An artist's impression of the Friarsgate development

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).

An artist's impression of the new Friarsgate development
An artist’s impression of the Friarsgate development

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.

Cllr Mike Wilcox
Cllr Mike Wilcox

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?


Founder of Lichfield Live and editor of the site.

13 replies on “The questions residents need the leader of Lichfield District Council to answer about the demise of Friarsgate”

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  1. They all have to go. We need a full council election NOW so we can have our say and tell these incompetent buffoons that we’re not going to be taken for mugs. Heads need to roll.

  2. Good questions Ross. They also need to draw up a plan as a matter of priority on how they go forward, as poorly managed knee jerk “Fire Sales” to developers hoping to take advantage of the situation will permanently damage Lichfield for generations, now is the time the council opened up, and ask what we want, not what they think will get them out of a hole quickly, this could be a chance to make a real difference to the whole area.

  3. We can blame councillors and ask for them all to stand down and allow for a full local election but we also need to learn what officers of the council were up to. They must have been advising the council on this with frequent update reports and so we need to see what the council officers were saying and how hard were they pushing ?

  4. Ross, a fantastic article.

    Totally agree we need to see the advice that has been given. I have had many dealings with the planning department and they always say they have too much work and not enough staff.

    How will the councillors be punished for this mess? They will be elected with larger majorities. They know they are not accountable. Put on a blue rosette every few years and they are safe

  5. I simply don’t have enough time to dedicate to this, but my initial thoughts are: are councils operating without boundaries or controls, since the Auditing Commission ceased auditing councils in 2011 and the government hasn’t, as far as I can tell, put anything in place to cover this work?

    It’s time for Michael Fabricant to raise this with the government, and appropriate governance, if it exists.

  6. Dont know what all the fuss is about its only tax payers money it’s been the same since I was a kid. Including all governments for the same period, age 56.

  7. Good article.
    Why do we not put in a freedom of information request on this. Also link to the police station and the cpo of the garage site.
    It’s now not commercially sensitive as the project is finished so this can’t be an excuse.

  8. Several weeks ago for the first time in my life I went on a shopping trip with Mum to Stafford anyhow my point is that Stafford’s Riverside Shopping Restaurant and Cinema Complex along with its multistorey Car Park would be a much better idea for the area of Lichfield which was pencilled for the Friarsgate redevelopment in other words several chain stores and restaurants plus entertainment facilities all nicely and nearly spread out as an oppose to a cluster of shops flats and offices in ‘real life ‘ Minecraft style buildings. All in all the land earmarked for Friarsgate can and should still be redeveloped and secondly Lichfield District Council and U+I property investors can if they put their minds and initiative to it still come up with a long term plausible regeneration plan for Birmingham Road and Frog Lane not to mention a new merged transport hub a Lichfield City Station. Regarding a new bus station now we’re living in a digital mobile technology era they could start by removing those 2 silver phone boxes near the train station car park to make way for several bus pick up areas.

  9. An ATM at the stations would be useful also. I know a number of people who have visited Lichfield, offered the taxi driver a card. Then had a response, like they had just insulted his family.

    Then been driven to an ATM at more expense. The stations are not welcoming at all.

  10. While I hold little respect for this council I think there is a wider issue regarding how our democracy!? works. Behind the scenes of the council there is a plethora of full time council officers with self glorifying titles operating the puppet strings. They are not elected or accountable but operate on a “recommendation” basis which they expect will be enacted. This is the “norm” for decisions major and minor that the council inevitably adopts. While it is true that advice will be needed on some issues that does not have to be a recommendation and it gives council officers disproportionate powers when they do. I have seen it in action, and council members seem reluctant to vary such recommendations when they appear to come with authority. Democracy should be OPEN (Mr.Wilkox), DEBATED, and HONEST. It should also be by the people for the people. I believe there may be vested interests in some elements of the Lichfield administration. It is difficult to get answers, the computer system is dysfunctional and it adopts a “We know best” attitude. If this is democracy then the dictionary definition must be wrong.

  11. @Darryl Godden so right, his silence is deafening. At a time when a major component of his constituencies future development plan has (rightly) collapsed the great man remains quiet. His he really too busy with his television work to be bothered to raise his head above the parapet or has he finished for the summer already? My bet is he would not be so inconspicuous had the control of these decision not been firmly in the hands of councillors from the same political persuasion as his.

  12. @Nellygb @Darryl Godden, the great man has spoken (see other article) and said nothing that addresses the way the council have behaved, and of course he never will.

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