Look hard at the Conservative leaflets that have been pushed through your letterboxes. Do you see any mention of the purchase of the £51 million Shrewsbury shopping centres? £450 for every council tax payer? Of course not. The Conservatives pressured Shropshire Council into buying the retails units just before the market collapsed and that was before coronavirus. Before the pandemic, the shopping centres were providing the council with an annual return on investment of less than half a per cent.
The centres were pushed through the council by Peter Nutting who has long seen himself as Mr Shrewsbury with the task of promoting Shrewsbury First. After the purchase, he even had the gall to tell councillors there was no money for investment in the market towns.
The purchase of the shopping centres will go down as one of the most incompetent actions by Shropshire Council, second only to its failed attempt to reinvent Shropshire Council as a for profit enterprise called ip&e. Like the shopping centres, councillors were unable to scrutinise ip&e in depth. Shortly before the winding up of the company with unknown losses, the council leader Keith Barrow resigned as leader and councillor without notice.
The mood of the council changed with Barrow’s departure. Badly bruised by the ip&e scandal, it belatedly concentrated on ensuring internal efficiencies and upgrading the council’s computer systems, which at that point seemed to be held together with string and sticky paper. Shirehall was to be the new nirvana and reinvented at the cost of £25 million. I wasn’t impressed and called for council functions to be devolved around the county. How prescient that proved and the dream of a modern, efficient Shirehall was abandoned after hundreds of thousands of pounds had been wasted on consultants.
By this point Peter Nutting had his eye on the shopping centres. He wanted to improve Shrewsbury town centre and to make his stamp on it. Councillors were steamrollered into a decision in a secret session. Some of us had only received the confidential paperwork just before the meeting. We did not see the full business case or the advice from retail consultants seen by Peter Nutting. He was under the pressure to sign a deal within weeks or the offshore vendor would walk away. What nonsense. The Jersey based trust that owned the shopping centres was desperate to offload a part of its property portfolio which was plummeting in value. So desperate that it offered a sweetener to the council. A guaranteed income of £2.7 million in the first year. That conveniently plugged much of a gap in the council’s income for the next financial year.
The “urgent” deadline to purchase and the financial bung was enough to sway most councillors, including all members of the Conservative party which is fond of describing itself as the party for business. The council purchased an out of date turkey which has since gone rotten.
Income from the shopping centres had plummeted to £434,000 for 2019/21. That’s an annual return of less than 0.5% and that was before the pandemic. Even in difficult times for high streets, those that invest in retail real estate expected a return of at least 5%.
The latest plans are to covert the Pride Hill centre into a civic centre to replace Shirehall. That will cost another £11 million of our money. Nutting says that will paid for by the sale of Shirehall for housing. But it is yet more money that is going into the leader’s pet projects not into the market towns and rural areas.
In November 2019, the Conservatives announced they would cut £10 million from the annual highways budget with a promise the cut would be reversed when the shopping centres generate enough income. £10 million a year from failing shopping centres? The promise was in cloud cuckoo land even before the pandemic.
In their election manifesto for 6 May, the Conservatives are promising to restore the £10 million cut if they lead the next administration. This is yet more fantasy money that the council leadership admits it doesn’t have:
“There are many ways in which this funding could be provided including grants, lobbying for additional government funding, borrowing, use of reserves, efficiencies, capitalisation or reallocation of existing funds or compensatory cuts.”
But there is enough money to build the North West Relief Road around Shrewsbury, according to Peter Nutting. The current cost is estimated to be £87.2 million. The council must find £19.8 million towards that plus any overspend on the project budget. Peter Nutting bragged on BBC Radio Shropshire that he could easily find the missing £20 million. But he blocked my proposal for a working group to investigate setting up a fund for the market towns saying he wasn’t sure he could find the money.
That’s Peter Nutting for you. He can find money for Shrewsbury projects but the rest of the county is lucky to get crumbs.
The council’s finance officers say there will be a gap in between expenditure and income of £43.3m in 2022/23. This will grow to £58.0m in 2025/26. Shropshire Council’s general reserve has been raided to keep the organisation afloat and keep council tax down. That has led to the general reserve fund plummeting to 5%, just £10 million, half of the level accountants recommend. The council’s finance officers say we need to build this reserve up to £32 million but where is another £22 million going to come from?
Council leader Peter Nutting has been living in fantasy land for too long. When challenged by BBC Radio Shropshire about the fall in value of the shopping centres, he said its not real money. That sums up his attitude. If the value of his house fell in value by two-thirds, would he think that was not real money? To the Conservatives public money provided by taxpayers and rate payers is not real money. It is there for them to play with and then walk away with no responsibility for their actions.
The Conservatives in Shropshire have shown they cannot and must not be trusted with our money.