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The Village: Scrutiny Committee Recommends Review of Further Investment

Published on: 15 Nov, 2017
Updated on: 16 Nov, 2017

A recommendation that a review is conducted of further investment into “The Village” project was made last night by Guildford Borough Council’s Overview & Scrutiny Committee – but it will continue to operate over the forthcoming Christmas period, when many events are planned.

The committee was told, in a report written by council officers, that the project is expected to have cost, by the end of this financial year, £1.223,000 million but that was more than offset by the social, economic and community benefit and the “net GVA” (Gross Value Added) for 2017-18 will be £830,000. However, the GVA figures, calculated by consultants, attracted cross-party criticism, the vice chairman of the committee, Cllr Nils Christiansen (Con, Holy Trinity), describing them as “spurious” and “hard to believe”.

Cllr David Bilbe (second left) and the then mayor, Cllr Gordon Jackson cutting the ribbon to officially open the Guildford Pop Up Village back in December last year before the Village was re-branded and re-launched.

At the start of the debate Cllr David Bilbe (Con, Normandy) lead councillor for economic development and tourism, said that he wanted to thank all present, in advance, for what he hoped would be constructive comments. Having read the committee’s constitution, he said, he was clear in his mind that part of the committee’s role was to make positive recommendations and suggestions.

Retail units, some empty, in The Village. Photo taken August 31, 2017. All units have been now been let for the Christmas period.

Then, thanking the council officer team responsible for the scheme, he suggested that the real question to be considered by the committee was: “Is The Village a valuable asset to Guildford?”

Later, appearing to display a sensitivity to sole identification with the project, Cllr Bilbe said: “I would point out that if anyone else says to me it is my Village, it is not my Village this is the council’s village.”

Cllr Tony Rooth

Cllr Tony Rooth (Con, Pilgrims) also made his position clear from the outset, saying: “…from July 2016 it wasn’t my Village either, because I didn’t agree with it and I didn’t support it at the Executive or indeed vote for it and …I had various discussions beforehand about the validity and viability of the project.

“I am a very regular visitor to The Village. I have actually bought things at the shops in The Village, I think I have dined at every little outlet there and I’ve also been to events there. I went to the Prosecco and pizza evening where I got a Prosecco and a pizza for a tenner! Which was good value. Unfortunately, there were only 30 other people with me at eight o’clock on a Saturday night.

“I have been into the venue on a very regular basis… and I’ve counted people on the fingers of one hand. It has been very limited, shall we say, in its usage. So I do question having spent £1.2 million pounds on this project … whether this is a valuable asset.”

Cllr Bilbe responded: “There is a substantial positive GVA to Guildford.”

Then, noticing Cllr Rooth’s reaction to his statement, he continued, “You laugh. Maybe the chairman will make a note of the fact that Cllr Rooth laughed at a positive £700,000+ GVA for Guildford I don’t think that is a laughing matter at all, to be honest, especially given the fact that it was assessed objectively, it wasn’t a made up figure. So I’d like to make absolutely sure that is minuted, that that was a point of ribaldry. So thank you very much for that.”

The committee chairman Cllr Caroline Reeves (Lib Dem, Friary & St Nicolas) interjected at this point, saying: “I don’t think it is necessary to make comments like that.”

But following an audible response from Cllr Rooth that Cllr Bilbe’s behaviour was rude Bilbe challenged: “Did you laugh?”

The chairman again interrupted saying: “Please stop. We have only just started the debate. There are questions over the figures and the report.”

Cllr Michael Illman

Cllr Illman (Con, Shalford), lead councillor for finance and asset management, commented: “Yes the financial statements are up there and it is right that people ask questions on it … David and I were relatively new kids on the Executive block when this came up last year… What is important is that while we are looking at the financial summary statements we don’t forget the other slides that show the social and economic benefits it has had.

“Peppa Pig and a number of other events over the summer really did bring the community of Guildford together amongst people of different classes, different backgrounds and actually it was tremendous being there and seeing the queues going out the door and halfway down North Street.”

Cllr Jenny Wicks

Cllr Jenny Wicks (Con, Clandon & Horsley) said that she would define a valuable asset as one that generates revenue and she did not think The Village made the grade. “As a council, we are not dealing with private money but public money .. money we take out of the taxpayers pocket. We should not be spending money without very careful assessment of our priorities and the other uses to which the money can be put.”

She continued by stating her disappointment with the reporting of the calculation of social-economic benefit. Her questioning revealed that the visitor numbers, given as 15,000, for June to October 2017, had been derived from a “footfall counter”, wifi statistics and “estimates of people through the doors”.

Wicks admitted she found some of the projections difficult to accept and identified, as the most fanciful example, the claim that 7% of the people visiting the village would stay in Guildford overnight and spend money on accommodation. It seemed, she said, as if the report had been produced without any proper survey work of those who actually visited The Village and she was “…very disappointed that the authors of the [GVA] report were not willing to come along and talk to it without a significant fee.”

Village visitors using the picnic tables at lunchtime. Photo taken August 31, 2017.

Cllr James Walsh (Lab, Stoke), asked what exit strategy had been considered for the project.

Cllr Bilbe responded that although options had been considered there was not such a strategy but it was something he would keep in mind.

Cllr Nils Christiansen

Committee Vice Chairman Nils Christiansen, in his summary of the debate, said: “For the amount of money we are spending on this could it be better spent on other things in the borough that might add more value… That is the real question we need to ask rather than focussing on a rather spurious GVA report, which, to be frank, is hard to believe.

Cllr Christian Holliday (Con, Burpham) said the council was faced with a choice. “Do we carry on, spending another £600,000 for no obvious return or do we take the opportunity to save that money and think again about what we do with the site?”

“We need to be very careful we don’t throw good money after bad.”

Cllr Christian Holliday

The Scrutiny Committee concluded the debate by agreeing a resolution, proposed by Cllr Holliday: “The committee has grave concerns over the fact that The Village is facing capital and revenue costs in excess of £1.2 million after less than two years in operation and is projected to incur additional costs of over £200,000 in each future financial year, for which figures are available, with no obvious overriding benefits to justify these costs.

“Therefore, the committee requests the Executive to honour the council’s commitments made over the 2017 Christmas period, until the Village closes on 24 December, and thereafter work up a full exit strategy to include consideration of alternative future uses. As part of this process, consideration should be given to whether or not The Village should re-open at Easter on Good Friday, 2018.”

Cllr Caroline Reeves

Committee Chairman Caroline Reeves said today (November 15): “The background research done by Overview & Scrutiny members on The Village ensured a wide-ranging debate.

“Members were obviously dissatisfied with the report on the economic impact of The Village and will no doubt scrutinise the requested exit strategy in detail when it is published.

“The debate around the validity and value of the whole project recognised that the success of the venue in the run-up to Christmas is key. There will doubtless be further scrutiny before committing to the programme for 2018.”

Click here to view the GBC webcast of the meeting.

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Responses to The Village: Scrutiny Committee Recommends Review of Further Investment

  1. Valerie Thompson Reply

    November 15, 2017 at 8:50 pm

    It is time to “call time” on this disgraceful waste of taxpayers money which is also a waste of a perfectly good development site in central Guildford. I stood at the bus stop opposite for some time today and saw no-one going in to “The Village”. I also looked at how big a site it actually occupies, which, together with the open-air car park next to it would house hundreds of people if Guildford could get its act together and build five-storey flats there.

    Guildford does not need more retail opportunities. Reduce the rates and the empty High Street and North Street shops will fill up. Make use of redundant office buildings, or large empty shops for small, temporary retail units, like those at “The Village”, but stop this ridiculous, nonsensical refusal to get on with building on the empty brownfield sites.

  2. Linda Cooper Reply

    November 15, 2017 at 11:24 pm

    Yet another council that cannot learn from past mistakes. The whole village thing is miserable. Have a proper Christmas market, if you think there is a need. Or, better still, build council flats on the site.

    • Susan Jones Reply

      November 16, 2017 at 1:18 pm

      Council flats? This is prime building land in central Guildford. It’s the council’s duty to get maximum value from the site on behalf of council taxpayers. The entire site, including the small car park next to it, should be redeveloped with public pay and display parking on the bottom and then high-end flats on the upper floors. A sensible balance of use. The council flats can be built in Bellfields or other areas with good bus connections.

      • John Perkins Reply

        November 16, 2017 at 2:31 pm

        Keep the hoi-polloi away from the nice bits. The midden’s good enow fur thee.

  3. A Atkinson Reply

    November 16, 2017 at 8:36 am

    Please fail fast.

    As I said before,, there is nothing wrong with failure, what is wrong is not making the right decision to move on, quickly.

    Ask people who have worked in the consumer experience industry and look at the picture above, this space will never work. I was positive in my comments in my letter last May to focus attention on what needs to happen, but this space means nothing to everybody.

    The reduction in the rents must have been due to the previously budgeted rents being unviable reflecting the poor visitor numbers and poor spend.

    Are the council saying that, on average, each and every person visiting the Village spends £30.70 as mentioned elsewhere? On average, a family of four spending £122.80 there? Come on, that figure is pie in the sky.

    It’s time the council accept failure and fail fast.

    As an aside, it’s a shame that the Scrutiny Committee didn’t scrutinise the far more important SHMA in the same way.

  4. Mike Murphy Reply

    November 16, 2017 at 3:30 pm

    This council, headed by Cllr Spooner, seems to lurch from one unnessasary spending project to the next, wasting our hard-earned taxpayers money on a junket to China and now completely wasting over £1 million on a vanity project that never could be of any use to our community.

  5. Jane Taylor Reply

    November 16, 2017 at 7:06 pm

    Having visited the village site yesterday afternoon I found it a dismal area with very little going on.

    I am shocked to find that the council have budgeted such a large amount of money for this in a time of cuts to services.

    It does not reflect Guildford in a good light and is certainly not a visitor attraction.

    Many residents struggle to pay their council tax especially pensioners. Urgent rethink please.

  6. Paul Bishop Reply

    November 17, 2017 at 7:33 am

    Well I’m going to put some positivity into this moan fest – to those who didn’t attend The Village last night after the light switch on, it was fantastic! The place was absolutely packed, live music, hot food, the ice rink and winter warmer drinks. There were people of all ages.

    It was really great and proof that Guildford can have some community spirit. This is the kind of thing we need more of in Guildford, the only way they will work is if people get involved.

  7. Sara Tokunaga Reply

    November 17, 2017 at 8:28 pm

    Maybe Mr Bishop should have visited The Village today [Friday, Nov 17]. Ghost town springs to mind.

    The success of a venue relies on sustainability – a one-off event does not make it viable. I walk through there frequently and find it highly depressing. It certainly does not add anything to Guildford and is, in fact, an embarrassment.

    Anyone visiting Guildford on the promise of a great experience at The Village must be very confused. Let’s cut our losses and get rid of this ugly white elephant.

  8. Annemarie Gerstenberger Reply

    November 18, 2017 at 7:50 pm

    I liked the idea of making a space that brings the community together. I visited regularly with my toddler when the weather was warmer and for specific calendar events (weather dependent) but otherwise, the retail units have little I wish to purchase or are very expensive.

    It was a good idea and given a good go but evidently not what the Guildford community wanted. Now onto building beautiful, functional and affordable housing on the site that everyone in Guildford can afford. Reducing retail rates or staggering the rates to encourage empty outlets to be filled is an option.

  9. Peter Pearce Reply

    November 18, 2017 at 10:33 pm

    Totally outrageous use of money. Cut the losses now. At a time of austerity this is a crazy scheme, albeit, with good intention but not given sufficient financial scrutiny at the outset.

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