Thursday afternoon was to be the big announcement. Local media were invited to a briefing to hear about the future plans for redevelopment and repurposing and the Shrewsbury shopping centres purchased for a princely ransom of £51 million in 2018. But hours before the briefing it was called off. BBC Radio Shropshire’s Joanne Gallagher said on air this morning that she and media colleagues were told that that the council paper on the shopping centres had been pulled.
That was it. The story of the month was dead. Except it wasn’t. When the council papers were published yesterday the shopping centre paper had reappeared. Except it is now exempt, which is a council code word for secret. Neither the press of public will be allowed to see the paper or hear the in camera debate in Theatre Severn next Thursday.
The reason that the shopping centres are being discussed in camera is because they are an embarrassment for the council leadership. It is a council that doesn’t know a hawk from a handsaw, an investment from a flop. There is no reason why this paper should be exempt. I am calling for it to be released immediately.
I have read the secret council paper. There is nothing in it that needs to be hidden. Even the financial information is not commercially or publicly sensitive. It is not talking about future income, commercial lets, tenants of anything like that. According to BBC Radio Shropshire, the council is being asked to approve £1.2 million for work to develop new plans for the shopping centres and adjacent car parks. I am not allowed to confirm that but I certainly can’t deny it. Why should that be a secret? It is public money being used for a public purpose. I will be calling for this paper to removed from exemption at next Thursday’s Council meeting.
Arguably Shropshire Council has been in a mess for a very long time. But under Lezley Picton’s leadership since May, it seems to have drifted into chaos. Scrutiny is weaker than ever with secret meetings to discuss how the committee will react in public session. Trial schemes on the highways are no sooner announced than they are abandoned. And there is the Shrewsbury shopping centres which are the subject of this first in a short series of articles highlighting how the new administration, just months old, is falling apart at the seams.
Joanne Gallagher explained on BBC Radio Shropshire this morning that the secret papers include a recommendation to demolish Pride Hill shopping centre. This was meant to be the base for a new civic centre allowing Shirehall to be demolished. Under the new plan, Pride Hill would be earmarked for multistorey car park and a hotel. Raven Meadows multistorey car park will be knocked down and perhaps replaced by a restaurant. The Riverside shopping centre will be razed to the ground and will become the Shropshire Council’s HQ in a purpose built carbon neutral building which could also house other organisations.
Gallagher is a widely respected reporter. She asked Shropshire Council to comment on the plans. It refused. She approached councillors, presumably senior Tories, for comment. They wanted to comment but were told they could not.
So, what’s so secret about this council paper. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The only matter that the Tory administration is desperate to keep secret is its own incompetence. It wants to hide complete failure to secure a workable plan for a large area of Shrewsbury town centre that it bought at the peak of the market and now is worth very little.
Lezley Picton’s cabinet is running scared. The gagging order on all cabinet members on the shopping centres means she cannot trust her team to give a consistent message. Perhaps the truth is there is no message. It is not easy to get lost in Shrewsbury town centre but the council cabinet seems be staggering around without direction. Lost in the shuts.
Picton should do another u-turn and publish the paper on the options for the future of the shopping centre sites and allow a full and open debate before and at next Thursday’s council meeting.
This article has has been amended to take account of Joanne Gallagher’s tweet last night
For the record, @lezley4tern didn’t order the Cllrs not to speak or come on air. It was pulled by the authority but not the Leader.
— Joanne Pryce Gallacher (@joanne_bbc) September 16, 2021