Scrutiny chair explains Rochdale call-in

The councillor responsible for calling into scrutiny plans for a £100m regeneration scheme to regenerate Rochdale town centre has revealed she had concerns about the recommended developer.

Labour councillor for West Heywood and chair of the scrutiny committee, Cllr Jackie Beswick, said that she, along with Cllr Jonathan Burns, called in the plans when it emerged that Rochdale council was set to name Wilson Bowden as the winner of the project.

Cllr Beswick said her decision was based on three primary concerns:

  • That awarding Wilson Bowden the latest contract would give the company its second major Rochdale project – the first being the 400-acre Kingsway business park.
  • The fact that Wilson Bowden is financed by Barratt Developments, whose financial position has recently been subject to scrutiny by the City. Barratt borrowed heavily after it bought Wilson Bowden for £2.2bn last year, before the credit crunch precipitated a fall in house prices, and has since seen its shares fall.
  • That Wilson Bowden had previously been blamed for lengthy delays in carrying out work on Oldham's Town Hall.

The decision over whether to appoint Wilson Bowden to work on the plans will be made on Thursday, when the scrutiny committee will meet to discuss the issue.

Cllr Beswick said: "Such a decision is a major process and it needs to be open and clear so by referring this to scrutiny people can see that is happening.

"If the committee makes the decision it is happy with proceedings then we are happy for it to go ahead.

"If the committee is further concerned then we will ask the committee to look at it again."

The news that Wilson Bowden was set to be appointed will come as a surprise to many who had tipped a joint venture of Ask and Sultan to win the contract.

On being informed that the plans had been called in last month, Ask and Sultan issued a joint statement which said: "We have been notified by DTZ, commercial consultants for the Rochdale Development Agency, that the decision to appoint a preferred developer for Rochdale Town Centre has been 'called in' by Rochdale Council.

"The decision will be of massive importance to the town's future prosperity so we understand the desire for more intensive scrutiny of the competing proposals.

"Of all the bidders, only our proposals do not involve a lengthy Compulsory Purchase Order to acquire parts of The Wheatsheaf Centre, which will enable the town centre re-development to proceed without many years delay."

However, Cllr Beswick revealed that CPOs were a necessary part of the project – and that she was concerned that that was one of the main reasons why Wilson Bowden had been chosen.

"Wilson Bowden seems to have the money so I was concerned they would go with them as they felt there wouldn't be any hold-up," Cllr Beswick said.

"There are a lot of CPOs involved in this project and that, I understand, is the reason [Rochdale Council] would probably go with Wilson Bowden – because they would be seen to have substantial finance to CPO these properties."

Ask and Sultan Properties, Wilson Bowden, and Valad were all in the running to be awarded the contract to regenerate Rochdale town centre.

Wilson Bowden's proposals include a new Debenhams department store, a large Marks & Spencer and a major food store, 1,200 new car parking spaces, a new central area with an iconic sculpture, cafes, bars, restaurants and 282 new apartments.

Ask and Sultan's plans had involved 275,000 sq ft of new shops, 53,000 sq ft of bars and restaurants, 80,000 sq ft of new supermarket, 250,000 sq ft of office space, 150-bedroom hotel and brasserie, 250 one and two-bedroom apartments and a 110,000 sq ft Debenhams store.

Valad's proposals included a department store, new flats, offices, leisure opportunities such as a cinema and a gym, new town squares and community spaces and improved underground parking facilities.

A spokesperson for Wilson Bowden said: "There has been no communication made with us on the issue so we are not in a position to comment at the moment."

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