COUNCIL chiefs should reconsider a major renovation project to convert Swansea’s former BHS store into a library, community hub and archives building, the leader of the opposition said.
Cllr Chris Holley said he felt the recently-acquired vacant Debenhams store in the Quadrant Shopping Centre might be more appropriate for the community hub development because it bordered the city’s main bus station and a multi-storey car park.
The Swansea Liberal Democrat leader was speaking at a scrutiny committee meeting before members went into closed session to discuss a 113-page report about the ongoing conversion of 277-278 Oxford Street, which includes the old BHS store.
What issues the exempt report did or didn’t raise is unclear, and councillors were limited on what they could say in open session, but it is likely that further capital investment is sought – and Cllr Holley was persuaded that a fundamental rethink might be needed.
Cabinet will discuss the exempt report on July 20 and decide how to proceed – again in closed session.
“I think there is a very important issue we need to talk about,” said Cllr Holley. “It’s actually, are we doing the right thing?”
The former council leader said older library users who took the bus would have further to walk to the new library on Oxford Street than if it was located at the former Debenhams store. He also felt a library and community hub at the latter location would generate footfall for the shopping centre itself.
The same committee heard last August that the projected cost of converting the former BHS store had risen to just over £15 million. Its chairman, Cllr Peter Black, claimed the budget had multiplied by nearly two-and-a-half times since the outset, but was advised that part of the reason for the increase was that the council had also bought the adjacent former Miss Selfridge Unit. A senior council officer added that “water was pouring in” at 277-278 Oxford Street, and that building costs had risen. “It will be a fantastic scheme but it won’t be a flamboyant, expensive scheme,” said the officer.
The Welsh Government has allocated £5.5 million to the Oxford Street conversion and was, according to officers at the August 2022 meeting, set to offer support to mitigate higher building costs. The remainder of the £15 million was to come from the council.
Speaking at the latest scrutiny meeting, on July 18, council leader Rob Stewart said he disagreed with Cllr Holley’s suggestion. “I think it would be very unwise,” he said.
Unwinding the Oxford Street project would jeopardise grant funding, said Cllr Stewart, and incur aborted costs. “I think that would be a great waste of taxpayers’ money,” he said.
The Swansea Labour leader added that the nearest bus stop to 277-278 Oxford Street was the same distance to it as the nearest bus stop was to the current central library in the Civic Centre, and that there was a car park at the rear of the nearby Oxford Street Marks & Spencer store.
Cllr Stewart said the council was also in active negotiations with “big name” businesses to take on the vacant Debenhams building, and that the public was calling for more city centre retail.
Cllr Holley replied that he stood by his suggestion to look at other options, and that he felt more generally there should be discussion about what type of debates were held in closed session.
Public bodies can withhold reports which are deemed commercially sensitive or which would disclose personal data, among other reasons, but must consider the public interest in doing so. The only exception to the public interest test is in cases involving legal privilege.
Speaking after the scrutiny meeting, Cllr Holley said he was concerned about the amount of money being borrowed for council projects and that more money should be invested in roads and “other basics” instead.