CWAC racks up nearly £1m in fees on Northgate

Cheshire West & Chester Council has spent nearly £1m on fees since late 2016 on the mixed-use Northgate project, with some professional services companies racking up six-figure sums in less than a year, a freedom of information request by Place North West has revealed.

The £300m Northgate project, due to include 45 shops, 12 restaurants, 120 apartments, 1,000 car parking spaces, offices, and a hotel, secured planning consent in September 2016 after a decade of wrangling, but work has yet to start after the scheme was hit with a series of setbacks, including House of Fraser pulling out of the development earlier this month. The retailer had signed up for a 100,000 sq ft store.

A professional team including quantity surveyor Aecom, land assembly advisor GVA, funding adviser Strutt & Parker, and project manager Gardiner & Theobald has been working on the scheme, and a freedom of information request has revealed the four consultants have been paid around £900,000 between them.

Aecom has been the biggest beneficiary, having been paid £332,000 between its appointment in June 2017 and the beginning of May 2018. Similarly, project manager Gardiner & Theobald has been paid £278,192 over the same period.

Land assembly advisor GVA, which has been working with the council since November 2016, has also earned £204,607 as of the start of May this year, while Strutt & Parker has earned £70,252 since its appointment in August 2016.

The council also launched a procurement process to find a contractor to build the development, but CWAC said the cost of this process “relates to internal staffing costs, plus the cost of the above professional advisors, and is currently ongoing”.

Sources close to the project suggested the overall fees for the professional team, which also includes architect Acme and Rivington Land, would be “significantly higher” than the £1m spent to date. Despite spades not yet hitting the ground, the council said earlier this year it was aiming to complete the project’s first phase in 2020 with the second phase completing in 2022, although a funder is not yet in place.

Following House of Fraser’s decision to pull out of the development, a team led by Tim Kenney of property consultants Kenneymoore and Guy Butler of developer Glenbrook, has written to the council’s leader Samantha Dixon and deputy chief executive Charles Seward to request a meeting to outline a vision for the scheme.

A previous letter penned by Kenney and Butler calling for the council to stop work on the project attracted more than 120 signatures from property professionals and local businesses, and was sent to the council in May.

However, responding last month’s letter, Cheshire West & Chester said the city “needs to improve its retail offer” and added: “We believe this because it is what retailers and our advisors tell us”. The council said it would be willing to meeting with Kenney and Butler to discuss the project.

In a draft agenda for the proposed meeting, which does not yet have a set date, includes discussions over a vision for the centre of Chester, while Kenney and Butler have argued the council should “stop wasting further public money on an unviable and undeliverable scheme” and “pause all further land acquisition”.

The agenda also argues the council to consider a review of the existing development strategy for Northgate including “the quality of advice from [the council’s] existing advisors, agents, and development managers” and “the skillsets of the council to deliver this scheme”.

Alternative options for the development put forward by Kenney and Butler include the possible retention of the Crowne Plaza and buildings on Hamilton Place; the deliver of “the best new market hall in the UK”, and a wholesale review of the site looking at “creating a cohesive quality urban environment fit for the next century”.

The market, cinema, and public square element of the project should be delivered “as soon as possible,” argued Kenney and Butler, who added: “There are more than enough local specialist skills to support the project with knowledge, passion, vision, and experience to deliver proven world-class inner-city projects”.

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