Speaking to residents lately, especially those living close to the High Street, two key issues I have often discussed were the future of the town centre and the Magistrates court building in Park Road. Most people are astonished that the Council thinks it needs to spend over £3 million on a multi storey car park, whilst the majority are relieved that the Court building will be saved by Wetherspoon’s investment.
I have been grateful that that many were ready to discuss these matters with me at some length, but it is not always possible to get across every point. So, I am going to use this blog post to give further background to these two issues. I apologise if this is a little longwinded but I don’t feel that the public has always been fully informed over the years. There has often been a lot of publicity and fanfare for announced plans but silence when they collapse.
Town centre investment has been discussed by Swale Council for more than a generation. At first we employed Town Centre Managers to try to attract in better retail to the High Street. Then just over 10 years ago a property company called Hammerson’s bought the land from Eurolink Way down to Milton Creek and the agenda shifted from the High Street to much more grandiose plans. Swale Council and Kent County Council set up a team called “Swale Forward” to work with developers and the Government to turn these plans into reality. Hammersons sold the land on to Spenhill, a property arm of Tescos. During the period from 2005-2009 there were many meetings, public consultations and local expectations. But nothing actually happened and by 2009 the economic climate had shifted in the wake of the World banking crisis and the recession that followed. Spenhill/Tesco indicated to Swale Council that their plans would have to change to meet the new climate. Then, to their surprise, they found that Swale had adopted a new developer partner, a consortium known as “Spirit of Sittingbourne”. These people have been working since then on a two phase plan for development but, in fact, no progress has actually been made.
The “Spirit” plan is first to secure development in the Station/Forum area, based on a cinema chain. It was anticipated that this would produce the capital for a second phase development for a new civic area in Central Avenue. Part of the plan was that some existing car parks would be built on and the developers would build a new multi storey car park.
Let me stress that I and the Labour Team have always been very dubious about the viability of this plan. Consequently, we were not surprised to discover that the developers were having cold feet, nor that they should come back with a revised proposal to the Council. Thus it is that the Council has accepted that phase 1 will provide less capital for phase 2 than first intended and it is now the Council that will fund and build the new multi storey car park.
Labour is strongly opposed to this but it is fair to ask what we would do differently. In the place, we would not be where they are. We would not have committed ourselves to one partner. We would attempt to tackle all the land regeneration issues around Sittingbourne. We would concentrate more on the existing High Street. We would recruit staff to the Council with the expertise to tackle all the town centre issues. We would try to preserve the essential character of the town.
Meanwhile, the Spenhill/Tesco scheme has gone into abeyance.
On the issue of the Magistrates Court, the Government was keen to close the Court in the early 2000s but the then Labour MP, Derek Wyatt, led a vigorous campaign to keep it open as a local service. When the present Government was elected, the issue of closure returned and this time there was no effective campaign to save it. The Ministry of Justice planned to sell it and after Peter Morgan and others had raised the issue of it becoming a Community Centre, I asked Swale Council to consider buying it. They looked into this but decided it was not a good commercial option. It was then bought by a local builder who threatened to demolish it. It was a surprise, then, to learn that Wetherspoons have bought it. In the local Labour Party we are doing our best to assess local opinion, which must be taken into account when it goes to planning.
Roger Truelove is KCC member for Swale Central, Borough Councillor for Chalkwell Ward and the Swale Labour Group spokesperson for regeneration.