The fantastic news that Congleton has been given £1m by Cheshire East Council to improve the town centre can only be welcomed.
It would be cynical and quite frankly beneath us to mention the elections in a few months’ time and how the Tories hope you will stick with them, so we won’t.
The redevelopment of the Bridestones is bound to be discussed at the same time, as it’s crucial to the success of any town centre scheme.
You might wonder why we never have quotes from the people behind the development, Scarborough Group International. The fact is they refused to speak to us, and have done so (or not done so) for nearly a year.
Their William McAlister emailed us and told us this. We don’t think his email was for publication, but a year has gone by and nothing has happened so we think it’s in the public interest to discuss it.
Mr McAlister said he was “frustrated and disappointed” at a story we had run on 30th January over the development at the Bridestones.
He complained: “What you have published is once again factually incorrect and misleading to the reader. This has been the case in every article you have published regarding our development proposals over the last three years.”
His beef was over our reporting that planning permission was granted almost three years ago — that’s almost four, now as he wrote that a year ago. He pointed out that the planning consent dated February 2012 included a hotel, which is now not part of the scheme.
He argued — rather disingenuously we feel — that planning consent for the development Scarborough intended to build was only granted in December 2013, so when we wrote last January it was barely a month old.
That’s true, at least in the strictest sense. It’s also true that the very first planning application was not from the Scarborough Group. That’s the one we had the scale model for (we think).
Mr McAlister’s other beef was that we had run the story prematurely. He had not wanted a story at that time (it was a report of critical comments from a Congleton Town Council meeting) and wrote that it would have been better if the story had been held off for a few weeks until his company had reached an agreement with Cheshire East Council.
We could then publish a “factual and positive article” on the development, with actual timescales on how it would move forward and with a firm completion date, he said
Mr McAlister said that the development was “large and difficult” and, as was usual had many challenges to overcome, which is doubtless also true.
However, a year has now gone by and nothing has happened.
As we have reported, Scarborough Group International has a similar scheme planned for North Wales and that, too, has come to a halt.
While we respect Mr McAlister’s wish for his comments not to be reported, and have some sympathy with his frustration, the fact is that even with the £1m grant, the town centre can only go so far without the Bridestones redevelopment.
Whatever work is done, there’ll still be empty shops along Mill Street, and an eyesore of a view for some local shops. No-one is going to let premises that could be demolished in the near future. Cheshire East is not going to spend money on land that could very soon be dug up for redevelopment, for example the market (which was meant to have moved long ago).
When he emailed us, Mr McAlister was clearly hopeful that the project would progress in the near future. It has not, and shows no sign of progressing a year on.
We’re not entirely sure why: the last we heard was that negotiations were ongoing over the sale of the land (the car park below Mill Street), which is publicly owned. As an aside, we don’t think that should be sold in the first place. Council ownership of that land gives us some say in what is built. The private sector doesn’t always know best, and doesn’t always work, as the empty shops in Capitol Walk prove. At least Capitol Walk is an attractive building. The worst outcome would be a building no-one liked, and that no tenants wanted to be in.
We did email Mr McAlister back with a polite response offering an olive branch but, when he says he no longer wants to speak to you, he clearly means it, as he never replied.
The bottom line is that a major redevelopment of the town centre is stalled and we can’t really tell you why. We can’t ask the developer because they won’t talk to us.
We have heard that Cheshire East Council leader Coun Michael Jones is keen to sign off the contract and that there’s nothing to stop it going ahead, except Scarborough Group’s tardiness.
If there’s anyone out there Mr McAlister DOES speak to, maybe they could ask him for us – what’s the hold up?