Coun­cil strug­gling to be open on most im­por­tant de­ci­sion for a gen­er­a­tion . . .

Rossendale Free Press - - The Rossendale Scribbler -

LAST week, we learnt that the plans to bring a ‘world fa­mous’ ho­tel chain to Rawten­stall had been scrapped.

Back in July, Rossendale Coun­cil said a ho­tel would an­chor the multi-mil­lion pound Spin­ning Point de­vel­op­ment, which will be built on what is now the Town Square.

In­stead, 29 apart­ments will be built on top of a num­ber of shops and, per­haps sur­pris­ingly, Rossendale Coun­cil and its part­ners have de­cided what the town re­ally needs to have is a lux­ury spa.

While the Spa de­ci­sion is per­haps cu­ri­ous, the de­ci­sion to swap the ho­tel for flats makes sense. For town cen­tres to thrive in the fu­ture, they need peo­ple liv­ing in them. This will help achieve that.

But as with so much of what is ar­guably the most im­por­tant de­ci­sion the coun­cil will take for a gen­er­a­tion, the coun­cil con­tin­ues to strug­gle to be open with what is hap­pen­ing.

After an­nounc­ing the ho­tel plans over the sum­mer, the coun­cil’s lead­er­ship set up a work­ing group to re­view the plans, at the sug­ges­tion of the op­po­si­tion Con­ser­va­tive Party. That was progress, but when it comes to dis­cussing things in pub­lic, the coun­cil still seems very re­luc­tant.

The de­ci­sion to seek out a £10m pub­lic works loan to fund the next phase of the Spin­ning Point pro­ject is a huge de­ci­sion for an au­thor­ity with an an­nual bud­get now dwarfed by that fig­ure.

It’s an even big­ger de­ci­sion for a coun­cil which has yet to fully re­solve how it ended up spend­ing lots of its own money - we don’t know how much, but some fig­ures put it in the mil­lions - to res­cue the £5m Empty Homes Scheme after the or­gan­i­sa­tion run­ning it on be­half of the coun­cil went bust.

The logic be­hind a pub­lic works loan makes sense. It’s cheaper for coun­cils to bor­row money for de­vel­op­ment, and it en­ables the coun­cil to fa­cil­i­tate the build­ing of projects which oth­er­wise wouldn’t get off the ground.

But it comes at a big risk. In­ter­est rates could go up or the ex­pected rev­enue from sell­ing the homes and rental from the shops and Spa may not ma­te­ri­alise as quickly as hoped. Such changes could cause se­ri­ous prob­lems at a coun­cil which is strug­gling to make ends meet as the re­sult of bud­get cuts over the last nine years.

The coun­cil, how­ever, can’t af­ford for the se­cond phase of the Spin­ning Point de­vel­op­ment to not go ahead, be­cause some of the money se­cured from the Lo­cal Growth Fund to build the bus sta­tion is con­di­tional on phase 2 - now flats, shop and the spa - be­ing de­liv­ered too. £1.1m of fund­ing could be for­feited if that were to hap­pen. The coun­cil de­scribes this in a re­port pre­sented in pri­vate to coun­cil­lors as ‘the big­gest sin­gle in­vest­ment de­ci­sion the coun­cil has ever un­der­taken.’

Yet it was a de­ci­sion taken in pri­vate. No pub­lic dis­cus­sion on the coun­cil tak­ing on loans to fund a de­vel­op­ment has been per­mit­ted.

There is al­ready con­sid­er­able dis­quiet at the speed with which the coun­cil dealt with the plan­ning ap­pli­ca­tions for Spin­ning Point, and re­peat­edly in­ter­ested par­ties have ac­cused the coun­cil of ig­nor­ing them.

And now, the pro­ject changes again - with no con­sul­ta­tion. And the big­gest fi­nan­cial de­ci­sion the coun­cil has taken was made with one third of coun­cil­lors miss­ing from the meet­ing, with five of Rawten­stall’s seven coun­cil­lors miss­ing too.

Rossendale Coun­cil needs to re­as­sure peo­ple it can han­dle such large sums of money after the Empty Homes fi­asco. It also needs to bring the pub­lic with it on such an im­por­tant de­ci­sion, which, if it goes wrong, we could be pay­ing for decades to come.

●● De­signs for Phase Two of the Spin­ning Point Pro­ject ap­proved ear­lier this year

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