Following on from Medway Council’s decision to pursue a purchase of the Pentagon Centre in Chatham, we sent the following question to relevant portfolio holders, ward councillors, those seeking to represent the ward, and other local organisations:
Do you believe £45m to purchase the Pentagon Shopping Centre is a good use of council funds and why?
As usual, we told everyone that their answers would be published entirely unedited. They are presented below in the order they were received.
I am happy to agree that the proposed purchase of the Pentagon Centre is potentially advantageous, but the Council apparently breaking their own 3-or-more price quotes rule is a mistake, and that we have so far not heard exactly what the Council’s long-term plans for the Pentagon are. After spending 45 million (where is this coming from exactly, and what are the repayment terms?), will further funds be made available to improve the Pentagon and attract new businesses and drastically improve the carpark, and does this include the old bus station and Mountbatten House, and does the Council plan to develop or regenerate these too?
As a local election Labour candidate for the River Ward, which the Pentagon is located in, I have no more access to information than any other member of the public does. For such a huge purchase, I feel Medway residents should have far more detail available to them.
Tony Scudder, Labour candidate, River
With not much information in the public domain it’s quite difficult to say, I believe it could have potential to be advantageous for the future of chatham, at a time when high streets and retail overall is struggling.
The councils track record as a commercial landlord is not great, and £45 million is a huge amount of money to get wrong. This makes it all the more concerning, the Conservative administration rejected Labours motion to seek extra valuations.
As a purely commercial venture it would be a horrendous waste of tax payers money, but as a way of having greater control for the future regeneration of Chatham it remains to be seen and would depend entirely on how they utilise it and what plans come out over the next few months.
Lia Mandaracas, Labour candidate, River
Last week’s decision by Medway Council on the agreement to purchase the Pentagon Shopping Centre in Chatham, Medway Liberal Democrats are asking has the Council considered not just the capital purchase, but also the long-term investment of the Centre.
Using an abbreviated process that did not involve Overview and Scrutiny the Conservatives have used their majority, to proceed with an expensive and risky long term purchase. Medway Liberal Democrats are broadly supportive of Medway Council buying the Pentagon Centre, as this would give the Council the necessary leverage to kick start Chatham’s regeneration.
The commercial sensitivity, short deadlines and timing with the purchase so close to local elections combine make commenting on the finances difficult and highly politicised. The Pentagon is an enormous purchase and there are liabilities and risks associated with this type of investment. The project will also put a huge future burden on any incoming administration’s resources to effectively manage and revitalise the Pentagon.
The current Conservative administration’s record on such projects has been poor and the Council has overseen a gradual decline of Chatham High Street in recent years with a poorly planned bus depot, extortionate parking increases and traffic mismanagement in Chatham Town Centre. All factors which deter shoppers from shopping in Chatham as well as negative aspects for businesses to invest. We question the process used to evaluate the property using only a single quote, purchases of much smaller value have a rule saying that 3 quotes are standard practice when using public money to make purchase, we think this practice should have been used here.
A Liberal Democrat controlled Council would deliver a strategy to rejuvenate the Pentagon and the wider area with the right action to support businesses. As pioneering Liberal Democrat councils are currently demonstrating nationally.
Medway Liberal Democrats support the regeneration of all the town’s high streets, with a focus on creating new businesses and preserving jobs. Measures such as reducing business rates, more free parking schemes and a greater diversity of activities would help to revitalise the high streets, making them accessible, attractive and safe. We think the funding model of this purchase is unlikely to deliver these objectives.
Alan Wells, Liberal Democrat candidate, River
I think it’s fair to say that the news about Medway Council buying the Pentagon Shopping Centre was pretty ‘out of the blue’ for most of us here in Medway. Now, I have to point out that it is a bit difficult to determine whether this was a sound investment, considering the Council have been very secretive about it as a whole and there are no real figures to work with to make a solid judgement.
Town centres across the country are facing a really tough time at the moment, with more and more store closures making the headlines, consequently followed by the thousands of job losses alongside it. Chatham – and the wider Medway area too – is one of these urban areas, still struggling out of its period of de-industrialisation and decline following the closure of the Royal Dockyard back in 1984. And do add to it, the retail industry isn’t the same industry that it used to be. A fair share of shopping has already moved online due to its convenience. Shoppers are choosing out-of-town shopping destinations such as Bluewater, Hempstead Valley and Chatham Dockside with its cleaner, more inviting environments and free parking. But Medway Council have failed to keep up with the times; they have failed to keep Chatham High Street clean and tidy, they have failed to offer more regular parking incentives and they have failed to move away from a retail-led regeneration approach. The High Street is now lined with betting shops, beauty bars and discount stores. M&S, Next, Topshop, WHSmith, Tesco… just to name a few of the big brands that have moved out of Chatham over the past few decades, with Debenhams potentially on its way out too. Shops are no longer key to attracting footfall – it’s all about mixed-use town centres with a variety of residential, retail and leisure functions all wrapped together by a sense of community and, most importantly, a place that local people can connect to and interact with.
Personally, I’d say that this investment has both its benefits and drawbacks. If done properly, it truly can mean a whole new deal for Chatham and the wider Medway area. Through the £45m purchase, the Council will certainly have much more freedom to take up opportunities to develop the centre and avoid investing in it as a standalone facility, which would be the case with many private investors. It’s important that the Council takes a holistic approach to the regeneration of Chatham town centre, incorporating both the Pentagon and the High Street. My biggest concern is, however, the Council’s handling with this commercial case. I’ve seen many residents on social media and KentOnline being critical of the investment, and I think they have every right to be so. Medway Council should have been much more transparent about the purchase. Surely they could have published any relevant documents and paperwork about the deal? After all, the Council is set up for the people of Medway, funded by the people of Medway. There is a local interest in the local future, so why aren’t they [Medway Council] more willing to work with locals and identify the problems facing Chatham? My other concern is: have the Council even got a masterplan in place? One of the biggest issues facing town centres is exactly that absence of community planning and a sense of direction. Will it really be worth £45m if they don’t have a clue how they’ll bring forward the shopping centre and the wider town centre area? Most importantly, the Council have only taken into consideration one independent market valuation. It would have been much more sensible if they undertook a further one or two valuations to ensure that they can achieve the very best value for money and minimise the risk of such a grand venture. Let’s not forget that this is the same Medway Council that managed the Chatham Waterfront Bus Station project which was £2m over budget and five months late, consequently killed off the first floor of the same shopping centre they are about to purchase, and pushed for a completely inaccessible £135k ‘Japanese roundabout’ in the middle of nowhere. So long for sensible project management, eh?
At the end of the day, it’s all a matter of time, but I feel that this is a good opportunity for Medway Council to sustain the momentum of Chatham’s regeneration – only if it’s done properly, of course.
Future Chatham, an independent online platform documenting the social, physical and economic changes taking place within Chatham
We received no response to this question from Cllr Adrian Gulvin (Con), Cllr Andy Stamp (Lab), Cllr Andrew ‘I don’t respond to overtly political blogs‘ Mackness (Con), or Cllr Habib Tejan (Con).