GAMBLING £57 million of taxpayers' money to ensure Chester's Northgate retail and leisure scheme becomes a reality is a “risk worth taking”.
This was the view of Cheshire West and Chester Council's Labour-controlled cabinet at a meeting on Wednesday – and it was shared by senior members of the Conservative opposition group.
The only voice of dissent came from a former Tory councillor, Andrew Needham, who raised serious concerns about the scheme during public speaking time.
The Leader reported last week that no third-party investor had yet come forward to fund the project through its construction phase.
However, Cllr David Armstrong, cabinet member for legal and finance, assured members that a number of negotiations were ongoing to secure private sector financing.
He asked members to back a recommendation to fund the project to completion, which means freeing up a further £13.2 million to cover the “final site assembly budget”.
Cabinet members backed the proposal, which must now go before the full council at a meeting on October 26.
CWaC has already stumped up £21.65 million of public funds in design costs and preparatory work and £22 million on acquiring the Forum offices, which sit on the proposed Northgate site.
This means the “maximum total abortive cost” of scheme stands at a whopping £56.85 million.
Cllr Stuart Parker, shadow cabinet member for communities and wellbeing, said the Northgate scheme was “30 years in the making” and the council's partners had stressed it “remained viable”.
He accepted there were risks, but added: “The risk is worth taking.”
Cllr Armstrong said risks were being minimised by placing “milestones” to ensure targets are met.
“As far as possible we want to get it absolutely right but inevitably there are risks,” he said. “We are trying to mitigate these risks as much as possible and so far things have gone to plan.”
However, Mr Needham, who is also the chairman of the Cheshire Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), said warning bells should be ringing after £80 million of council funding was pumped into the Barons Quay retail development in Northwich, which had attracted “no tenants”.
“There's no shortage of shops [in Chester] but we have a housing crisis,” he told cabinet members. “I think there needs to be a review of priorities for spending.”
The Northgate development is expected to be worth £300 million making it a significant investment for the council.
Major anchors for the project have already been secured in the shape of a House of Fraser department store, a Picturehouse six-screen cinema and a new-build Crowne Plaza Hotel.
The first phase of construction is due to start next year, opening at the end of 2019. Phase two begins later in 2018 with the whole development opening late 2020 or early 2021.
Once complete, it will also boast a new indoor market, restaurant hub in the former library and 120 new homes.
See full story in the Chester Leader