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My response to Cherwell District Council’s 2021/22 Budget

At the full meeting of 22nd February Cherwell District Council passed their budget for the forthcoming financial year. I spoke in the debate criticising a further lack of response to the climate emergency and highlighting the pressures that the council’s reliance on commercial investments have placed on its finances, in particular its ownership of the Castle Quay shopping centre in Banbury.

I’ve long been a critic of the decision to risk council tax payers money by investing in a shopping centre that was already starting to show signs of distress. It was a quite ludicrous decision at the worst possible time, just as the retail economy was collapsing. As a retail analyst myself I’m acutely aware of the pitfalls of investment into retail space with provincial shopping centres being some of the most challenging developments to achieve a viable return on now.

I and fellow members of the council have been excluded from the so-called cross party advisory group on the management of Castle Quay which is entirely composed of Conservative and Labour councillors. Labour supported the purchase of Castle Quay in 2018 for £63m with a further commitment of a similar sum to build a canal-side extension, including a cinema and a hotel.

Looking at the figures in this budget we can see that around a third of the financial pressures are a result of losses attributed to Castle Quay. Even if the council’s own optimistic predictions are correct, by the end of next year Castle Quay will have returned a loss of around £1.9m since the council took full ownership.

The value of the centre is now around half what was paid for it, amounting to a whopping £30m loss of equity in an investment backed by council-tax payers money!

Of course all this is now being blamed on the pandemic, but that’s only part of the story. This was always a reckless investment, and that recklessness has now translated into service cuts for everyone in Cherwell.

Whilst I agree that councils should be the drivers of town centre regeneration, that needs to be evenly distributed. Ownership of Castle Quay is likely to produce only dubious benefit to the people of Banbury with a potentially massive financial burden that will be felt by every Cherwell resident for years to come”

As a retail analyst and adviser, I made my misgivings about the public purchase of a struggling shopping centre clear to the council, even before I was a councillor, but was ignored.

I knew there were already signs of problems on the horizon with several of the major tenants of the scheme, not least Debenhams which recently collapsed into administration.  That failure is yet another problem that is about to hit the beleaguered development when lockdown is lifted.

The much vaunted opening of Lock 29 indoor market in the space previously occupied by one of the other failed anchor tenants – BHS – is yet to prove itself viable.  While I support the inclusion and encouragement of many of the smaller enterprises that were invited to trade there, it’s notable that the major occupier, Happerley, pulled out last year after only 3 months. 

I have asked several questions of the council about Happerley’s involvement with the scheme and the due diligence that went into licencing that company to trade there in the first place.  Those questions remain unanswered.

I originally supported the extension of the scheme with more canal-side restaurant and leisure uses, but as time has gone on it’s becoming apparent that even that is a dubious move. One of the major parts of the development is a cinema, and we are already seeing a market shift there with several of the large cinema operators closing venues and some going into administration

Little focus on climate change

We’ve just had a taste of the pressures a global catastrophe can place on our finances.  In the coming years, ecological threats will make the pandemic look like a mini-break.  Yet 2 years into our declaration of a climate emergency, we have another budget with very little progress towards tackling that threat.

The last budget had a tiny percentage of spending dedicated to the ecological emergency and even that wasn’t fully honoured.  This one has just 5 short paragraphs – less than a page of vague aspirations with no real commitment to anything.  Added to that we’ve increased charges for making homes more energy efficient, the very thing we should be encouraging!

Last year’s budget was billed as Cherwell’s “greenest budget ever” yet many of the pledges made then remain unfulfilled, not least the promise to convert lighting at Bodicote House to LED which would have saved the council money as well as helping to save the environment.

On top of that we also have increased building regulations charges for thermal upgrades to buildings and for the installation of solar panels. These are the very things we should be encouraging residents and businesses to do. Many councils don’t charge at all for Solar Panel installations

It’s becoming clear that Cherwell’s ruling Conservative members simply don’t understand the meaning of the word ’emergency’.  We need to be taking bold steps towards tackling climate change, but the Conservatives would rather simply box tick and greenwash with projects that are either not of their making or are never completed. 

The huge financial commitment that is now being poured into the new waterside development in Banbury could have gone towards renewable energy schemes that would have both helped with climate change and returned a regular profit for the council instead of the losses we see from Castle Quay now. 

Unfortunately due to the short-sightedness and fiscal incompetence of the council’s political  leadership we are now committed to a path that I think will just bring further financial misery to the residents we should be working to protect.”

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