A Liberal Democrat councillor says the financial stability of Lichfield District Council should not be jeopardised by a desire to get the Friarsgate project off the ground.
The local authority has drawn up a plan to foot the bill for the long-awaited city centre development after private finance did not materialise.
The move to use public money to underpin the scheme has drawn criticism from Labour councillors and local groups ahead of a first meeting about the proposals tonight – although members of the public and the media have been excluded from the debate at an overview and scrutiny committee meeting when it reaches the agenda item “Options for the future of Friarsgate scheme”.
Lib Dem councillor Paul Ray said that while he was generally supportive of Friarsgate, he too was uncertain about the plans for the funding.
“As I see it we have a duty as councillors to move our area on for the future,” he said. “Residents in our district often complain about the poor shops in Lichfield and lack of leisure facilities. We do need improved modern facilities in particular for young people and families.
“So this is an opportunity to give the district some up to date facilities which we can all be proud of – and importantly which will attract more visitors to Lichfield which will help grow our economy. That is a key strategic objective for Lichfield’s future.
“There are clearly concerns regarding the retail sector at present but my view is that Lichfield would really benefit from an improved retail offering. Also it must be appreciated that this development is not just a retail development. Friarsgate is a mixed use scheme with a large part being restaurants, a cinema, a gym and almost 100 town houses and flats.
“However as councillors we must ensure that the decisions made by the council do not jeopardise the financial stability of the council and so negatively impact on the residents of Lichfield and Burntwood in the future.
“I remain to be convinced on this.”
While the public are once more kept in the dark by the council about the discussions over Friarsgate – a tactic LichfieldLive reported on last year – Cllr Ray said even members of the local authority needed more details over the exact cost taxpayers would face if they do end up footing the bill.
He said: “Councillors have had an initial briefing on the finances and I await and will scrutinise the revised funding model when it is updated.
“I am excited about what Friarsgate could do for our district. But when I decide whether to vote for or against this scheme I won’t let my heart rule my head. I will need to be comfortable that the finances stack up.”
The Conservative leader of Lichfield District Council, Cllr Mike Wilcox, said that while no decision had been made, the funding would be the final piece in the jigsaw for 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.
“No decisions have been made and the opportunity is being explored in greater depth as part of a programme of decision making.”