The leader of Lichfield District Council has been accused of “making it up as he goes along” after it was revealed that yet another discussion on Friarsgate will be held behind closed doors.
The final nail in the coffin of the long-awaited city centre redevelopment project is expected to be hammered home at a meeting of Lichfield District Council next week.
Cabinet has voted not to support a plan to spend £49million on Friarsgate after private funding failed to materialise – although sources have told LichfieldLive that the decision was only made after the wider Conservative group indicated it would not be prepared to support the investment.
The sudden demise of the decade-long scheme has coincided with the council’s decision to hear virtually all discussions on the subject away from public and media scrutiny, with the local authority claiming commercial confidentiality as a reason for the private debates.
Cllr Mike Wilcox, leader or Lichfield District Council finally broke cover last week to confirm Friarsgate was now unlikely to go ahead due to a lack of funding, seemingly heralding an end to the media blackout policy on the project.
But the local authority has once again retreated behind the locked doors of the Council House for what is likely to be a final debate on Friarsgate on June 26, meaning taxpayers are unlikely to get answers to many of the questions surrounding the reasons for the collapse of the scheme.
Cllr Sue Woodward, leader of the opposition Labour group, accused Cllr Wilcox of double standards over the privacy surrounding the discussions.
“The agenda for next week’s full council meeting at Lichfield District Council has now been published and, yet again, the Friarsgate report is entirely confidential,” she said.
“This is in spite of the council leader’s public statement last week that the council will not seek to fund the Friarsgate shortfall.
“This breached his own demands for members to keep it all under wraps, ditched his manifesto promise and, in reality, pre-empts a decision by the whole council.
“He’s played fast and loose with council procedures and with members’ patience and I reiterate my call for him to stand down.”
The collapse of Friarsgate has led to three members of the six man Cabinet standing down amid concerns over the leadership’s failure to get the project – a key part of the Conservative group’s manifesto – over the finishing line.
And Cllr Woodward said the decision to hold meetings in secret and away from further scrutiny had created “a fiasco”.
She said: “What the public still haven’t been told is that, apart from the recommendation that the council should not go ahead with this massive loan, other recommendations were piggy-backed onto the reports to both the scrutiny and Cabinet meetings, with figures seemingly changing from one report to the next.
“I asked to call this in for further scrutiny but this has been refused.
“The whole thing has been a fiasco.
“It feels like the leader is making things up as he goes along.”
Cllr Wilcox has again been asked for comment by LichfieldLive.
In a previous council-issued statement, the leader blamed Brexit and the financial crisis for the demise of the redevelopment.
“When the Friarsgate development was first conceived the market was very different,” Cllr Wilcox said.
“We know the local community has wanted us to deliver the scheme and we’ve been working hard to bring it forward. Prior to the credit crunch and Brexit all signs were positive
“On May 30 members of our overview and scrutiny committees considered a proposal for the council to fund Friarsgate, which is an approach some other councils have taken to kick-start similar projects.
“Committee members debated the proposal, and recommended that the council should not fund the scheme. On June 12, Cabinet members subsequently voted that the council should not fund the scheme. The final decision will be made by full council which will meet on June 26.”