Monday, 4 November 2013

Why I can’t stop worrying and learn to love the CBD.

Auditors Grant Thornton have been critical in their annual letter to the council of its failure to identify the full cost building the new Civic Centre. They expressed concern that the full £48 million cost was not made public earlier, in particular the additional £7.65 million earmarked to outfit the new council offices and the £7.9 million cost of maintaining a presence at the former Civic Centre in Stoke.

The auditors are, according to the letter, details of which were published by the Sentinel, ‘satisfied that the decision to build the CBD is based on a clear economic rationale for the regeneration of the city.’ They added though that were ‘concerned’ that ‘this decision and the identification of the further building costs and ongoing running costs of the CBD scheme have increased financial pressure on the council. We are concerned the full financial costs of the CBD were not identified earlier and members were not able to consider them as part of the overall proposal.’

Also speaking to the Sentinel interim director of financial services for the council Peter Lewis said the authority was ‘committed to being as open as possible about this process and will act on the auditor’s comments.’ Council leader Mohammed Pervez said there was ‘no denying there are huge financial pressures on the council’, but that he was ‘pleased the auditor understood our rationale for the CBD and recognises the review of the number of council buildings is a positive response to concerns of local communities.’

One afternoon last week I caught a bus out of Hanley and, thanks to a traffic jam on Broad Street had an opportunity, perhaps my first real one, to contemplate the size of the CBD, both physically and as a huge political and financial gamble. One that could, were it to go belly up, prove that even though it is multi-coloured rather than white an elephant can still cost a fortune.

Grant Thornton for all their ‘concern’ about the cost of the CBD expressed overall satisfaction with the state of the city’s finances, describing the £56 million of spending cuts made over the past two years as a ‘positive area of performance.’ That’s on then, nothing to worry about, at least not if you’re blowing into town with a calculator to take a look at the books.

Things are rather different if you live out there in cold reality and have seen the services you depend on decimated over the past two years. In that case you probably moved from concern to desperation some time ago.

There is something wrong with the whole CBD project; in fact there are several things wrong with it and we could end up repenting them at our leisure, whether we want to do so or not.

For a start the rationale behind the CBD and its sister project the City Sentral retail development is deeply flawed, it seems to depend mostly on a sort of ‘if you build it they will come’ approach. To be fair they might too, but there are a lot of cities out there hawking office and retail space, in what looks like being a buyer’s market for some time to come turning grand plans into real profits is notoriously tough.

The council has, grudgingly, done the right thing by retaining a presence in Stoke and other towns, but this is not allied to a wider vision for reviving all six towns. Once again they have piled their chips on the square marked Hanley, spun the roulette wheel and are hoping for the best.

Then there is the small matter of the ever rising cost of the project, even if the city wasn’t being battered by massive spending cuts, with equally large social implications attached, this would be a huge debt to hang around the neck of local taxpayers. Large capital projects like the CBD often take years to turn a profit and that it with competent management in place from day one. The fact that nobody seems to have thought that they’d need to budget for fitting out their swanky new offices puts a huge question mark over the ability of the council to deliver.

Most dangerous of all is the lack of transparency, the plan to build the CBD was forced through in the teeth of public opposition and, if the auditors are to be believed, without councillors being given sufficient information to hold the executive to account.

This is no way to take a major decision that could have an impact on the economy of this city that lasts for decades and says much about the complacency and distance form the concerns of local people of the ruling Labour group. The regeneration of our city is an issue of importance for everyone who lives and works here, one that requires people to reach past artificial party differences and work together for the good of all.

That won’t happen so long as the current leader and cabinet remain in place. On this issue Labour have shown a shocking level of contempt for the concerns of local people, they decided what they were going to do first and then consulted with councillors from other parties and the voting public as an afterthought. That is no basis for sustained economic regeneration; it is at best a recipe for stasis; and at worst for total disaster.

The people of this city want and deserve much better which is why in the by-election next week and the full council elections in 2015 they will carry out their own audit of how this council has performed. Their verdict will, I suspect, be far less kindly than the one delivered by Grant Thornton.

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