District Councillor for Kidlington East Parish Councillor for Kidlington, Gosford, Water Eaton and Yarnton
Author: Ian Middleton
Ian Middletonhttp://wavinganddrowning.wordpress.comIan writes a regular column for Retail Week Magazine and has written for The Independent, Huffington Post, Evolve Politics and The London Economic as well as contributing comment pieces for national newspapers and magazines. He was the Green Party Parliamentary candidate for Banbury in North Oxfordshire in the 2015, 2017 and 2019 General Elections and is a district and parish councillor in Cherwell in Oxfordshire.
Ian has appeared on TV and local and national radio talking about politics and retail. He is an ethical entrepreneur with areas of expertise in retail and social entrepreneurship, but he also writes and comments on music, food, the environment, ethical consumerism, technology, renewable energy and animal and human rights.
He is also a trained psychologist, musician, runner, hiker, allotmenteer, vegan, humanist, a committed atheist, beer drinker and compulsive crosser of lines.
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I’m standing as a county councillor because so many things that I’ve tried to do as a District Councillor have ended up being under the purview of the County Council. Problems with roads, cycle paths, flooding and other county wide issues are raised with me frequently and I do my best to deal with them. But the stumbling block is often that the county council tends to be less receptive to me as a District Councillor leaving me with very little in the way of influence.
If I sat on the county council I think so many of the things I work and campaign for, not least tackling important issues like climate change, would be far easier to get done.
To that end I hope you’ll feel able to support me in some way, either by donating to and sharing my fundraiser or hopefully helping out in other practical ways like delivering leaflets or letters, filling envelopes, or maybe helping with door knocking or telephone canvassing. If you’d like to help just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s always lots to do and in the compressed timescale that the pandemic has forced us into, even less time to do it now. There’s less than 2 months to go, but it’s 2 months in which we can all make a difference to our own lives and those of others!
Cherwell District Council announced it’s budget last week detailing £4.4m in cuts and extra charges that it will be imposing on the residents of Cherwell as well as an increase in council tax.
During the budget debate I raised my concerns that around a third of these cuts and charges were as a result of losses incurred over the past two years in Banbury
In a nutshell the centre is predicted to make a loss of around £1.6m in the 21/22 financial year after having made a similar loss in 20/21. On a broader scale, taking into account some small gains in the first 2 years the council owned the development, it will have racked up losses in the region of £2.5m by the end of the next financial year if the current predictions are correct. To close the gap left by that hole in the budget there have been additional service cuts with around a third of those in the forthcoming budget directly attributable to pressures from Castle Quay.
I was also interviewed by BBC Radio Oxford, although my section was recorded and heavily edited, after which Cllr Tony Ilot ,the Lead Member for Financial Management & Governance on Cherwell District Council, was invited on the show live to respond. If we’d been on at the same time I might have pointed out that as the councillor responsible for this development it would have been more encouraging had he bothered to do his homework before coming on. At one point he seemed uncertain about how much the losses amounted to (he guessed at £1.3m and the interviewer had to correct him that it was £1.6m) and he also claimed that the £1.6m was a cumulative loss since the council took ownership. It’s not, it’s just the predicted loss for the forthcoming year on top of a similar one for the last year. You’d think the Lead Member for Financial Management & Governance might have been a little more cognisant of the situation given the scale of problem, but this lack of concern over important details is a familiar theme with Cherwell’s Conservatives.
Cllr Ilot also seemed quite laid back about the fact that the centre is now worth less than half what was paid for item having lost a whopping £30m in value. They are also currently spending even more than the original purchase price for the shopping centre on the canal side extension which, as a retail analyst myself, I think they are going to struggle to make a return on.
The council’s line on this has been that the losses at CQ have not directly resulted in an increase in the council tax. As that increase was already in the pipeline anyway that’s probably fair to say, but it also fair to say that if this white elephant wasn’t providing such a huge financial drag on the council’s resources, we may not have needed to increase the tax and we certainly wouldn’t have need many of the cuts in services.
It will be interesting to see how much support we get for the high street in Kidlington and the Exeter Close project in the light of all this. Certainly something we can point them to if they start penny-pinching on our project to support the eye-watering amounts of public money that’s being poured into one scheme in the far north of the district that we’re all footing the bill for.
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.
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
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.”