New allegiances were struck today inside the gracious Council HQ at Brockington. The Leaders of the Independents, Lib Dems and It’s Our County sat together in solid opposition against the Tory’s troubled ESG shopping-centre scheme.
The meeting began with a request by the Leader John Jarvis, for the public, an unprecedented 70 people, to leave the Council Chamber so the Cabinet could discuss the changes in the ESG Stanhope contract in private. Everyone refused … so the Cabinet picked up their papers and sloped out to hold their private session in the Members’ Lounge instead, leaving behind a bored audience and the four Opposition Leaders, Cllrs James (Lib), Hubbard (IOC), Matthews (Ind) and Seldon (Ind & Chair Overview & Scrutiny) who refused to take part in the charade.
Once squished into the Members’ Lounge the private session commenced – with Cllr Jarvis (Con, Council Leader) needing to read from a pre-prepared script and a succession of Cabinet members asking choreographed questions clearly aimed at ‘educating’ their audience of observing opposition councilors. A number of senior officers were clearly uncomfortable at this ridiculous charade, but it proceeded nonetheless.
Prior to the meeting, Cllr Jim Kenyon (IOC) had managed to seed a question asking whether the multi-screen cinema would open at the same time as the supermarket & shops. After some shuffling Hereford Futures’ solicitor said “We are 95% certain that it will” … so that’s a “No” then, but they can’t possibly admit it … and it’s in the hands of the developer.
[FYI – the cinema is very expensive to build with little return to the developer once let – so this will only make economic sense if Stanhope have managed to let all the retail units, because they will effectively be spending some of their ‘profit’ in building it.]
With their group Leaders absent – none of the councilors present were able to ask any questions (protocol) so all listened in silence. Cllr Morgan (Cabinet – Health & Wellbeing) asked if such variations to a development agreement were ‘normal’ and Jonathon Bretherton explained to the assembly that the variations to the ‘deal’ on the ESG done back in 2009, which the meeting was called to consider, were quite unremarkable in being required, but remarkable for being only 6 in number … completely failing to comment on whether their nature was such that their impact upon the development and the wider city would be even more damaging than the original agreement.
Meanwhile … back in the chamber … Cllr James stated the position of the group Leaders clearly. He said there was nothing commercial sensitive in the contract but much that was politically sensitive. In short, the Council has got itself into a mess.
After 40 mins the Cabinet and observing members of the Council trooped back into the Chamber and the public version of the ‘debate’ began, or rather the public were then subjected to an extended theatrical performance, because it was their turn! We heard one Tory Cabinet member after another saying why the new shopping centre was necessary. None addressed the changes to the contract which was what the meeting was about.
We heard about the need for a Cinema (Ha! See earlier) from Cllr Wilcox (Cabinet – Housing & Planning) because he personally has to go to Worcester (a member of the public reminded him Hereford has both an Odeon and the Courtyard, so Cllr Wilcox didn’t need to take himself out of the county to see films) and the need for more shops because currently 70% of shopping is done out of the county.
[Err, that's wrong, isn't it the other way round? At least it is in the 2010 Shopping Study paid for by the Council as part of the LDF (Local Development Framework supporting documentation). That study says Hereford (and Ledbury) retains 80% of its spend, and the smaller market towns between 50% and 60% which is as much, surely, as you could hope for. But his colleagues also seemed unaware of this study because we heard this 70% shopping loss also from Cllr Phillips (Enterprise & Culture), Blackshaw (Highways, Transport & Waste) and Cllr Powell – (Cllr Phillips’ Cabinet bag-carrier)].
Cllr Nenadich (Morgan’s bag-man) was so far behind reading the Council literature that he asked whether the ESG development would not divide the town. [OMG, didn't we go through all this ten years ago, where has he been? Isn't it the reason we are borrowing £12m, correction £27m now, to build a Link Road?]
Cllr Nenadich also asked about a £3m additional spend on Newmarket Street (that’s the ring road that won’t be the ring road when the Link road is built). This one puzzled the £140,000 p.a. Jonathan Bretherton, the Chief Exec of the Quango Hereford Futures, who are brokering the ESG deal. He didn’t know the answer – but we suspect that Cllr Nenadich had actually muddled the Link Road (cost £27m) with the Broad Street ‘sustainability’ improvements (cost £3m). It’s all very complicated this development business … we digress, back to Cllr Phillips …
Cllr Phillips, chief cheerleader for the project for the last four years – though he has handed this on now to his Leader, told us if we didn’t take what was on offer we would get a great big Tescos, and we would get an out of town shopping centre on Holmer. Although this option wasn’t shown on the cabinet papers as alternatives – more empty rhetoric from the volatile (her prefers the term ‘passionate’) ex-Leader.
The theatrical performance continued … Cllr Mrs Morgan asked if the terms of reference (which, well done her, was after all was what the meeting was about) was a ‘deal changer’ and was told, by Alan Harris of Montagu Evans, the Land Surveyors hired by the Council to give independent advice, that “No it wasn’t”.
Cllr Mark Hubbard, who prior to the meeting had circulated the Confidential Report to those present, asked how many shops had actually signed on the dotted line. He was told seven had, including Debenhams. He wondered if seven out of 27 was sufficient, he was told by Alan Harris (Montagu Evans), it was – it was good and it was normal.
Cllr Hubbard asked a series of key questions regarding the impact of the variations being proposed on the town centre, its current retailers, the rate of development on the cattle market site, any possible delays in completion, the likelihood of the phase 2 of the development being economically viable, the degree to which the ‘deal’ remained sufficiently attractive to Stanhope & British Land for them to give it any priority in the work programmes … all of which were either ignored, or given perfunctory responses.
Cllr Bob Matthews, like the other opposition Leaders, expressed a number of fundamental concerns, but asked specifically if Stanhope would continue with the project when Montagu Evans had assessed that their risk was high and profits low. No-one answered him.
Rounding off this wooden Cabinet performance Cllr Blackshaw decided it would be a killer blow to quote from Montagu-Evans’ conclusions in the public version of the agenda papers, stating : “Montagu-Evans LLP considers that the proposed transaction is the best obtainable outcome for the public interest with regard to the price and other conditions achieved”
EXCEPT everyone in the room could see that the conclusion actually reads:
“Montagu-Evans LLP considers that the proposed transaction is the best obtainable outcome for the public interest AT THIS TIME with regard to the price and other conditions achieved” [our emphasis]
many of the public spectators called out the words to correct him, however. Silly man … his choice to exclude these words from his quote says all that needs to be said about the truth of these variations to an already bad deal for the city.
The outcome was inevitable from the beginning, all the Tory Cabinet voted for the variations.
It is, however, interesting to note that the ‘Responsible Officer’, Finance Director David Powell, was not present at any point during the meeting – he being the officer required to ensure value for money for the ratepayer and answerable to the Audit Commissioner.
Anyone hoping for real consideration of the implications these variations have on the viability, suitability and sustainability of what remains of the proposed development had better get their lucky heather and rabbit’s paw ready for an outing to Overview & Scrutiny on Friday 13th April, Brockington 10:00 where some chest poking and stick prodding will be delivered by possibly as much as 50% of the committee. Going on past performance.
As Cllr Hubbard himself said … “God help us all!”.