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Council accused of double standards over plan to foot the bill for Friarsgate development in Lichfield

A plan for Lichfield District Council to foot the bill for Friarsgate is a case of double standards, the leader of the Labour opposition group has claimed.

An artist’s impression of the new Friarsgate development

LichfieldLive revealed yesterday that a plan had been drawn up for the local authority to provide the funding after private money failed to emerge.

But Labour group leader Cllr Sue Woodward has questioned why the Conservatives on the council could find millions for “a vanity project” in Lichfield while other parts of the district went without.

She said: “We’ve yet to see all of the detail, where the devil often hides, but my first big question is why on earth would the council want to put council tax payers money into a retail scheme when the high street retail market is currently on the slide?

“If private investors don’t have the confidence to put money into the scheme, why should the residents of Lichfield district?

“My second big question is whether the council will also consider investing directly in other long-awaited capital projects around the district first – in Fazeley, Armitage, the rural villages and, of course, Burntwood.

“It’s almost 20 years since Lichfield District Council promised £250,000 for a replacement xommunity facility and Artsbase when we lost the Brendewood Suite in Burntwood, but we were since told there was no money left. This was in the queue for funding even before Friarsgate was thought of.

“That’s before even mentioning other empty sites around the town such as the blue hoardings site or the dilapidated state of the Sankey’s Corner shopping centre.

“Lichfield District Council seems to be showing itself yet again to be far too city-centric. Yes, Lichfield city has many assets and also great potential, but it’s only a part of the wider district and at least two thirds of our council taxpayers don’t live in the city, so there’s also the question of equity.

“We need investment in many local areas, not just the city.”

No details have yet emerged about how much the council will need to pump in to get the Friarsgate scheme off the ground.

An artist’s impression of the new Friarsgate development

But Cllr Rob Birch, a Labour representative on Burntwood Town Council, said it was unfair for residents in other parts of the district to pay the price for a retail development that the private sector has backed away from.

“If developers are not willing to invest in the plans, would that not suggest it is unlikely to be profitable?” he said. “If it’s not profitable then it is more likely to cost the tax payer money than it is to be cost neutral to the public purse.

“I suspect the cost of this will run into tens of millions of pounds at the same time as Lichfield District Council are pleading poverty. Remember the bin tax as they can’t afford to remove garden waste any more?

“This is yet another unnecessary development in Lichfield, at taxpayers’ expense, using money that could give Burntwood a new town centre and most likely pay for the badly needed health centre as well.

“People should brace themselves for on-going rises in their council tax to pay for this latest Tory white elephant.

“It appears that Lichfield District Council’s Conservatives have been sent a branch from Theresa May’s magic money tree. Either that or we are all about to be robbed blind to pay for another Tory vanity project.”

Cllr Mike Wilcox said the funding plan had not been decided on, but insisted it would not be unusual for a council to invest in a private project such as Friarsgate.

“The majority of the major Friarsgate milestones are now in place, and we are working with U+I to assemble the final piece of the jigsaw, which is the funding to deliver the scheme,” he said.

“As part of this, councillors were informally briefed on the opportunity for the council to fund the scheme at a meeting on May 22.

“This is an approach that has been taken by a number of other councils across the country to successfully kick start major developments,” he said.

“No decisions have been made and the opportunity is being explored in greater depth as part of a programme of decision making. The next discussion will take place at a joint meeting of Economic Growth, Environment and Development (Overview & Scrutiny) Committee later this month.”

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21 Comments

  1. Nodge

    25th May, 2018 at 8:47 am

    They’ve found the cash inside our brown bins LOL

  2. Tony Radford

    25th May, 2018 at 10:45 am

    Great news, it’s easy to sit on the fence and point the finger when you are in the opposition but they would all do the same given the chance. Lichfield needs development fast before it becomes a ghost town. Yes it is part of a wider district but what are they supposed to do? It’s common sense to concentrate efforts in the heart of the district, always has been done and always will be. Stop moaning and get on with it!!

  3. Rob

    25th May, 2018 at 12:01 pm

    Twenty years without an Artsbase?
    If I knew what one of those was I’d probably wonder how we’ve survived so long.
    Seems the less money council’s are given to spend the better.

  4. Simon Partridge

    25th May, 2018 at 12:25 pm

    Don’t worry, everyone. Any day now expect a statement from Cllr Wilcox reassuring us that it won’t cost council tax payers a penny. Why? Because it probably won’t. Initially, at least.

    Presumably the council is planning to undertake what hedge fund managers refer to as a “carry trade” (this is certainly what the “other councils” have done). They borrow money from HM Treasury (specifically the Public Works Loan Board) at a low rate (around 2.5%) then invest in property yielding a much higher rate (typically 6 to 8%). Bingo. Extra income for the council.

    Add to this changes in the rules relating to local government funding which mean that from 2020 the council will keep 100% of the tax they collect from local businesses, rather than the 50% they currently receive. How’s that for an incentive for a cash-strapped council to invest in a new shopping centre? More shops equals more tax equals even more income for the council.

    On paper it looks like a double win for the council, but in the real world it’s a dangerous gamble with massive consequences for us all if it goes wrong. As Cllr Woodward points out, high street retail is on the slide – in the past week alone Marks and Spencer announced the closure of 100 stores – and we’re all familiar with the empty units already dotted around Lichfield city centre. What if the Friarsgate units don’t fill? What if property prices fall again? It will be us,the council tax payers, footing the bill as the council stuggles to pay back the debt.

    Maybe this was the council’s plan all along – keep stalling the project until the only solution was for them to step in and heroically save the day for local shoppers, but in reality this is an act of wilful, even desperate, recklessness. It highlights, once again, the dangers inherent in having a council dominated by a single party where there can be no meaningful scrutiny or balance.

  5. Nellygb

    25th May, 2018 at 3:57 pm

    Here we go again. Thought it might be interesting to go down the big city and spend a couple of enlightening hours sitting through said meeting on the 30th. No such luck. In their quest for Inclusion and transparency they have deemed the information to be discussed at item five on the agenda not in the public interest. Below is taken from the council website in respect to Joint Economic Growth, Environment & Development and Strategic (Overview & Scrutiny) Committees, Joint Overview & Scrutiny Committees Meeting Wednesday, 30th May, 2018 6.00 pm…
    4.
    Exclusion of Press and Public

    RESOLVED: “That as publicity would be prejudicial to the public interest by reason of the confidential nature of the business to be transacted, the public and press be excluded from the meeting for the following items of business, which would involve the likely disclosure of exempt information as defined in Paragraph 3 of Part 1 of Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972”

    IN PRIVATE

    5.

    Options for the Future of Friarsgate Scheme

    But in their infinite wisdom they see it in the public interest to consider pumping millions of council tax payers money into something big business is distancing itself from. Great idea Cllr Wilcox.
    Here’s a suggestion, if you and your colleagues are so confident this is a goer then back it with your own money and sink the councils pension pot in to it. You might then be less inclined to take what is a massive gamble on the local electorates future.

    We know already the council don’t need to make decisions for the good of the wider electorate because you are safe in the knowledge that no matter how bad you F/U your job as a conservative councillor in Lichfield is as safe as that of our esteemed representative in parliament.

  6. LetsGiveItASpin

    25th May, 2018 at 5:34 pm

    @simon .. Lichfield dc won’t have 100% of business rates. That’s because the council has to contribute to staffordshire county councils strategic plan for highways and social care they will probably be left with just 25% of the business rates in real terms to spend….

    The biggest issue right now is if the food store still wants to relocate to friarsgate especially now as they have announced 100 stores to close … friarsgate can and will only ever be a housing scheme .. to little to late …

    The best way forward is as sue Woodward suggests and invest in local areas rather than the city .. the city is what it is .. all the big firms are already setup in Tamworth so too close for them to setup new stores in Lichfield the catchment areas that they use to calculate where they place new stores means lichfield is not big enough…

    Lichfield will survive as it is small local businesses for a niche market … enjoy it ..

  7. Bob

    25th May, 2018 at 10:08 pm

    Lichfield is turning into Walsall

  8. Steve

    26th May, 2018 at 9:59 am

    I am never quite sure where all the extra footfall that is always spoken about, is coming from.

    Surely not Birmingham, they have numerous shopping centres and far more shops than Lichfield have. If assuming a family of 2 adults and 2 children are going to come shopping at Friarsgate. If they come by train, they are looking at spending £20 – £25 in train tickets to shop in the same shops they could do on their doorstep. Especially as the Cross City Line is so over capacity and unreliable.

    Tamworth, no easy train route, only buses. Or they could drive to Lichfield and pay high car parking charges, rather than park for free, in their shopping zones.

    I know lots of people from Lichfield who would rather drive elsewhere, rather than have to pay so much for parking as they currently do.

    The council have previously used the argument, that the private sector is far more knowledgeable about running leisure centres, than the council are. Surely the private sector knows more about shopping centres, than the council does. If the private sector does not want to touch this development. There mus be a good reason.

    Something has been agreed with the developers many months ago. It changed to a PPP scheme in the U&I documents. Initially it was not a PPP scheme.

    This will become a burden to council tax payers for many decades. Unlike residents, if the council did own Friarsgate, they can’t keep saying to shops, we want an extra 5.6% rent this year.

    This is a recipe for disaster. Mike Wilcox will be remembered as the man who bankrupted Lichfield.

  9. Rob

    26th May, 2018 at 11:17 am

    @Bob
    At least that should please the regular moaners on here who are always complaining how it’s full of old people, “dull” and “conservative”.
    Bet they can’t wait for the crime rate to escalate and have hookers and dealers on street corners.

  10. Asellus aquaticus

    26th May, 2018 at 2:51 pm

    @Rob and you claim that you’re not a troll…

  11. John Woodcock

    26th May, 2018 at 7:35 pm

    Is it not about time the powers that be realise that the development is a dead duck, instead of looking for more shops and shoppers, what about giving our tourist a better visit ie: a decent bus and coach station with a nice toilet block, cafe and tourist information centre, car park and of course what is already planned some residential property, plus a nice access into the city centre via as already planned through the precinct, instead as at the moment down a side ally that does not give anyone a good vision of our city,
    that would be something positive
    Regards
    John

  12. Philip Allso

    28th May, 2018 at 6:21 pm

    More shops are not the answer. There just isn’t enough footfall and few of the existing shops thrive. As John Woodcock suggests every effort should be made to promote tourism as many towns and cities have done with success. The facilities in Lichfield are poor by comparison to many similar sized places. Improve these and establish an attractive family place to visit. When numbers warrent it future retail outlets can be considered. The numbers are out there but Lichfield has too many negatives to make them want to come here. Think outside the box, a water feature like Brindly Place is a massive success in Birmingham and offers many possibilities for trade. It would require relatively little to connect the Grand Union to a marina at City Whalf. The one at Barton also seems to do well.

  13. Tony Radford

    29th May, 2018 at 1:48 pm

    @Phillip are you serious about a water feature?? How is that linked to a greater footfall?

    I agree the city centre needs updating but I don’t understand all the negativity. It doesn’t matter what the plans are as there would be people on here and social media moaning about them anyway.

    Would you rather the Council not bother at all? It would certainly only go one way then and I can guarantee the same people would be moaning that the Council did nothing!

    Talk about glass half empty!!

  14. Darryl Godden

    29th May, 2018 at 2:06 pm

    @Tony

    It’s simply dismissive to say people are “moaning,” this is their town and they legitimate concerns about how this project has been handled, especially with the secrecy that Mike Wilcox has imposed.

    Retail units in The Spires stand empty, yet the plan is to build more, perhaps Philip is right, a “feature” area would be a good idea. Brindley Place isn’t simply a water feature, it’s a place to sit , each lunch and is surrounded by food outlets, the management of the area organise street food days and exhibition stands when shows are coming to The NEC. They also put large screens up showing films and sporting events.

    Similarly, Euston Square in London does the same sort of thing, I’m sure there are other examples, the point is, retail units are only worthwhile if you can find businesses to fill them. With the demise of Phones4U, Game etc. LDC need to think carefully about this long overdue development. In fact I would hazard, that it has been so long the culture on the high street has shifted and the plans are distinctly out of touch with a modern city centre.

  15. Tony Radford

    29th May, 2018 at 3:07 pm

    @Darryl

    I’m not disagreeing but the point I was trying to make is that we live in an age where no matter what plans are drawn up you won’t please everybody. Your examples are good, but I am orginially from Coventry which has a large water feature in the middle for people to gather around, and more food outlets than you could ever want. The problem is if you took all the students away you wouldn’t be left with a lot else, however all Coventry City Council want to do is build more and more student accommodation. Are we saying we would prefer that??

    When I moved to Lichfield over 5 years ago I was very impressed with the range of shops, bars, restaurants, cafes etc. It may not be perfect but whenever I walk into town, which is most weekends, it always appears busy to me. I was also impressed with the amount of events we have, yes some are held within Beacon Park but the town is easily walkable and again seems to benefit by increased footfall. No matter what town or city you are in you will always have businesses that come and go, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is anything to do with footfall.

    I agree that careful consideration is needed with the retail units but nobody can argue that the bus station and multi-storey car park are eyesores, and introducing a cinema would be hugely beneficial. Whilst we already have a wide choice of bars and restaurants the better ones we have always do well, and I also have friends who come from far and wide for the evening/nightlife, the same cannot be said for many of the surrounding areas.

    People need to understand we are not going to get a perfect proposal for Lichfield (or anywhere fo that matter), and unfortunately we have to put faith in the people WE have elected.

  16. Philip Allso

    29th May, 2018 at 9:35 pm

    Tony I would dearly like to see Lichfield thrive. If you were coming to the city from outside for the day what would you do? Go for a swim or to the cinema? Spend a fortune at the Garrick? Try to find car parking and be charged over the top for it. The King Edwards sport centre has just been handed back to the school so will have restricted access. Few shops seem to exist for long periods and the rates they are charged contributesto this. The council are now going to charge street markets because they are a success! Look, glass half full or not, that is what I see. The competing joint council’s don’t help and as there is no political competition within them they do much as they please. Change is needed. There is exponential expansion but little infrastructure. It is difficult even to get to see a doctor! A successful city can only come from good leadership and good ideas. We are sadly lacking both. If my marina idea offends you then I am sorry. Perhaps we could start with putting some of the above right instead.

  17. Tony Radford

    29th May, 2018 at 10:29 pm

    @Philip
    Again I don’t disagree with what you are saying but from what I’ve witnessed living in Coventry, Birmingham and now Lichfield, and having family in other towns and cities I don’t think it is as bad as you think. Moving to Lichfield is the best decision me and my family have ever made and any of our other family members and friends always comment on how fantastic the place is. I think we can all agree nowhere is perfect, but compared to a lot of places we are lucky.
    Parking costs a fortune wherever you go, I mean most major towns and cities will charge a premium. It’s a disgrace yes but again we are not a special case, it happens all over. As for doctors it is the same all over, not enough GP’s and you have to give advanced warning of getting ill! It’s no worse here and you will hear similar stories all over. That doesn’t mean we should just accept it but NHS shortages are another story all together.
    As I said I’m not disagreeing but we also need to understand some of the issues being raised here in the comments could be said for towns and cities up and down the country. It’s not right I know but what can we do?? Whilst I’ve only lived here for the past 5 years I stand by my opinion though that the city is nowhere near as bad as some are making out.
    Any redevelopment will always divide opinion, its the same with the amount of new housing being built but we cannot just stand still.

  18. Philip Allso

    30th May, 2018 at 8:47 am

    Tony, I am from Birmingham and moved to Lichfield 47 years ago. It is the knowledge of what it was and what it is becoming that disturbs me. We will never compete with the large surrounding cities in a commercial sense, and are too close for most large stores to duplicate. Even stores like Hughes went out of business (amongst many others). Even large firms in the suburbs have disappeared and are now housing estates. I do not want to be negative but these are the facts. Lichfield is a medieval city with things to offer. If other attractions can be introduced this will bring in the tourist pound which is as good as any other. Trying to hang onto the coat tails of our neighbours is never going to work. Offer things that draw in the people with money to spend and that will bring them back. The food festival was great and the city was buzzing. The council now want to charge for such attractions!? If we can’t innovate we will struggle to thrive. Already in the city history they failed to embrace the steam age and became a backwater for a centuary. If you don’t learn from history you might just repeat it.

  19. Dave H

    30th May, 2018 at 4:41 pm

    The food festival was not great for the City, how could it be, the majority of stall holders are not from the City, people who come to the food festival spend money on the food festival nowhere else, thus local business – cafe’s , pubs, other eating establishments lose money and some are even forced to close when the food festivals are on, I even know of people who have lost working hours or jobs when said festival is on. Perhaps the local council would like to reimburse local business’s for loss of income .

  20. Nellygb

    30th May, 2018 at 4:45 pm

    And your comment regarding the the council charging for attractions like the food market just confirms my long held belief that the council is totally anti business. Council policy across the country has been a major contribution to the demise of the High Street.

    When Lichfield District Council only see the success of such an event as an opportunity for them to make money then we will only continue on the path we are on. Small businesses are in my opinion something that makes Lichfield different from 80% of all other (large) towns and cities in the UK. If we want same old same old we can travel 20 mins max in any direction and get it in heaps.

    Embrace the small and independent and build your offering around that but don’t stifle the in-build innovative thinking small businesses naturally have built in to just survive just to make a few extra quid, it’s short sighted and short term. Council greed closes shops. Lay down sound foundations for the future because when businesses make money they stay open…simple.

  21. Neil

    31st May, 2018 at 8:35 pm

    Towns have to change or they die away. If you want families to live here or people to come got to give them reason to come and spend here not keep it as a time warp. Lived here and my life and work here. Even got a young family here. Not matter what is done people be moaning “councils paying to do this and that what a waste”.
    I would say friarsgates also a headache for council themselves. Complaining about GPs take that up with the NHS trusts. To say the council is anti business when i think everyone would expect a business to pay whats its meant too
    In anycase burntwood has now got some additonal retail underway and locals complained about that they didnt want it.
    Lichfield needs a tad more that big shiny area for tourists and bugger all else for people who live here.

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