The council is no longer looking to borrow £26m to support the development of a Celtic Manor resort at Hoylake, raising questions over the future of the £200m project.
Wirral had previously agreed to support the scheme via prudential borrowing and had already backed geotechnical surveys of the Hoylake site with a £600,000 funding package.
However, the council’s cabinet is now set to vote to pull its support, arguing its “investment profile and limited resources would be better served is this business venture [the golf resort] was funding on the open market, rather than through council borrowing”.
“It is therefore recommended that cabinet do not enter into a separate agreement to fund the Celtic Manor project at this time.”
Wirral first signalled its intention to support the scheme with borrowing in 2016, but the cabinet has argued the “financial and investment landscape has changed significantly” in the last three years.
The project, including a Celtic Manor-branded hotel, spa, and conference facilities as well as a championship golf course and 18-hole range, is being brought forward by the Nicklaus Joint Venture Group. There is also an element of housing as part of the site; Story Homes was formerly attached, but has since been replaced by Redrow, while PJ Livesey was also rumoured to be involved to deliver apartments on the site.
While the scheme enjoyed support from former council leader Cllr Phil Davies, who stepped down following local elections in May this year, it has been subject to repeated criticism from other areas of Wirral.
A motion calling to put a halt to the scheme put forward by Cllr Allan Brame and seconded by Cllr Pat Cleary at a meeting in December last year, which followed a report to cabinet in November on the future provision of the borough’s golf courses, noting a downturn in golf course usage in Wirral.
The motion argued: “Given this gloomy assessment of current and future demand for golf facilities, council recognises that the proposed Celtic Manor development of Hoylake Golf Course looks increasingly unviable.
“Council now concludes that the access to prudential borrowing of £26m agreed in December 2017 poses an unacceptable risk to public funds, is no longer tenable or appropriate, and therefore requests that the leader and cabinet end all further use of council taxpayers’ money to support this scheme.”
A further council meeting in February saw two motions arguing against the scheme, one from Cllrs Chris Blakeley and Gerry Ellis; and another from Cllrs Phil Gilchrist and Brame. The former motion argued the council should withdraw its support for the project based on “uncertainty, the massive public opposition, the financial risks to the taxpayer, and the harm that would be caused to Wirral’s Green Belt”.
Similarly, Gilchrist and Brame’s motion, titled “putting Wirral’s needs first instead of pipe dreams”, claimed it was “no longer reasonable to put stretched managerial and officer capacity into this golf resort project”.
A rival motion, put forward by council leader Phil Davies and Cllr Angie Davies, has come out in favour of the development; Cllr Angie Davies lost her seat at May’s local elections. This motion was also supported by local businesses, including Paul Askew, chairman of the Wirral Visitor Economy Board; Hoylake-based JD Engineering; UTS Gym, which overlooks the proposed site; and BT Local Business, which is based in Wirral.
Speaking to Place North West the same month, Jim Anderson of NJVG said the scheme was “fully funded” with an aim to “start work the next day” if planning permission is secured; the development was set to go through a full Environmental Impact Assessment process over the next year, with a planning application to be submitted in March 2020.
Willmott Dixon has already been chosen as preferred contractor to build the Celtic Manor resort and the golf’s clubhouse. Other consultants working on the scheme include Hydrock and Grant Thornton. One of the site’s golf courses will be personally designed by Jack Nicklaus, with the other brought forward by Nicklaus Design Group.