Wednesday, 23 May 2012

It's Our City call for council veto on Centros 'sweetheart' deal

The Centros 'Arc' development in Bury St Edmunds
First published: 18/5/12
updated 23/5/12

A packed meeting at Lancaster Town Hall last Tuesday learnt about the new Centros proposals for the development of the Canal Corridor North site east of Lancaster's City Centre, which now propose:
  • scrapping the previously 'essential' connecting footlink to the existing town centre
  • moving the Marks & Spencers store, which currently anchors the south end of the existing shopping centre, into the new development
  • a greater loss of car parking revenue to the City Council than the proposed rent will cover.
The original development agreement with Centros has expired unfulfilled but the City Council cabinet voted to extend it and the full council is to vote on it on Wednesday 13th June at Morecambe Town Hall.

It's Our City has called a further public meeting to discuss the plans on Monday 21st May at 7.30pm in the Gregson.

Speaking for the planning campaign group 'It's Our City' at Tuesday's meeting, a group  committed to obtaining a rational 21st century regeneration plan for the Canal Corridor site, Billy Pye recounted the colourful history of Centros' dealings with Lancaster City Council.

He described the break up after Centros had jilted the Council by not turning up at the public enquiry where their scheme was rejected, and the threats city executives had made about legal action against Centros to recover the exorbitant costs to the city.

Despite all this, he noted, instead of this ending up with the city executives singing 'I will survive' and and picking themselves up to find someone more worthy of their love, it seemed it was only a public tiff between star-crossed lovers, and now the sweethearts were making up again behind the closed bedroom doors of 'commercial confidentiality' - in other words, yet again, the public and even the councillors were not party to the full terms of the proposed new development agreement.

He reminded the meeting that in 2010 the council had affirmed that a valid public consultation would take place but yet again the city was being faced with a fait accompli which still took no account of impacts on traffic and air quality, and the inevitable dereliction of the historic city centre. He called for a city-wide referendum on the issue.

Councillors from all the City Council party groups had been invited to speak at the meeting, which was chaired by Alan Whittaker, a former Pro Vice Chancellor of Lancaster University. With the exception of the Green Party councillors, none had shown interest in attending a public meeting on what is probably the greatest challenge the city faces this century.

Councillor Tim Hamilton Cox explained some of the problems Bury St Edmunds with its new Centros 'Arc' shopping centre now faces - problems which might also affect Lancaster if the proposed development goes ahead.

Bury St Edmunds: work deemed
crucial not undertaken
Centros had failed to undertake a promised essential widening of the connecting passageway between the new development and the existing town centre, with the result that it was uninviting and little-used, with a subsequent loss to existing trade footfall. Their rational was that they were not making the forecast profits from the scheme and so it was not economic for them to complete this work, which they deemed unnecessary.

Legal action by Bury St Edmund council to get the work done then failed – as it transpired their development agreement did not bind Centros to complete that part of the development, despite it being seen by the council as crucial to the viability of the scheme.

In Lancaster, the connectivity between the proposed shopping precinct and the existing city centre would now mean cutting through Boots the chemist or through the multi-storey car park (if you know the route is there).

The Debenhams store (aka 'The Slug') in Bury St Edmunds is already
showing damage to its exterior fabric.
The design of the Bury St Edmunds Arc development is 'Elizabethan pastiche' which is supposed to complement the local architecture. The Debenhams store (aka 'The Slug') is already showing damage to the exterior fabric.

Updated 23/5/12 (next two paragraphs: see apology to Cllr Hamilton Cox at the foot of this article)

Councillor Hamilton Cox noted that local brewery company Mitchells, who own part of the site, had been approached by other developers keen to offer proposals to redevelop the canal corridor site.

Speaking from the floor, local taxpayer Mr Hester noted substantial changes to the terms and conditions of the new development agreement, to the company with whom it was being made, and to the proposals themselves which made it effectively a new agreement and, as such,  subject to new EU regulation that makes competitive bidding a legal requirement. He had already alerted council officers to the possibility of legal challenge should council vote to accept the variations.

Also noted at the meeting was Lancaster City Council employmet of consultants Donaldsons to advise them on their side of the original development agreement. Donaldsons were then also employed by Centros as the Leasing Agent for this site, among others.

The 120 or so people packed into the hall voiced a number of objections to the scheme, echoing the concerns about the impact the proposals would have on existing trade and the overwhelming change it would make to the character of the city to have this stale, 'anytown UK' 1980s retail model foisted into it. By the time it is built, petrol may cost £5+ a litre, people will be having to pay for basic medical procedures and the idea of a local economy based on shopping for non-essential 'lifestyle' items will be history. Women's incomes are disproportionately affected by austerity measures and this means less money to spend on fashion and scatter cushions.

Other proposals for the site have provided for workshops, offices, a cultural quarter, affordable housing and smaller retail units, all of which a city facing 21st century challenges needs. The Centros development offers only additional competition to existing retail businesses and a massive loss of car-parking revenue to the city council which would put front-line services at risk. In the meantime, the council still has to sort out the costly problem of Lancaster Market.

Cllr Hamilton-Cox also showed the meeting the District Auditor's report on the 'Crinkley Bottom' disaster, aka 'Blobbygate'. Commenting on City Council officers' competence, it read:

"Mr Pearson was "out of his depth".  He was outmanoeuvred and out-negotiated by Unique.
I consider that Mr Corker should have, but failed, to advise the Council against entering into the open ended commitment which the Heads of Terms represented and should have drawn to the attention of Members the imprudence of proceeding without carrying out appropriate market research, without knowing what the Theme Park would contain and without knowing what it would all cost.
Mr Corker honestly believed that the "marketing agreement" with Pontins would be entered into and would produce net income of in the region of £132,500.

That was a flawed and irrational view but it was honestly held and it was a view shared by Mr Pearson
"Crinkley Bottom" Theme Park enjoyed overwhelming and enthusiastic support among all political groups on the Council.

Councillor Dawson accepted that he (and other Councillors) should have adopted a more critical and challenging approach to information which was placed before them by officers.  I am critical of his failure to do so."


Billy Pye noted that there appears to be an entrenched cabal within the council that is determined to accept any Centros proposal, right or wrong, without criticism, and which obstructs consultation, transparency and competition from other potential developers. He called again for a referendum on the issue of allowing competitive bids for the development.

The meeting was called for development campaign group It's Our City to gauge the public response to the new Centros proposals. Today they told Virtual-Lancaster:

"IOC takes the view that the development agreement with Centros should not be extended.  What should happen instead is that the city council should proactively seek other proposals for the site from other developers in a nationwide competition.  

"All the proposals, including the Centros proposal, could then be considered together.  It would even be possible for the proposals to be put to a public vote so that the people of Lancaster can choose what they want to see on the site instead of being told what we have to have.
                                 
"IOC is asking everybody to write to their ward and other councillors asking them to vote against extending the development agreement with Centros when the matter goes before the full council." 

• If you are unsure about who your local councillors are this information can be found at http://committeeadmin.lancaster.gov.uk/mgMemberIndex.aspx

23/5/12: Apology from Chris Satori: Unfortunately when reporting the meeting I mistakenly attributed to Cllr Hamilton Cox a comment, as quoted below, that was in fact made by others.  Having rechecked my notes they verify that this was indeed a completely inaccurate attribution as Cllr Cox in fact made no such remark.    I apologise unreservedly to Cllr Hamilton Cox and also to his colleagues at the City Council for any harm my mistake  may have caused.  I have amended this part of the report as above, with additions. 

Cllr Hamilton Fox has provided the following clarification:

"Having had some feedback on this article I need to make clear that those passages which reference me are not a verbatim account of what I said; indeed in places the text goes beyond what I said at the meeting. Most importantly, I didn’t say:

'that council planners seemed determined to retain Centros as the preferred bidder, and refuse to accept competitive bids despite new legislation that makes this a requirement.’

My point, drawing on a source that was in the public domain at the beginning of last year, was simply that other developers had expressed an interest in working with Mitchell’s. A member of the audience queried whether the council had been in the past, and was now, acting in compliance with EU procurement legislation.

To clarify the reference I made to the public interest report on Crinkley Bottom theme park: it is vital that the council considers all the risks attached to a deal with Centros and learns any lessons from its own and others’ experience.

But, in response to the feedback, I hope that people will discriminate between the particular and the general: to criticise decisions on one or more individual issues is not to call into question the competence of the council in all other respects. It seems an obvious thing to say but it is important to judge each case on its merits."

Tim Hamilton-Cox
Lancaster city councillor
Bulk ward

2 comments:

John Freeman said...

The problems the City Centre faces can't all be laid at the Council's door - private landlords need to take some responsibility for continuing to make disproportionate rent rises which mean shops stay empty because they are expecting too much.

Talking to a national retailer yesterday, not one single landlord who owns the properties he leases has reduced or freeze rents in four years despite the downturn. It seems inevitable to me that with an attitude like that only operations with a high turnover (coffee shops franchises, for example, which charge a fortune for a cup of coffee but get a lot of customers paying their over inflated prices) can afford the rents. (Of course, if you have too many coffee shops - which is what we're seeing happen in Lancaster - some won't survive because supply will out strip demand).

I do feel that in the face of landlord intransigence on this, plus competition from the Internet, we're doing to see a reduction in retailing in the city centre no matter what - never mind the competition from a new development like the one proposed.

I fully expect that we'll see more buildings converted to residential use, and more offices replacing retail units.

Anonymous said...

A comment on EU procurement - The council does not appear to be contracting for a service or a 'public good' in its true sense. it's a land deal not a procurement so EU procurement legislation does not apply.