'Back seat drivers' claim as council questioned over Shrewsbury shopping centres ownership
Questions have been raised over why the ownership of the three Shrewsbury shopping centres bought by Shropshire Council is still offshore more than two years on from when the purchase was made.
The Government's Public Accounts Committee will hold an inquiry next week into local authorities’ spending on commercial property.
Civil engineering surveyor David Walker, who is chairman of the North Shropshire Liberal Democrats and a former county councillor, said the deal, which saw the council acquire the centres in January 2018 for £51 million, was “a huge risk”.
Mr Walker said this was made clear when the value of the centres dropped by £11m within a year of the purchase.
He said: “You have to wonder how the valuation looks at the end of 2019/20 – all before coronavirus drove a coach and horses through the economy in the last few weeks.”
The council purchased the freehold of the Darwin and Pride Hill Centres as well as the leasehold of the Riverside Centre and neighbouring medical practice through Jersey Property Unit Trusts. The council owns all the units in the trusts, but decisions on how the centres are run are still made by the trustees.
Mr Walker said: “It sounds like they are passengers – back seat drivers at best – who can’t dictate to the trust under the terms of the deal. A deal very few people have seen.
“They would now like us to believe they were being altruistic and just looking to secure the future of the shopping centres, but the chief executive said it was also about ‘getting a good return on our investment’ just after the cabinet agreed to the purchase.
“It shouldn’t take over a year to move ownership onshore. It sounds like they are locked into a bad deal.
“This is all at a time while the value of these assets is tanking. A gross misuse of public money if ever there was one.
“This all brings into question Shropshire Council’s ability and capacity to manage a purchase like this.”
The inquiry, scheduled for Monday afternoon, will see the committee question representatives from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on on whether council officials have the necessary skills for such transactions, and the extent to which the department formally monitors commercial activity.
Shropshire Council says it bought the centres as part of its plan to regenerate Shrewsbury town centre, with a multi-million refurbishment now under way.
The council claims buying the centres through the trusts was the simplest and cheapest way to complete the transaction as the assets were already held in Jersey, but maintains its aim is to bring ownership onshore.