It’s still not here-but it can be if we pay for it
After several years of promise without delivery, the long running saga of Sittingbourne Regeneration has now entered dangerous waters. Most of last year we were led to understand that the developer group, Spirit of Sittingbourne, were searching for capital to build the leisure and retail parts of their development plan. October, we were told. Then as autumn began to turn to winter it emerged that Tory led Swale Borough Council were prepared to borrow up to £28 million to invest in those properties.
It was presented as an “opportunity” that only came to light in late summer. This was not exactly credible, given that the same Tory administration had given themselves the facility in March to borrow £30 million.
The defensive argument put forward for this face saving manoeuvre is that Tory Government austerity is so severe in dealing with local government that they must find ways of achieving investment income if they want to maintain services. Labour is profoundly sceptical. Trying to turn Councils into development investors is not the way to fund local government. However, if it has to be, then the investment proposed by Swale Council is fraught with risk and uncertainty. They are investing in a multi-screen cinema that major operators rejected as a going concern and for which the private sector developers could not secure funding, nearly two years after they had erected their self-ridiculing “It’s Here” signs.
A minor cinema operator has been signed up, knowing that they alone were prepared to give this dubious scheme a chance. There is no market research to prove that a multi-screen cinema is a viable long term investment. If it fails, the associated eating houses will fail and Swale will be left with a declining asset, a large debt and interest payments to meet. That won’t be good for services or the council taxpayer.
This investment has to be sustainable over several decades, through ups and downs in the economy and against a background of changes in leisure behaviour, especially when it comes to watching film.
Swale says other Councils have gone down the investment route. Some have and some are building up problems for themselves. Where it is working for local Councils, they have shrewdly invested in going commercial assets, not a highly problematic scheme that has struggled to start up.
Labour also contends that the Council has not adequately considered the risks involved, that it has been persuaded by others to rush into this dubious venture and that it has no mandate from the local taxpayers.
They claim that they fought the 2015 elections on a promise of regeneration, and so they did. However, there was no understanding at that time that it would be funded by Council borrowing with its attendant liability for local taxpayers. They have been notably coy about the £28 million borrowing in public. Tory Councillors put out leaflets, claiming progress on regeneration without any mention of the borrowing. When opposition parties called in the decision to go for borrowing, the public were crudely excluded from the scrutiny meeting.
It isn’t publicly credible that the motive for this foolish decision is purely for investment. It is blatantly obvious to all involved that the endless delay in regenerating Sittingbourne is a matter of great political embarrassment to the Tories. They are clearly prepared to advance down a treacherous road on a scheme of dubious value, using all of their capital provision on one scheme that the private sector has found to lack viability.
The scheme itself is not worthy of the risk. The Council decided in 2009, when the Spenhill-Tesco plans were being downgraded, to seek out a development partner and the Spirit of Sittingbourne emerged. Labour believes it was wrong to be so closely tied to and dependent on one group of developers to move forward on much needed regeneration. It was wrong to effectively delegate to the developers the design and planning of the town renewal. What they came up with is a retro plan, tried and exhausted by many other towns, with nothing distinctively local to Sittingbourne, based on a financial model that was inappropriate to Swale and one that ignores the need to regenerate many other parts of the town, not least the High Street and its extensions in West Street and East Street. Labour particularly opposes that part of the agreement that has allowed developers to appropriate long stay car parks to build town centre apartments. It is bizarre that the developers are going to retain this access to cheap land use without eventually funding the rest of the scheme. When the development agreement was being concluded, it was understood that in return for long stay car parks, the developers would fund the multi storey car park. In the end, it is Swale that is going to fund this at the same time as relinquishing their own car parks.
We say that there has been weak leadership that has allowed the private sector developers to dictate the progress of the scheme. Swale has never recruited the kind of staffing that could manage property development and we doubt whether they will in the future.
There are various views in the town. Some people are hostile to the Council because nothing has happened, not because the scheme is poor and the funding risky. What Labour wants to see is that people are properly aware of what is going on. The public must have a say before the Tory Council lands the future residents of Swale with a disaster.
Labour will be raising a petition so that people can have their say. We shall be talking to people in town centres. We will continue to ask all the necessary questions in Swale Council.