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Council leader hits back after ‘white elephant’ Debenhams question

27 Jan 2024 3 minute read
The empty Debenhams store at Swansea’s Quadrant Shopping Centre. Image: Richard Youle

Richard Youle, local democracy reporter

The leader of Swansea Council has reacted sternly after being asked how the authority would ensure its purchase of the empty Debenhams store did not become “an expensive white elephant”.

The question was put to Labour councillor Rob Stewart by Cllr Stuart Rice, of the Uplands Party, at a meeting of full council.

The Welsh Government has provided £4.5 million towards the acquisition and redevelopment of the Quadrant Shopping Centre anchor store, which closed after the high street retailer went into administration in 2021. The purchase itself was £3.1 million.

Securing a new tenant was one of Swansea Labour’s foremost priorities when it was re-elected in the 2022 local government elections. The store remains empty but Cllr Stewart was unequivocal about the intervention.

“If Cllr Rice’s view would be the council don’t do anything, just leave it to someone else to fix, I certainly could not agree with that approach,” he said. “And I think it would be damning for businesses in the city centre to have an administration that didn’t care about the city centre.”

Business rates

The council agreed to defer business rates for Debenhams in 2020 after the company warned that its Quadrant Shopping Centre store might have to close. Cllr Stewart said this had resulted in the store trading for longer than would have otherwise been the case.

He said not intervening further would impact the remaining shopping centre, much of which is currently up for sale. “It’s essential we took action there,” he said.

Cllr Stewart added that agents working on behalf of the council were in discussion with potential occupiers of the Debenhams building, which is likely to need electrical, mechanical and fit-out work.

He said he didn’t rule out further Welsh Government support, but added that there were “clear lines” about what the building could and couldn’t be used for. The meeting heard that a Debenhams steering group with council and Welsh Government representation is to be set up.

Cllr Stewart said the sooner an occupier or occupiers could be announced the better, and that he would be happy to brief the council’s scrutiny programme committee in due course about developments.

Roads spending

Cllr Rice suggested that the £4.5 million secured from the Welsh Government was four times more than the council spent on roads last year. Cllr Stewart said the roads expenditure was much higher, and invited Cllr Rice to withdraw the comment. He then looked up a budget presentation from last year and said the council was spending £7 million-plus on roads.

Elsewhere in South Wales the former Debenhams store in Carmarthen will be turned into a health, education and cultural hub, while the one in Cardiff is being demolished with plans for an open-air street food and live music space in its stead.

Back at the meeting Cllr Stewart was also pressed about when work on the unfinished Copr Bay multi-storey car park and ground floor commercial units at the rear of the Tesco superstore would be completed now that a new contractor had been appointed. He said late summer was “probably where we are going to end up” as the administration of the previous contractor was still being worked through and the council would need to agree a contract with its replacement, Willmott Dixon, and re-tender packages of work.

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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
5 months ago

That’s a mess innit…

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