Monday, 28 May 2012

...and sometimes I sits and thinks (this time about Westfield and Bradford)


"Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits." Satchel Paige

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...



Anonymous said...

Pretty ineffective piece of arse-covering, Simon.

Of course you could have put penalty clauses in - it matters not who was funding what, a simple clause saying that if the promised scale of development was not up and running by a target date, then a penalty of £x per day would become payable by the defaulting developer. And a second clause to ensure that the lead developer had in place commercial insurance to secure that penalty against any liquidation default. Not hard is it ?

If I can think of it, all those over-paid nonentities sitting round that table should have - you/they are all equally guilty of gross incompetence.

Try again for a better excuse - but I think you'll struggle.

Simon Cooke said...

You may have "thought of it" - and next time leave your name, I'm open about this perhaps you should try too, I promise not to sue you for the libel - but it wouldn't work. For the pretty straightforward reason that you wouldn't get a developer to agree to it. If we commission someone - with our money - to do something we can put in penalties. If we expect them to do the development at their risk with their money then "penalties" are a nonsense. In the end you can't make a developer develop.

Anonymous said...

And if the develop didn't like the full terms, Bradford would still have an undemolished centre, albeit an ageing one, where folk could still shop and businesses could still trade - instead, all it's got is a permanent hole in the ground, with all the guilty parties pointing fingers in a circular firing-squad.

If the upside available to a developer had been attractive enough, they would have done a deal WITH penalty clauses - it obviously wasn't attractive enough but the idiot council let them do the demolition phase anyway, not spotting that, if the rebuild never happened, all they would have is a hole in the ground. Guess what they got, a hole in the ground.

Sometimes you've just got to man-up to your part in a monumental cock-up - this is one of those times.

Simon Cooke said...

Just so you're clear - this is the last comment I'm putting on this post from "Anonymous" where it chooses to insult me and the intelligence of anyone who knows the first thing about development finance.

No developer - any where, under any circumstances - will sign a time limited agreement with penalty clauses.

And maybe if we'd walked away from the deal we'd still have those tatty '60s buildings - half empty but still there. And maybe that would be "better".

Or just perhaps we'd have endlass accusations from people who thing they know better - all telling us how useless we are because we've not delivered a redevelopment at Broadway.

Frankly I'd rather be shot for trying to do something to make the place better than for doing nothing for fear of getting it wrong.

As I said - no more 'anonymous' comments on this post. If you give your name, you'll get posted, if not you won't.

Nadeem Iqbal said...

Brilliant article Simon, it really is food for thought.

I think many people are not informed correctly of a development contract and the clauses which CAN be added.

Personally I think an independent inquire should be held but people who have concerns should provide evidence that illegal activities have taken place as an inquire will cost the taxpayer.