Swindon council should buy back Cavendish Square at the best terms they can get

The council administration owes a duty to the people of the area to regain ownership, improve the environment and the facilities, because they are responsible for the parlous state of the square. They gave away the land to the developers...”

In February of this year David Renard announced that the purchase of Cavendish Square was suspended owing to the situation with Covid. He said that they would look again when the situation had “settled down”. Last Wednesday the Swindon Council cabinet meeting was due to take a decision to abandon its commitment to buy back that part of Cavendish Square which it doesn’t own.

The document put to the Cabinet said:

“The council’s property advisors have reconsidered the acquisition opportunity and advised that since the pandemic, the certainty of the income stream from this type of property has become more risky. On this basis, an acquisition can no longer be supported.”

They did not inform any of the local organisations, the local councillors, or it would seem, the MP, that they were proposing to take this decision. It was only when somebody read the cabinet documents that this proposal was found. There was no item headed Cavendish Square on the agenda. It was hidden away in a finance document, one of a number of decisions.

On the morning of the Cabinet meeting I emailed David Renard and Robert Buckland, and the local councillors. Robert Buckland and councillor Curtis Flux issued a joint statement, saying they would be calling on the council not to take a decision and “asked for the decision to be reviewed urgently”.

At the meeting that evening Cabinet Member Keith Williams proposed to add the caveat to their decision that they would not proceed with the purchase “at this moment in time”. According to the Advertiser Curtis Flux asked if they could look at it again in 12 months time. This hardly seems to be an urgent review.

Councillor Williams said the council would continue to negotiate with the owners Lytton Road Ltd to see if a new price could be agreed which puts the council at a lower risk, but the sale at the previous price was off.

Local organisations have always said that the decision to buy back Cavnedish Square was not a commercial decision. The council administration owes a duty to the people of the area to regain ownership, improve the environment and facilities because they were responsible for the parlous state of the square. They gave away the land to the developers who failed to do what they promised; build a shopping centre with a roof. And the council allowed them to depart without putting in drainage when they decided not to put a roof on.

If the council can get a lower price out of the owners fair enough. In fact the most recent (unaudited) accounts of Lytton Rd Limited, published in December 2020 but dated March 2020, show that they owe £700,000, £500,000 of which was due in a year. That would be March this year. The net value of these assets was only £82,000. To my knowledge the price agreed took no account of depreciation, and was the original sale price plus a mark up. This was a bit like buying a used car for the original sale price. Given the fact that retail prices have fallen and there is unlikely to be a quick return to pre-pandemic values, the owner can hardly expect to recoup the original price.

Given the apparent financial difficulties of this company it ought to be possible to drive the price down. Yet ultimately, the council needs to buy back as recompense for the problems which local people have faced as a result of this failed regeneration. This is why the purchase is necessary, rather than being viewed as a ‘commercial opportunity’.

We need to continue to press the council to stick to its commitment to make the purchase at the best terms they can get.

Martin Wicks

September 13th 2021

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