The secretive collapse of the Friarsgate redevelopment has left residents with more questions than answers – and is likely to cause a tense atmosphere when the Conservative group at Lichfield District Council meet this evening (June 21).
The long-awaited project finally bit the dust after Cabinet backed away from plans to foot a £49million bill – a move LichfieldLive understands was sparked by the wider controlling Tory group indicating they would vote against it.
The project has been cloaked in secrecy in recent months, with the local authority hearing debates about the scheme behind closed doors – including confirmation that even the final debate at full council on June 26 will be a private affair.
However, the claims commercial confidentiality was behind the decision were seemingly blown out of the water by council leader Mike Wilcox’s own statement about the project – a crafted comment which appeared to pre-empt a vote at full council, in breach of the council’s own procedures and the very process Friarsgate discussions have been hidden behind.
As one Conservative member told LichfieldLive: “Cllr Wilcox doesn’t make the ultimate decision, nor do a select six at Cabinet – the final decision is made by full council. If it’s been decided that there is a commercial reason to hear the entirety of the debate in private – and many of us think there isn’t – then Cllr Wilcox had no right to speak about the project not going ahead before a full vote on the funding on June 26 has taken place.”
Cllr Wilcox has so far only communicated with LichfieldLive about the collapse of the project via statements released through the local authority’s PR team, and has not replied to our request for comment on a number of issues since we revealed the proposals for funding Friarsgate from tax payer cash.
So we are now publicly asking for answers to key – but so far unanswered – questions:
What is the bill for the Friarsgate project to date?
Although Lichfield District Council is now not likely to spend £49million to prop up Friarsgate, there will have already been a significant investment in terms of land purchase, officer time, research, development and other associated costs.
This money has been spent at a time where the local authority has made a number of cuts, including the offloading of a leisure centre and the introduction of a charge for brown bin collections, as well as redundancies within its own workforce.
Many of these moves have been accompanied by explanations surrounding the tough economic climate – but if this tough financial landscape was so prevalent over many years, why was it not foreseen or flagged up much, much earlier than June 2018? And who will carry the can for the potentially significant expenditure which now looks to have been wasted over the past ten years?
What are the future liabilities the council now has as a result of the scheme not going ahead?
The Friarsgate project would have killed two birds with one stone when it came to the ageing multi-storey car park, which LichfieldLive understands the council will now have a liability for.
And what about the bus station and other sites, such as the purchase of the former police station – will that deal now go ahead? If not, can the council really create an alternative redevelopment if it does not have the land parcel required?
Should the answer to that question be no, then the only other option is to sell off the space it already has its hands on and tear up any strategic plan that may have existed for the city centre, leaving it instead to the mercy of a number of developers, many of whom will be able to point to approved Friarsgate plans in order to push ahead with projects that may not otherwise have been acceptable in the city centre area.
Why was land cleared and businesses closed when no finance for a replacement was in place or in real prospect of being in place?
A fundamental question that continues to crop up in the comments on this site and elsewhere. Given it appears that the option of private funding was exceptionally remote from reality, might it not have been prudent to ensure the appetite was there within the council before gambling businesses and livelihoods on what now looks like a throw of the dice to push a public funding plan through at the 11th hour?
There are significant questions to answer on this point. This isn’t about plots of land and bricks and mortar – in many cases this is about people and their livelihoods.
How and why did the council decide to drive a bulldozer through businesses at a time when it couldn’t guarantee paying for even part of a new development? You can’t decorate a cake before you’ve baked it, but the local authority appears to have blown out the candles before it’s even measured out the ingredients.
How was the Friarsgate project allowed to drift to a point where a last-ditch bid to save it was required?
Many of the conversations we have had with sources inside the council echo the same view – how can it be that a project of this magnitude can be allowed to come down to whether the public purse would bail it out a matter of days before the deadline with the developers expired?
Given it has been treading water for a decade, it appears that the evidence was always pointing towards a red light, yet the last gasp push to fund Friarsgate appears to indicate a last-minute panic. The funding has never physically been there, so why did such a panic come about? Who did the appropriate due diligence on the promises being made that private money would be forthcoming that allowed the council to believe all was rosey in the garden until now?
The council leader has regularly issued statements suggesting work was starting imminently. Yet, even members of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership – one of the few funders who did come forward – were questioning why the council was continuing to stand by a June 30 start date when it was never likely to be the case, and why key milestones – the insurance policy in such large projects – were being allowed to drift time and time again.
Fundamental questions must be asked of those within the council who were supposedly behind the wheel of the project as it drove down a dead end.
Is the prospect of a major retail development in Lichfield now dead?
We know that, bar a U-turn of seismic proportions, Friarsgate is dead. So what happens now? Was there ever a plan B the council could turn to? And even if a new scheme does emerge from the embers, is there any realistic prospect of funding such a project?
A bigger question may relate to whether the current leadership is the correct one to proceed with any future development.
Three members of the Cabinet have already resigned over concerns that the leadership team could not get Friarsgate over the finish line one way or another, while a number of Conservative councillors have already raised concerns with LichfieldLive over the fact Lichfield District Council has had its “pants pulled down” very publicly in the Friarsgate fiasco, so are they prepared to put their faith in those who played a part in creating the current mess to clean it up and start again?