how collaboration can leverage investment for the benefit of the physical and social infrastructure of a community and provide a basis to strengthen and sustain regeneration in an area suffering from high levels of deprivation."
St Mirren confirmed that neither the club or the charitable foundation had been engaged prior to the submission "as this was very early stages of the process".
It said "historic discussions and meetings" had taken place around the development of a Ferguslie Master Plan, including the potential development of a well-being centre, had taken place with club board members, Renfrewshire Council senior officials and other stakeholders.
But it said that it had not been expected to offer its land as part of the project.
It said any sale or transfer of its land "would require to be subject to a robust process" including being professionally valued, recommended by a majority of the directors and approved by club shareholders as part of a legal agreement.
"From the discussions that took place at the St Mirren Football Club Board meeting on September 29, 2022 it became clear that the matter would require further conversation with the charitable foundation and that the club should maintain interest in this matter to establish if the project offered any tangible benefit going forward.
"It was agreed that timely and appropriate discussions must take place regarding any potential projects in future to ensure that all stakeholders, directly involved or otherwise, were aware of the approach that was being taken," the club said.
It said that after a second stage application had been submitted, the board confirmed "alignment on the proposal had been achieved and was content that the matter had been concluded appropriately from a St Mirren Football Club perspective."
The club said: "A watching brief on the progress of the application was applied to establish if there were any opportunities for the club arising from the initiative. The club board will always be supportive of any regeneration and development of the area surrounding the stadium if it is complementary to the best interests of the club."
St Mirren became fan owned in the summer of 2021, when SMISA bought out the remaining shareholding of chairman Gordon Scott to become majority (51%) owners of the Buddies in what it called "a historic day".
The move to fan ownership of the Paisley club came after Kibble became part-owners in March, 2020.
SMISA said the deal helped to safeguard the future of the club – formed in 1877 – by placing it in the hands of its supporters, "the people who care for it the most".
Mr Wardrop was previously credited with making fan ownership possible by teaming up with SMISA to initially begin a buyout process in 2016.
When SMISA became majority shareholders, they asked Mr Wardrop to remain on the board as one of their representatives and he willingly agreed.
Mr Wardrop was the mastermind behind the 1877 Club in the main stand of the SMISA Stadium and has also contributed several items to the mini-museum inside the club from his personal collection of memorabilia.
When he announced he was quitting the board, A SMISA spokesman said: “Everyone at SMISA would like to thank him for all his time and effort on the board, both before and after he agreed to become one of our representatives.
“Everything he ever did was undoubtedly with the best interests of St Mirren at heart.”
The council have been asked by the Herald if the land designated in the bid for funding was their error.
A council spokesperson said: “The council submitted an application for Regeneration Capital Grant Funding to the Scottish Government on behalf of Kibble last year.
“The formal application itself was non-specific on the exact location of the proposed development, however we did add an appendix to the Stage One application as a guide, showing a site plan with an indicative location, to the north of St Mirren’s stadium.
“Should the funding bid have been successful, the exact location would have been subject to the outcome of a wider masterplan covering all development in the Ferguslie Park area.”
St Mirren said: "This is a storm in a teacup. The board were clear that this project did not involve any land owned by [the club]. However, the club will always be supportive of any proposal that improves SMFC and helps rebuild the economy and social fabric of the Ferguslie area.
Kibble is classed as one of two that had "significant control" of the club according to Companies House with more than 25% but not more than 50% of the shares.
A spokesman for Kibble said: “Mr Wardrop’s allegations are based on the entirely false premise that there was ever any intention to build on land owned by St Mirren. There simply was not, as has now been confirmed by Kibble, the St Mirren FC board and Renfrewshire Council.
“Indeed, Mr Wardrop was a member of the board of the St Mirren Charitable Foundation when it discussed and expressly supported the decision to move to Stage 2 of the funding application process.
“We made a very early-stage, exploratory funding application for a much-needed Wellbeing Centre on one of the many vacant, derelict sites in the Ferguslie Park area.
“The unfortunate error on the part of the council in shading an area of land next to the stadium has led to ill-informed speculation, which has since been clarified.”
Police Scotland were approached about the outcome of the financial irregularities investigation.