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Old River Lane: Sentiment in favour of development is just that – where is the factual evidence to back his support?

Chas Gill argued in his column "Grab this vision with both hands" (Stortford Indie, May 27) that the Old River Lane (ORL) scheme should be seen as an investment opportunity that will make a life-enriching contribution during what will otherwise be a long period of dismal austerity, writes Jill Goldsmith.

He says cancellation would not release funds for anything else, because capital funds can’t be used for revenue spending. He says it is great that this investment is here and not elsewhere in the district. He concludes we should grab the opportunity with both hands.

Old River Lane plan (36299343)
Old River Lane plan (36299343)

So, what is wrong with this analysis? It is not evidence based, but pure opinion.

Firstly, is it an investment opportunity which will bring a return? We, the public, can’t know what assumptions the beneficial case for ORL is built on as the business case has not been made public. Why has it not been published? In the coronavirus pandemic we have seen the consequences of 'science' being kept behind closed doors and just referred to as informing the decisions. The pandemic has reminded us that this science can be debated and that decision-making is the art of balancing science with behavioural science, understanding of the context and political judgement. We now have an independent SAGE to help us understand the science so we can better engage with the political decision-making and take more informed judgement ourselves in our lives.

Secondly, might there be risks to that investment? We do not know. East Herts Council (EHC) has not been open about the funding model it is adopting for ORL and the risks involved. Local authority capital investment can be funded from capital receipts, given to the authority with limited strings attached; we know that the Local Enterprise Partnership, for example, is providing a significant sum for the multi-storey car park. But local authorities also fund capital investments from their own resources, what Chas would describe as “our” money, and from money borrowed on our behalf.

In the age of austerity, there has been a fashion for local authorities to borrow cheaply, to invest in commercial property and to use the income generated to fund their day-to-day expenditure. East Herts has already done this at smaller scale, with its commercial entity, Millstream Property Investment Ltd, buying houses to rent out.

Commercial capital investment has risks: will interest rates remain low, is the property income secure and will the capital value of the property be maintained? East Herts approved a “unit buyback” funding model for ORL in a closed session in January, enabling “a final business case to be developed, incorporating the outcome of negotiations with approved developer Cityheart Ltd for presentation to Council for approval at a future date”. So, the funding model remains under wraps and there is no commitment that the revised business case will be considered in open council session.

Artist's impression of Waytemore Square in the proposed Old River Lane development (35772350)
Artist's impression of Waytemore Square in the proposed Old River Lane development (35772350)

Thirdly, who would bear the risks from the development? As above, we can’t know. The previous scheme for the ORL site involved the commercial landowner investing and reaping the rewards. That scheme failed and EHC bought back the site. It is contracting now with commercial partners. How much risk are those commercial partners taking? The site is to involve housing as well as retail and the theatre complex and the multi-storey car park on the cattle market site across the road. We know the council has contracted for the development of the car park and that it has a separate contract with Cityheart Ltd, the approved developer for the ORL site, but neither contract is visible to residents.

Fourthly, the value of the investment in Bishop’s Stortford and its life-enriching contribution needs to be looked at in net, not in gross, terms. The draw from the regenerated ORL might attract additional people to the town and thus support commercial sites elsewhere. But it is also possible that improvement of the commercial offer on the site might be at the expense of another part of the town. There has already been much debate about its impact on the Rhodes centre and the Empire cinema, and the retail in the high street is also potentially at risk. We can only speculate about the evidence on this and how it might look once you factor in the impact of the economic closure due to the Covid pandemic.

Finally, what we do know, as Chas points out, is that a 2016 consultation provided support for the bare outlines of the plans for ORL, but the methodology for this consultation is not available. The consultation found that:

* 65% of respondents felt that the ORL recommendations to improve culture and leisure were 'good' or 'excellent', and the town lacked a good music venue, the Rhodes Arts Complex was too far out of town and there was a lack of entertainment for teens;

* 56% of respondents thought suggestions to develop retail were 'good' or 'excellent' and were keen to see a greater range of independent stores; and

* 62% of respondents rated the ideas for improved public spaces as 'good' or 'excellent' and were excited by the potential for better access to Castle Park. Lack of parking in the town was also highlighted as a concern.

We do not know how many respondents there were; the sampling approach and how representative respondents were; the nature of the questions asked; whether any alternative capital investments were also presented to respondents; and whether there were other questions resulting in responses less supportive of the proposal.

So, Chas’s sentiment in favour of the ORL is just that. He has not brought factual evidence in support of his sentiment, and for interested observers it is impossible to judge the opportunities and the risks involved in the large commercial ORL venture that the council is pursuing on our behalf behind closed doors. We must trust our councillors and council staff to be doing their best on our behalf.

But do we? In this day and age, I would argue this should not be a matter for trust but a matter for public engagement, transparency and open discussion of potential risks and rewards.

* Jill Goldsmith lives in Barrells Down Road and is a member of the Bishop's Stortford Climate Group.

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