John Redwood MP: Town regeneration should be done in stagesBy John Redwood MP
March 06, 2013
Many of the things constituents write about are matters decided by Wokingham Borough Council.
Some people seem to think the MP has power to override the council or to tell the councillors what to do.
I can assure you we have 54 directly elected independently minded councillors who make their own minds up, exercising the substantial powers they enjoy.
They can settle local planning issues, school appeals, decide how much social care provision to offer, decide on our local roads and car parks, administer housing benefit and much else besides.
As a local MP I am, of course, interested in what they do, and talk to councillors and council officers on a regular basis.
I need to know from them if they need decisions, assistance or changes of law from the national Government, and they sometimes like to explain to me what they are doing as they know I will often get the feedback on their policies.
I am pleased the council is intending to press on with town centre renewal.
These are testing times for town centres.
More of the retail pound is being spent on the internet. More is being spent in the biggest and best shopping centres.
Small town centres like Wokingham have to offer a great mixture of convenience and variety to compete.
The town centre that does not modernise and develop is in danger of dying, as we see elsewhere in the country.
I read of the questions being asked by Liberal Democrat councillors about the cost and the level of borrowing the redevelopment may entail for Wokingham taxpayers.
The council opposition is right to ask questions about affordability, but would be wrong to want to stand in the way of progress and change.
My advice to the council is to press on with town centre improvement, but to do so in phases.
It is important to fully let each new phase before moving on to the next.
The council may be best advised to sell a completed development, as with the food store on Elms Field, to cut the borrowing and raise more capital from sale before moving in to the next phase.
What better than to pay for the next phase than with the money from the last one which has been successfully sold at a profit?
If holding a completed phase, it will be important to ensure there is a sustainable rent roll from the extra development which will more than pay the interest on the extra debt incurred.
These are good times to be borrowing for major projects.
It is possible to borrow for a longish time period for a relatively modest interest rate.
When constructing property – a long-term investment– the borrowing should be spread over a decent period of years.
One way or another it is possible for the council to improve our town centre without undermining the finances.
They are right to want to do so, in these troubled times for shopping centres.