Porthcawl regeneration: Bridgend Council’s risky business?

Thanks to an anonymous commentator for flagging this up.

Over the summer, Carwyn Jones asked Porthcawl residents for their views on regeneration. The process came up with ideas ranging from a new McDonalds restaurant to long-standing calls for a swimming pool.

It does whiff of Labour wheeling out their biggest gun to stall for time and keep people on side –  but it’s still positive. Hopefully Carwyn can use his clout to get a few of the ideas put forward into the regeneration plans. Ultimately though, this is between Bridgend Council, the Evans families (landowners) and the developers (Chelverton Deeley Freed).

I clearly don’t agree with everything he’s doing as First Minister, but by and large Carwyn’s done the role of AM for Bridgend proud from the start and I make a distinction between the two. People elsewhere in Wales (and Bridgend) need to know that he still does “the other job” and takes it seriously – though you can’t please everyone all of the time.

There was a major development in the regeneration saga this week. Bridgend Council amended their budget to fund infrastructure at the Salt Lake Car Park site. This could enable regeneration projects there to proceed, following Tesco’s withdrawal a few weeks ago.

The Glamorgan Gazette reported this story with a slightly positive spin (from a council perspective), saying that Bridgend Council were “left with a £4.7million bill.” That isn’t technically true. There were three options on the table (Item 7 here Part 4.2 in the document):

  • Option 1 – Re-market the site with the same conditions as before – the developers fund infrastructure improvements (i.e. roads, utilities, landscaping)
  • Option 2 – Leave the land “fallow” and wait for the economy to improve.
  • Option 3 – The council invests in infrastructure improvements themselves, once they have an agreement from an interested developer/supermarket.

Hypothetically speaking, I would’ve leaned towards the more conservative Option 1 – keeping similar plans, but aiming for a supermarket that might want to expand into the area. That could be Morrisons – as they are the only one of the “Big 4” that doesn’t have a store in the county – or Sainsbury’s (I can hear the chuckling in Carmarthenshire from here) who might want to take advantage of Tesco’s poor press. Considering Porthcawl’s relative wealth compared to the rest of Bridgend, a Waitrose would’ve fitted, but they’re building a new store in Cowbridge. I doubt a value brand like an Aldi or Lidl would’ve fitted in with the aims of the regeneration plans, but those could change.
Option 2 wouldn’t satisfy anyone considering how long this has dragged on for, but at least it could lead to a better development in the long term and allow a re-evaluation of the regeneration plans. It’s a bit too “back to the drawing board”and would’ve been an embarrassing climb-down for the council. This approach hasworked for the likes of Newport recently.

Bridgend Council have plumped for Option 3, using £4.7million of unsupported borrowing (Item 7 Appendix) across 2012-13 and 2013-14. They hope they can make the money back by selling the improved site for a similar amount.

Unsupported borrowing has to be paid back by the local authority themselves – like a mortgage. £4.7million is roughly £34 for every person resident in Bridgend County, or £247 for everyone resident in Porthcawl. It doesn’t sound like much, but tot that up onto your Council Tax bills (it doesn’t work like that obviously).

The Evans families seem to be holding out for the best deal possible. You can’t blame them for that. There’s a 40/60 split between themselves and the council for the eventual land sale. They might’ve tied the council’s hands – and their ability to attract developers – with some very strict/complicated covenantson land use (including a new community church, I understand. Once again I can hear the chuckling from Carmarthenshire….) and perhaps their own stubbornness. That’s not unusual, but it’s probably frustrated things.

This isn’t really the council’s fault. We need to remember that they’ve been shafted by the developers too.

It’s even worse for the people of Porthcawl, who seem to be increasingly ambivalent – even hostile – towards regeneration attempts no matter how well-intentioned those attempts might be. The only big thing to go ahead so far has been the £3.5million marina project, which was announced back in 2010 as part of the creation of a wider Swansea Bay “Adrenaline Coast”.

That’s great, and is a significant development in itself, but the only other planning proposal relating to regeneration in that “central”part of the town has been some minor landscaping and road improvements (this might be the “infrastructure” the Council will borrow the money for). There are also other smaller projects taking place around the town, but the “crowning glory”  still has to be the Salt Lake site and Coney Beach.

This regeneration process started in 2007. It all feels a bit “Buck Rogers”.

New Porthcawl superstore! Grand Opening October 2412. Officially opened by Carwyn Jones’ ghost. Come see the hovering red tie – stay for the targ-roast! Q’pla!

Clearly the council want to do something soon. That’s commendable considering the delays and false promises so far. But borrowing to fund infrastructure, without a guarantee of an interested party, is a big gamble.
Maybe they’ve been told by an interested party, “Build the infrastructure improvements yourselves and we’ll definitely, 100%, cross our hearts and hope to die, build something of worth there.” I suspect they haven’t – I can’t prove that one way or another, admittedly – though The council do have assurances from the surveyors and accountants that “risks have been mitigated.”

It might pay off.

Because of the numbers involved and the possible complications, this is worthy of further scrutiny by the whole council, Porthcawl town councillors and Porthcawl residents too.

Maybe that’s a delay Bridgend Council can’t afford. However, if the council are left (in 2015) with an unsellable plot of land with useless roads and utilities, for the princely sum of £4.7million of borrowed money, the Wales Audit Office will want to get involved to.

Then all the fingers will be pointing at Bridgend Council cabinet members and officers. Then it becomes a big deal, and not even Carwyn can ride to the rescue.


Update 24/09/12

I have to correct a minor, but critical error. I’d like to thank someone who contacted me via email for pointing this out. I imagine they’ll want to remain anonymous. I’m leaving the erroneous bits striked-through and made some very small changes elsewhere.

The £4.7million will only be borrowed, and the work will not go ahead (Part 7.2 in the cabinet report) “until agreement has been reached for the sale of the site at a value that is sufficient to cover the cost of the works and a minimum capital receipt for both owners.” 

I might’ve given the impression (and even BCBC themselves via the Glamorgan Gazette last week) that BCBC were “left with a bill” and were borrowing before any guarantee of development – which isn’t the case. But considering some of the other things this person told me, it looks like Salt Lake could remain as it is for some considerable time to come.

They were heavily critical of the handling and circumstances around the regeneration so far – that it was “based off over-optimistic pre-credit crunch land values” (which I think everyone has sussed) and that there’s huge differences between the cost of development and possible returns for potential supermarkets.

They added that supermarkets are interested in Porthcawl (which is a given), but there’s no way they’d be willing to pay the up-front costs BCBC (and presumably the Evans families, leaseholders of the Salt Lake site – the deal with them is being renegotiated) are expecting. There’s simply no building frenzy anymore.

They suggest that many experts (surveyors, architects) might consider some regeneration projects (especially housing projects) unviable based off the Council’s own Supplementary Planning Guidance.

They go on to say that the announcement last week was a “PR disaster” –  BCBC, like local authorities across Wales, still have to make significant cuts in spending over the next few years. Announcing £4.7million of extra spending the way they did is unlikely to go down well in some parts of the county.

Though I still think the council might be being unfairly criticised on some aspects of this regeneration saga as a whole – Ouch!