Council or Bank Manager?

The city council claims to be under pressure to get its plans for Fletton Quays built. It is so anxious about this that it plans to decant itself from its own rather lovely Town Hall in Bridge Street so that it can rent out the space and encourage companies to join it on the other side of the river in a patch of land which would make a lovely river park or walkway and serve as a rain shed for the city, even a flood plain, if we were thinking in a truly sustainable way about what a river bank really is.

The nature of this pressure is not fully understood. At least I don’t understand it: I simply don’t share it, and given the amount of empty space available in the city, residential, retail and commercial, I admit to being bewildered.

I am wondering also if the nature of the pressure is a bit more complicated and also whether the council isn’t so much being pressurised, as positively rushed into what could be a potentially very damaging decision. A decision is scheduled to be made at 10am on Monday morning. Are we sure we understand what the rush is all about?

A few of us have been looking at the detail behind the company the council is planning to lend money to: Norlin Hotels Holdings Limited.

(see: http://www.peterborough.gov.uk/news/council/council-set-to-support-hotel-construction-on-fletton-quays/

and http://www.peterboroughtoday.co.uk/news/politics/council-set-to-lend-15-million-for-fletton-quays-hotel-on-peterborough-s-south-bank-1-8156975)

Norlin Hotels Holdings Limited turns out to be one of a huge network of companies and a couple of people have spent a day or two hunting for assets, a history of solid achievement, or anything to reassure us that this is a good thing. So far we haven’t come across much to reassure us. In fact warning lights are flashing everywhere.

The company is based in Northern Ireland. One of its directors is Stephen Brian Symington.

Why would Peterborough not opt for a local developer? Local builders? A local workforce? Is the company it is talking to really based in Northern Ireland, or is it just an address?

I remember talking to people working on the academy building project and they told me that they came up from London every day by bus. One of the men I spoke to had only recently arrived from Africa which really got me thinking about the nature of the investment and exactly how it was managed and who benefited most from the choice of workforce. Looking back now, I wonder what would this man have done if his manager wanted to skimp on wall ties, for example? What were his skills? How well qualified was he? Was he in a position to probe something if it did worry him? Was his immigration status a problem for him? Could this put him in difficulties in negotiations with an employer? There is no evidence of a problem like the wall tie scandal happening in Peterborough, but a wall certainly did collapse for want of a few ties in Scotland. What complicated decisions led to that? We need to stop assuming that everything is done for our benefit and we need to start asking basic questions.

What was the tender process? Who got involved?

Who benefits from the decision to appoint a Northern Irish developer?

Photos from Stephen Symington’s facebook profile

Who is the developer? What do we know about them? Why is Peterborough, home of bricks, having to go so far to find a builder? Why is the council, which is so keen to focus on a “circular economy” not focussing locally and looking at people who have been educated and trained locally? Shouldn’t we be shortening the distances workers need to travel to find work?

Then I see “Antigua” in an associated company’s name and I start thinking about tax havens. Quite a bit of Peterborough is now owned by offshore companies. This lowers the tax revenue available to central government. Has this got something to do with the city’s choice of company? What is the council’s approach to companies domiciled in a tax haven?

And then since June it simply is not possible to ignore the heaviest political pressure on the Conservatives. Since the General Election, the Conservative Party has been and remains totally dependent on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party to maintain its grip on power in Westminster. It is unlikely that the support is provided freely: the DUP is not known for being soft or a push over. Northern Ireland politicians will be trying to get as much out of this situation as they possibly can: and rightly so. But then, how exactly are they doing this? Could there be a party political aspect to the council’s choice of company? Is leverage being applied? If so is the council in a position to understand that sort of pressure, and to fully understand any risks which might be entailed?

Could this really be all about moving money or debt around in ways which are made to be difficult to observe? As appears to have happened for entirely political reasons here.

The key issue is risk. What risks is the council running and has it got its eyes fully open to potential risks?

I’ve spent the whole day (unpaid) searching for evidence that these two directors are experts in developing hotels. I haven’t found it. Others have had exactly the same experience. I’ve looked at all the active companies which have Symington or Irwin as a director. I’ve discovered that these two directors work closely together, that this set of companies is large and some are involved fun in the food industry, the racing sector, one or two are in the movie sector and that quite a few of them don’t file their accounts on time and several owe money to all sorts of financial institutions. Eastonville Investments Limited is controlled by a company based in the Cayman Islands, so I have no idea if the assets I was expecting to find are stashed safely and invisibly over there. I still think the organisation the council is talking to (which I still can’t really see as a functioning entity online – no website, for example or contact details) should be able to get a commercial bank loan if they have a viable business in our city, which I very very strongly doubt they do have, especially since they are hooked in to the old model of a hotel, rather than the fantastically popular AirB&B concept. The only company which has bothered with a website appears to be in biotech and has not thrived. Even if the hotel is a brilliant success, what impact will it have on the hotel sector already in the city? One hotel has already become infamous for housing Peterborough’s steadily growing homeless population. Is the Hilton chain really wanting to come to Peterborough?

If it goes wrong, the council will end up owing money against land it currently owns outright and owes nothing on, but which could fall dramatically in value in relation to any loaned amount borrowed against it. If that were to happen, the council tax payer will pick up the bill. Cllr David Seaton has honourably promised to resign if it does go pear shaped, but, frankly, resignation won’t cost him £15M.

One of the directors of Cawlands has demonstrated an ability to make the best of a very tough economic and political situation  but however clever his recovery of property in a downturn was, I’m not sure that our council should be blowing the sort of bubbles into our local economy which could positively contribute to inflation of or a collapse in asset value.

Nor do I believe that our local council should in any way be in the business of baling out a bit of Northern Irish commercial property. The registered address of a network of companies, including the one which the council is proposing to deal with is 41-43 Waring Street, Belfast, County Antrim, BT1 2DY. And Waring Street Limited is also the name of a company. This is what that address looks like on google maps:

41-43 Waring Street, Belfast, County Antrim, BT1 2DY

And these are the charges which are currently laid against that company: that very land and that very building.

 

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Accounting for Rhubarb Bridge Decision

I have asked people why the council hadn’t gone all out to fund a replacement bridge as soon as it realised Rhubarb Bridge was suffering an unusual degree of decay. This would have made sense, especially since there are national funding pots for sustainable travel infrastructure, and this bridge might well have qualified.

I wrote a post about the stakeholder event, at which my question did not receive an answer.

Since then I have I received one really useful reply. My interlocutor pointed out to me that the money for repairs and maintenance comes out of the Revenue pot at the council. Revenue is for running costs, costs which recur year after year. The money for the an surface roundabout or for a replacement bridge would come out of the Capital pot. Capital is for one off costs, for buying or building assets such as buildings and infrastructure.

This made me think. Pressure on the Revenue pot is extreme. And it might be this extreme funding pressure which is leading to a decision not to maintain. If it replaces an an annual maintenance bill with a one off capital bill (with arguably a smaller ongoing maintenance cost), it will be relieving pressure on the funds which are needed to look after people in extreme need.

Funding pressures on local government affect their Revenue funding primarily. Pressure on capital funding is not as bad. Revenue funds are used to fund social care, road repairs and waste disposal. It is this funding stream which is under impossible strains as central government imposes its Austerity measures and renders all our services less and less able to cope. So all local authorities have to balance roads and waste against social care. It is quite clearly insane, but until we sack the government as we are entitled to do at each general election, there is no sign of a change in this wicked situation. And local authority roads get a small fraction of the maintenance money which Highways England gets to maintain trunk roads. Unfortunately Rhubarb Bridge does not belong to Highways England. It belongs to the council.

This leaves a number of items which haven’t been accounted for: lets call them uncounted elephants in the room:

  • The likely cost of accidents at an at surface crossing. It is clear that this has not been factored in. There is clearly an increased risk of impacts on emergency, hospital and care services budgets.
  • The impact of being at ground level at an air pollution hot spot on all pedestrian and cyclists using the route. The higher you are the less likely you are to be inhaling high concentrates of particulates. The closer you are the more certain it is. In pushchairs children are face to face with exhaust pipes and this is just one reason (of many) why parents pop them in what seems to be the safer environment of a car.
  • The at surface crossing will result in cyclists taking to the road, rather than wait.
  • The at surface crossing will result in people getting into a car in preference to walking with a pram or pushchair.

And it leaves my original question standing: why the council hasn’t tried to get hold of (let us add “capital”) funding to rebuild the bridge – if it is beyond economic repair?

Rhubarb Bridge Stakeholder Event

An event for councillors and stakeholders was held last week in the Town Hall. A similar public event is scheduled to be held next week. I would recommend people living near the bridge or using it regularly go if they possibly can.

I am a member of Peterborough Cycling Forum (PCF) (one of the council’s stakeholders), which has put the council’s event on facebook. Quite a few PCF members turned up and three or four councillors also popped in while I was there.

Background

Which bridge? Rhubarb Bridge is the popular (but strictly incorrect) name of a cycle and pedestrian up and over bridge at the junction of the A15 (Lincoln Road – Bourges Boulevard) with the A47. The name is taken from a bridge which has long since gone. It went over a railway and had rhubarb growing on its embankment. The council calls it J18.

The council had claimed that the bridge needed to be demolished because it was no longer viable to continue to repair and maintain it: it had reached the end of its life. My overriding concern was to establish whether or not this was fair: I’d not spotted problems with the structure, so I was sceptical. The council’s structural engineer attended.

The bridge is a complex structure with four ways up onto a wider part of the bridge, which dips down a little into a tunnel under the A47. So it is both a bridge over Bourges Boulevard but also a tunnel under the A47. The council thinks of it as six bridges, two, the wider bits extending out from the tunnel, and the four, each of the four “legs” down.

At the event we were shown photographs of the bridge showing its condition. These will be published online on Wednesday 9th along with all the other planning documents we saw. These were a map, a description of the problems presented by the bridge and how the council proposes to deal with them, and the photographs. There is also a movement model, showing how traffic will be held at crossings and how it will flow once there are four lanes leading into some of the stop points. Extra lanes will be added to the A47 slip road from the east, and to the junction with the Lincoln Road coming from the north, so four lanes of traffic will queue at each of these two sets of traffic lights.

So this is what we now know (things we don’t know are in bold)

The bridge was constructed in 1975.

At PCF’s last meeting we were told that there is nothing structurally wrong with the tunnel under the A47. This is very important, because it means it could be incorporated into a new design. We were told that once the bridge structures are demolished, the tunnel will be closed off and filled with foam. You can see pictures of the tunnel under the A47 here. You can see that the tunnel is neglected decoratively, so it is good to know that at least it is structurally sound.

The bridge structure requires repair and maintenance costing £60,000 a year to keep it safe for use.

I asked why since so many of the city’s bridges have been capable of repair, this particular one isn’t. The answer I was given is that the structure is more delicate than most of Peterborough’s repaired and mostly road over road bridges, meaning that any internal problems will be closer to the surface and integrity is less likely in the absence of sheer size and bulk. Relatively speaking, it is an elegant structure.

The bridge is made of a number of elements formed of reinforced concrete with tensioned steel at their heart. Some of these support the weight of a span and some of them are the spans.

If for example you need to repair or even replace a stanchion (a supporting pillar), you might not be able to lift the span resting on it without first repairing the span itself. This is complicated and the council argues more expensive than can be justified.

I’m not going to comment on the state of the bridge, except to say that I am no longer confident that it is structurally sound. My impression is that there were some basic concrete mixing failures when it was originally constructed. It is a huge shame, because it is a nice bridge. The pictures are worrying, although they don’t give a complete picture of the state of the whole bridge and you’d need to be a bridge expert to quantify the risk.

The problem areas have been repaired and wrapped in Kevlar, so those pictured here will not be visible. I asked what would happen if you unwrapped the Kevlar and was told the concrete might very well come off too.

However we have not seen itemised maintenance and repair expenditure on the bridge to date or estimated future costs for this.

The council argues that if it was to proceed and maintain this bridge at high cost, a route through for cyclists and pedestrians would have to be provided while works were underway.

The route through at ground level is essentially what the council’s proposal is and what is proposed could stay there while work was undertaken on the bridge, whether the bridge was repaired, or the bridge was replaced.

The proposal includes a route which goes all the way round the central island which holds up the A47. This means that during future bridge works, people could be diverted away from whichever section was being worked on by simply being sent the other way round the centre.

This central ring is partly shared use & 3wide which means cyclists don’t have to dismount and a smaller part, on the eastern side which is much narrower, which will require dismounting (designing in conflict, in other words).

If the bridge could be repaired, it could be kept much as it is. The existing bridge is marked, though faintly, on the plan.

If the bridge was replaced with a new bridge, then it would have to meet current standards and specifically its ramps would have to be a lot shallower and therefore longer than they now are. So a ramp which meets the ground now, might have to go an awful lot further in a new design and there might be a road junction just where it is almost at ground level…..

Skanska has prepared a number of options for a replacement bridge, but these were not presented at the event.

The council’s £30M replacement figure has been arrived at by an accounting formula. It is not based on the Skanska designs, which may not have been costed.

What we don’t know is:

The significance and heritage value of this structure. It has been described as a very early “Dutch roundabout”. Peterborough doesn’t sing the praises of the development corporation which put much of its road infrastructure on the map. The mini roundabout was born in Peterborough. We demolished that. At grade separation of cyclists and pedestrians was pioneered here and this bridge is part of that revolution in road design. Now we are changing the original plan and working to lower speeds on the very roads whose high speeds were once seen as their selling points. This roundabout is where old meets new. One thing is certain: cyclists (and I am guessing pedestrians also) don’t want to be at ground level at this particular point in the city! Is Peterborough going to let the Dutch get all the glory for cycling infrastructure or will it assert the value and interest of having once tried to get things right for cyclists?

Why the council has not planned in a replacement bridge and applied for funding for it, possibly as part of its sustainable travel spend. I’d missed it, but apparently this bridge was on the list of things which needed tackling two – or maybe more – years ago.

How long the bridge could stay in place as is (i.e. what leeway there is to postpone demolition).

Fulbridge Road Cycle & Pedestrian Bridge

I attended an event last Thursday which was about Rhubarb Bridge, but before I post anything about that, this is just a little news about the next bridge over the A47 going east (towards Wisbech). This bridge is on Highways England’s list of repairs and should be getting some much needed attention very soon. I hope it isn’t closed for long. It is certainly not planned for demolition. It is a useful bridge enabling cyclists and pedestrians to shortcircuit (North /South) one of Peterborough’s oddest and most confusing roundabouts over and onto the A47 (as it goes East/West).