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Farming, The EU, The Expressway and Why You Should Vote Green [Video]

Spent the early morning yesterday in Otmoor being interviewed by the BBC about our policies on farming, food standards and stewardship of the land.  Lots to say on this, but as always happens with these things, a 10-minute interview gets condensed into a 10-second comment!

On the way back we passed several signs on field gates warning about how the area is under threat from the Oxford to Cambridge Expressway.  As someone who’s been involved in the campaign to stop this ridiculous and unnecessary development I thought I’d add a few more comments by way of a video and also expand a bit on what the Green Party would do to protect our vital green spaces.

This is something I’ve been involved with for a number of years now, right across the county, trying to combat the epidemic of projects that want to destroy these areas in the name of profit and greed.

Yes we need housing, but it has to be the right housing in the right places.  Building on green belt will never be viable in terms of affordable housing as the land is so expensive.  Developers build in a set level of profitability, usually a staggering 20%!  That means that removing protection from green spaces like these just increases the number of high value, unaffordable houses being built.

Not only that, concreting over green spaces means they can no longer lock up the carbon that we need to reduce in our environment, and they also increase the likelihood of flooding as they can no longer absorb the increased level of rain we’re getting as the climate patterns shift.

The Conservatives back all these projects because they are there to help wealthy landowners, developers and investors make a fat profit out of our rural heritage.  As your MP I would resist all these projects, just as I now resist them as a District and Parish Councillor.

Greens CAN WIN

As we’ve just seen in Wallingford, where another Green councillor has just been elected to the county council, Greens CAN WIN and we WILL WIN if people get out and give us their vote.  Even if I don’t win in Banbury, a significant increase in the Green vote there will send a strong message to government that we demand change.  An increased Green vote will be a visible signal of that, whereas another ‘heroic defeat’ for the other parties will get lost in the usual fog of post-election reporting.

Now more than ever we need a strong Green voice, for the environment, for our future and for our children’s future.  Please vote Green on December 12th.

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A Spectacular Result for the Green/Libdem Partnership

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Another election fought and another campaign behind us n Cherwell

It was very solid result for the Greens in Kidlington East with a convincing second place well above Labour and a tripling of our 2016 vote. Moreover a spectacular win for my electoral partner, Libdem candidate Alaric Rose in Kidlington West who nearly doubled the Libdem vote and completely wiped the floor with the Conservatives!

It would have been great to have won my seat as well, but with such a short campaign it was hard to get the message out to enough people.  Ultimately it was a total validation for both of us of our decision to work together for the common good.

Slightly galling that the Carmen Griffiths kept her seat as I understand she was hardly seen on the campaign trail. She wasn’t at the count, didn’t make an appearance on polling day (to my knowledge) and instead sat back and let local Tory cult figures like Maurice Billington do all the campaigning for her.

Judging by her attendance record at council meetings this seems to be a pattern of behaviour for a pretty lacklustre councillor.  I think many of the voters in the ward didn’t actually know which blue candidate they were voting for and seemed oblivious to the fact that there were more dedicated candidates on offer who would much more effectively represent them in Cherwell.

Perhaps when Carmen and her remaining Tory colleagues fail to turn up at other key planning meetings and the green belt is concreted over, bringing with it traffic chaos, pollution, and the collapse of local infrastructure, all those that trooped into the polling station to dutifully put a cross in the Tory box, regardless of the candidate, will realise their mistake.  It might be a bit late then though.

One other stark reality from the results is that if Labour had endorsed me (as we suggested) and we had endorsed them in one of the North Oxfordshire wards (as we offered) we would both have easily won our seats, meaning a new Labour, Green and Libdem seat on the council and 3 Tory losses instead of 1. Just imagine what sort of message that would have sent out! Especially on important and urgent local issues like the building on green belt in the area.

Labour really need to wake up to the reality of fractured left politics in this country and work with other parties like the Greens and the Libdems. We need to stop living in the past and embrace the future. There’s more that unites us than divides us and if we’re going to stop yet another Conservative government in 2022 we must start building alliances. If anyone from Labour wants to talk, I’m all ears.

In the meantime I intend to go on being a thorn in the side of Cherwell’s complacent Tory leadership and will be working closely with Alaric as part of our pre-election co-operative agreement.  I may not be able to vote on council matters, but I can certainly speak up in the council chamber and outside in the media.  I’ll be fighting hard on local green belt and conservation issues and keeping a wary eye on the attendance record of my Tory opponent.  The Greens will be fighting the elections in the ward once again next year and I hope that will again be in partnership with the Liberal Democrats.

Finally a big thank you to everyone who voted for me and to the dedicated people who helped us pull together such a professional campaign in such a short time. the Greens made historic gains across the country yesterday and I think it’s a credit to all our members that we can do this stuff on such a small budgets and with small teams. Just think what we could do in government!

Stay tuned and follow this website/blog for updates on what I and the Green Party will be doing between now and the next elections.

VoteGreen#2019

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Should Cherwell District Council be Risking Public Money Buying Shopping Centres?

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As I said in the recent election debate on the BBC, in my opinion they shouldn’t.

There are many reasons it’s a bad idea, both from a business perspective and as part of local spending priorities.

I’ve worked in retail nearly all my life.  I built and ran a national chain of jewellery stores across the country and traded in several shopping centres, including some of the most prestigious in the country such as Bluewater in Kent and the new Bullring Centre in Birmingham.  I write a regular column for Retail week Magazine and comment regularly in the national press on retail issues as well as offering consultancy services.  One of my main focusses is independent retail and commercial property.  So I know a little bit about what I’m talking about.

Cherwell District Council (CDC) leader Barry Wood claims that buying the Castle Quay Shopping Centre in Banbury is a good deal for the people of Cherwell.  This decision was also backed by the Labour group on the council and their leader Sean Woodcock has assured me there’s a good business case for doing it.  Unfortunately neither of them have been able to show it to me so far.

Their belief is that buying a commercial property like a shopping centre is a good idea as property will always rise in value.  This may be the case for domestic property and some kinds of commercial premises, but not always with retail space.

A Good Investment?

The argument for buying the scheme seems to be that if they hadn’t, the centre would have shut down.  It has many long term empty units and is generally struggling to compete in an ever crowded marketplace.  The council’s decision a few years ago to allow a new shopping park to open on the outskirts of Banbury haven’t helped its plight.

It’s extremely unlikely though that it would have closed down.  Much more likely that it would have been offloaded by its pension investment owners to another investment company with more experience of running a shopping centre than some local councillors.

Moreover, if the argument is that the centre was about to collapse, that doesn’t exactly make it an attractive investment for public money does it?

There have been some shopping centre failures in the past, but they are few and far between.  But when they do go, they tend to go completely.  That means an almost total loss for anyone unlucky enough to be the owner at the time.  There will be some residual value in the land, but that’s unlikely to reflect the full price paid for the whole development.

There have been a growing number of retail failures in recent years with 650 collapses so far this year alone, and we’re not even half way through yet!  Some of them very high profile and heavily leveraged operations.  Others are busy negotiating partial closures and rent reductions with their landlords.  Others are moving more into the online arena and abandoning physical retail space almost altogether.

None of this bodes well for an under-let, under-invested and down at heel shopping centre in a struggling town in North Oxfordshire.

So essentially CDC are gambling with public money against the odds.  And it doesn’t end there.

Other Costs

According to Barry Wood the scheme is turning a profit at the moment, but as I’ve said previously, I’ve not seen evidence of that.  I have seen a large number of long term voids in the centre, and with the potential for these to increase in number I fear the profitability may be marginal or likely to decline.

There will also be ongoing running costs for the centre and presumably additional investment to do whatever it is with the place that they feel will revitalise it.  Again details on that are sketchy, but I think there’s some talk about dividing the larger units into smaller ones to attract independent retailers.  Whilst I support that idea to some extent there are a lot of things to consider about that course of action.

Firstly the cost of doing the work, which may include major re-modelling of the units due to, amongst other things, fire regulations.  I’ve seen at least one shopping centre management come unstuck with similar plans due to rules on access to fire exit routes.

Helping Smaller Retailers?

Secondly smaller independents usually don’t have a huge budget for shopfitting, so there will be additional cost in partially fitting out the units, including new shopfronts etc to attract smaller operators and to ensure that their stores fit in with a modern shopping centre scheme.

Business Rates

Thirdly there’s the loss of business rates on the empty units that are there now, and will most likely be there for a while.  Considering the current climate in retail there’s also a good chance that voids could increase.  At the moment the landlords will be paying rates on those premises even though they’re empty and a good deal of that money goes to CDC.  With the council now being the landlords, they’re going to be paying the rates to themselves, effectively wiping out that income.

Devaluation of the Asset

Finally there’s the issue of valuation.  Shopping developments are broadly valued on their rental potential.  This is why landlords will leave units empty rather than let them out at a reduced rent.  If the council’s plan is to lower the rent for smaller or other retailers, that will have a knock on effect on the value of those units and then on others when rent reviews come around.  Other tenants now paying a higher rent will also push for a reduction when their leases come up for renewal or rent reviews are due or maybe even before.

The net effect of this would be to push down rents, not only in the centre but across the town, reducing loan to asset values across the board.  In broad terms I’d welcome that.  I’ve long argued that retail property values are hugely inflated.  But in terms of the Council’s investment exposure in Castle Quay it’s a potentially dangerous situation, not only leading to a potential devaluation of the asset, but also any loans secured on it being partially called in.

There may be some balancing in terms of appreciation on the total asset value, but in the current climate and in a falling retail market, there a very good chance that the overall value of the scheme will fall relative to the amount the council has sunk into it, both as an initial investment and any further day to day expenditure.

All of this appears to have passed Cherwell Councillors and the leaders of Labour and the Conservatives by.  They obviously have a very patchy understanding of how retail property works and the implications and pitfalls they are letting us all as council tax payers in for.

Moreover there’s the question of if so much money should be focussed in the north of the district while ignoring other areas.  Mr Wood commented in the Radio debate on Wednesday that he recognised that there were empty units in Pioneer Square in Bicester and that it was difficult to get them filled.  Yet this doesn’t seem to have concerned him over the purchase of Castle Quay.  Indeed, having set the precedent in Banbury I asked him during the debate if the council intended to buy Pioneer Square as well.  He didn’t reply.

Other Options

A more sensible and prudent approach to the problems in both areas would be to work with the landlords rather than bailing them out with public money.  Leave them with the risk whilst introducing local initiatives that help smaller retailers get a foothold and would also support the centre.

These could include rates reductions, which Barry Wood dismissed out of hand when I challenged him on it during the election debate.  Neither he nor Sean Woodcock appeared to know that it has been within the gift of local councils to reduce rates on specific properties at their discretion for several years now.

If they wanted to provide smaller, more affordable space for independent retailers, they could lease units from the centres on a medium to long term basis, probably negotiating favourable terms with the landlords as a council will have a very good covenant.  These could then be divided up (if required) and then sublet on flexible terms on reduced rents to retailers, although this would have to be agreed beforehand with the landlord for the same reasons discussed above concerning rental levels and valuations.

This would achieve the same aim of revitalising schemes both in Banbury and Bicester and would not involve the council in risking large amounts of public money.  It would also mean that the bulk of the £60m they are now tying up in one area could be spread across the district.

This is the kind of strategic thinking we need, rather that the amateurish speculation of a council who seems to want to play at being shopkeepers with our money.  This is why we need a more diverse representation on the council and councillors like me who will challenge these misguided moves before millions of pounds of desperately needed council funds are put at risk.