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Shropshire Star comment: Brave council decision to buy up shopping centres

By Shropshire Star | Readers' letters | Published:

Well, they’ve gone and done it. And now we know the price.

Pride Hill shopping centre

Shropshire Council has sealed the deal which sees the authority buy Shrewsbury’s three main shopping centres.

It has snapped up the freehold of the Charles Darwin and Pride Hill centres, and the vendor’s leasehold interest in the Riverside shopping centre and Riverside medical centre.

The cost? Somewhere in the region of £51 million.

Given the economic background and the times we are in, this is an extraordinary and historic purchase, albeit in line with what seems to be a bit of a current fashion for local authorities to go into the property business.

Brave

The word to describe it is brave.

Now, that may or may not be a good thing. In the classic Yes Minister TV series, politicians having their decisions described as brave sent a chill down their spine. A “brave” decision would lose them votes, and a “courageous” decision would lose them the election.

The bravery shown by the council gives it an unprecedented level of control, and with it an unprecedented opportunity to shape these shopping centres in accordance with the council’s strategic goals in turning Shrewsbury into a “destination”.

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Yet taking these complexes into public ownership also gives it enormous exposure to risk. Nobody knows what is going to happen in the future. Some have learned to their cost that the notion that you can’t go wrong investing in property is itself wrong.

Critics have been simply aghast. Where is the expertise which will enable the council to pull this off? Well, there is going to be a specialist property management company looking after things.

Nevertheless, the council’s track record is thin. Memories are fresh of the ill-fated council venture, i p & e, which was supposed to generate income, but never really took off, bouncing along the ground until the experiment was abandoned.

Shropshire’s council taxpayers who are being asked to pay more for a council which is doing less will legitimately question how the council can justify capital spending north of £50 million on this venture when services to the public are being cut in various areas.

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Buying the properties is not the end of the financial commitment. They have to be maintained, and any redevelopment or alteration will inevitably be costly.

If it all looks like a gamble, the council chiefs obviously think the odds are good ones.

They have embarked on a journey into a brave new world. May this boldness succeed - because heaven help Shropshire’s council tax payers if it’s i p & e Mark II.

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