Friday, 7 December 2018

Seaway carpark development - part 2

In my last post I commented on the controversy currently raging with regard to the proposed development of the Seaway car park. I thought it might be helpful in better facilitating a proper debate for me to comment on my previous involvement.
I would make clear that I will not disclose any information which was or remains confidential but will refer to the council minutes which are publically available on its website.

The motivation behind the scheme was a recognition as to the ongoing plight of the High Street, the strength of the seafront as a draw to the town to include not only the beach but a number of highly effective seafront businesses, the strength of the wider cultural appeal across the Town and the over dependence of the Council on car park revenue.

I have previously been critical of the recent changes to car park charges and I stand by those criticisms however what has to be recognised by those who claim that charges should be significantly reduced or abandoned is that for historical reason these charges make an important contribution to the council’s income and with reducing central government support and increasing demand on council services such as social care the money has to come from somewhere. Accordingly what was needed was to try to generate alternative income sources with as little risk as possible to make the car park income less significant and allow substantial reductions in charges to be made.

Seaway was identified as an important link between the seafront and town centre and whilst full on certain days there were also times when this important strategic site was underused. Accordingly this scheme was developed as a possible option with a new independent cinema operator providing a more focussed selection of films and supported with a new multi storey carpark, residential, some business use and improved access to the seafront. This was intended to work to the potential benefit of both the High Street as it attempts to modify its offer and layout and the seafront traders and strengthen the all year offer with benefit to the Town as a whole.

As is confirmed in the recorded minutes:
1. The proposed deal was subject to external certification for compliance with S123 Local Government Act 1972 which provides, amongst other things: Except with the consent of the Secretary of State, a council shall not dispose of land under this section, otherwise than by way of a short tenancy, for a consideration less than the best that can reasonably be obtained;
2. There should be a fixed timescale for delivery;
3. The leisure development would be delivered ahead of the occupancy of the residential accommodation;
4. The Council’s then revenue return from the site would be retained and improved with a share of the long-term income from the development.
5. Any change to the Heads of Terms would be considered in consultation with all Group Leaders.

I cannot comment on the capital aspect for the reasons I have mentioned however the key triggers for the scheme were the improvement of the Council’s revenue return and the enhancement of leisure facilities within the Town, building on the seafront and creating a better link with the High Street. It was also acknowledged in debate that alternative car parking provision in the vicinity of the seafront would be needed.

That was where things stood when the Conservatives lost control and I stepped down from the Council. I do not know what happened subsequently other than I understand that out preferred cinema operator withdrew with obvious ramifications and the scheme has still to be delivered.

I await with interest confirmation from Cllr Ron Woodley, who as the next leader signed off the deal in November 2014, and the current administration as to where we are now as it is quite possible that the economic and practical challenges and opportunities which existed in January 2015 no longer apply.

Seaway Car Park development - part 1

The Leigh edition of the Oracle dropped through my letterbox recently and I note that it included an article by Paul Thompson criticising the Council on its plan to redevelop the Seaway Carpark. The objection was based on the loss of car parking spaces and the assertion that, in effect, the Council had failed to strike an appropriate financial deal.

This article followed various comments and tweets by a number of other local businessmen and residents along similar lines. At present I have still to see a response by the current Administration justifying their approach to the scheme. I fully appreciate that this is in part because aspects of the deal are financially and commercially sensitive and therefore confidential however I would still encourage the relevant portfolio holders to reassure residents as to their stance in general terms on both the economics of the scheme and its current status bearing in mind the obvious delays.

It would also be interesting to hear Cllr Ron Woodley’s’ justification of his previous actions bearing in mind that the scheme was signed off by him. The deal was originally developed during my leadership of the council and in my next blog I will set out why in my view the decision was the right one to take at that time.

However in the meantime I am intrigued by Mr Thompson’s comment that “In November 2014 the new then leader of the council, Cllr Ron Woodley was advised by senior council officers to sign this agreement”.

I hope that Ron is not trying to evade responsibility for his part in this process. By November 2018 Ron had been Leader of the Council for 5 months, more than adequate to consider the merits of the scheme before authorising it to proceed. Equally significant when the Draft Heads of Agreement were approved by Cabinet on 6th January 2015 the item was then called in for detailed scrutiny by the relevant Scrutiny Committee the Chairman of which was Ron. The item was called in for further review at the following full council meeting at which he was also present and accordingly by November 2014 he was fully aware of the scheme and its pros and cons.

It is also the case that Ron regularly regaled other council members with confirmation as to his business and financial expertise and in such circumstances it is a little strange that he appears to be giving the impression that he was being led by council officers. Either he thought the deal was a good one which is why he signed it or he thought it was a bad one in which case why didn’t he block it. I cannot believe that he is suggesting for one minute that he did not understand what was being proposed or felt unable to stop it. So I would be interested to hear what he has to say on the matter and do hope that he will not attempt to hide behind officers which would hardly be consistent with the principle of “Ministerial responsibility” in so far as that applies to local government.