"Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits." Satchel Paige
Monday, 28 May 2012
...and sometimes I sits and thinks (this time about Westfield and Bradford)
This lunchtime I was sat in the little temporary park that sits in part of what is now known as the “Westfield” development. The sun was shining, a few folk were taking advantage of the space to catch a tan and I was eating a ham and coleslaw sandwich. And thinking - would I have made the same decisions faced with the same situation again?
There’s a great deal of noise about this development – at the weekend some masked “occupiers” camped out in the ‘hole’ (as an aside “V for Vendetta” has a great deal to answer for mask-wise) and plenty of local agitators make random, mostly unsubstantiated allegations of corruption, incompetence or ignorance.
I’m going to start with the unpopular bit – throughout the development the council has acted in good faith and has delivered on the promises it made to developers, Yorkshire Forward, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and through them the European Commission. Occupiers, agitators and those riding the bandwagon of local annoyance may wish it to be otherwise but councils are in the business of running local services not developing shopping centres.
Around ten years ago, I sat in a series of meetings with the chief executive and chairman of Yorkshire Forward where, along with council officers, we argued that Yorkshire Forward should support the Broadway development (as it was then known) despite Will Alsop – creator of Bradford’s city centre masterplan – preferring to make the area another park. In the end, we won the argument and the scheme remained. Bradford went on to secure millions in ERDF funding to move the roads and sort out the services.
The demolition – following a long-winded compulsory purchase action – was entirely funded by the developer. And, if you think for a few seconds, this is why you can’t put on a penalty clause – all the scheme funding is from the developer so any ‘penalty’ would be pointless. You can’t penalise a developer for not developing. It’s a bit like me fining you for not putting up a house extension.
There’s also no point in an end date – at least not a short- to medium-term end date. Think again for a moment. With an end date the developer does not control the asset – they’re expected to spend a lot of money without the minimum assurance of owning the property at the end of the process. In the case of Westfield, the developer has spent many millions already – this would not have happened without allowing them to develop at their own pace. We would still have a set of tatty 1960s shops and offices, we would have no prospect of European funding for off-site works and we probably wouldn’t have a developer.
Maybe we were all wrong. Perhaps Will Alsop’s anti-development masterplan was the right thing to do – the current prospects for the retail industry suggest this might be the case. But back in 2004 the Bradford public’s repeated desire – expressed in surveys, letters, comments at meetings and countless informal encounters – was for “better shopping”. Imagine the response had we turned round and said; “sorry Bradford but you’re wrong, we’ll build a park not a shopping centre”! Not to mention the recipe for scandal as we tried (at great cost) to extract ourselves from a development agreement – for the record dating back to 1998 and originally between the Council and Caddick, the Leeds-based developer.
In a way, it would be good to have an enquiry into all this – I’m pretty confident that the agitators would be disappointed in what comes out. For my part, as I sat on that bench in the temporary park, I came to the conclusion that faced with the same situation and the same information, I would make the same decisions. We’d still have pushed for demolition, we’d still have acted quickly so as to secure ERDF funding and we’d still have encouraged a swift planning process.
In 2006 when I finished as Portfolio Holder for Regeneration, I left behind a development agreement with a strong developer, a cleared site, completed services and road diversions and a full planning permission.
All that remained was for the developer to build the shopping centre...