The multi-million pound property roulette that’s going on behind closed doors right here in Hastings

‘I am not sure that when residents pay their council tax they understand they are shareholders in a commercial property investment company.’

One of the most read stories on Hastings In Focus this week has been about the threat to the future of Debenhams as the store’s owners desperately seek a buyer for the company.

One of the most read stories on Hastings In Focus this week has been the threat of closure that is once again hanging over Debenhams. It’s a sign of the times and a sign of the uncertain future for high street retailers across the country.

In recent years your council – Hastings Borough Council – has borrowed tens of millions of pounds that it will be repaying for up to 50 years to buy up commercial properties. Three of the council’s four tenants on the Bexhill Road complex; Carpetright, Bensons for Beds and Poundstretcher have recently been through financial turmoil and it’s likely that for the Hastings stores to have survived under each company’s new regime deals will have been done to reduce rents. And in todays uncertain world for retail there are no guarantees that those deals will be enough to ensure the survival of those businesses.

We’ve asked the council how much its tenants are in arrears with rent but it refuses to tell us but lost rental income since March is thought to be getting on for £400,000.

The risks HBC has taken are huge. Councillor Andy Patmore has always had concerns about the council’s borrowing-fuelled spending spree and about whether or not the council took the proper expert advice before throwing itself so wholeheartedly in to a very specialist and expensive world – here he explains why he’s now very worried indeed.

It wasn’t that long ago that I wrote and explained my reservations about some of the very risky commercial property purchases Hastings Borough Council (HBC) has been making writes Andy Patmore.

It was my belief – actually the belief of many more prominent commentators – that using public money to speculate on the commercial property market was inherently risky and should be left to professional property investors who have the ability to move with, and ride out, markets in bad times.

Commercial property investors take risks, either with their own money, or with the trust of their shareholders. I am not sure that when residents pay their council tax they understand they are shareholders in a commercial property investment company.

It would have been difficult to predict a pandemic or anything like Covid-19 but what could have been predicted is the gradual demise of the retail sector and the slow move to online shopping. 

Andy Patmore outside Bensons for Beds a company recently bought from its administrators – how much will Hastings Borough Council have had to reduce the rent by to save the Hastings store?

Many people who have been slow to move to an online shopping experience have been forced to embrace online shopping because of the pandemic. According to all current thinking Covid-19 has moved online shopping habits on by five years and this is bad news for the commercial property sector and retail.

Well before the start of Covid-19 many well known high street names were entering  in to CVA (Company Voluntary Arrangements) agreements. This is where the business negotiates lower rent so they can continue to operate, save jobs and avoid bankruptcy.

What on earth have these complicated CVAs, online shopping habits and commercial property valuations have to do with getting my bins collected you might say? Everything, is the answer.

The new Aldi site in Bexhill Road. The council’s deal on this property is more complex than its others. Hastings Borough Council bought the site and has is paid the cost of development and will now lease the site back to the German supermarket giant. Costa has confirmed it will open its new store on the same site on August 13th.

YOUR council has borrowed big to gamble tens of millions of pounds to invest in the retail property sector. In its defence, many other local councils around the country have gambled in the same way.

I can only say that I have been consistent in my opposition to this type of investment, especially as the council has not been aggressive enough in their purchase negotiations, basically buying into a commercial property bubble caused by councils up and down the country willing to snap up whatever they could get.

Covid-19 has brought these investment decisions in to sharp focus and the problems faced by the retail sector have been brought forward by a number of years.

The pressure on rents and commercial property valuations is downward and the margins at which the council is operating are thin at best. Latest indications show the council has lost rental income of some £387,000 since the end of March, wiping out much of any profits.

‘I was told the questions I directed at the officers should have been asked of them at behind closed doors briefings.’

This is the second largest loss due to Covid-19 on the council’s balance sheet. With the sadly impending financial fallout of Covid-19 those figures are highly disturbing, especially as the council has borrowed at 100 per cent loan to value and over periods of 40 years.

Councils are not commercial organisations and should never have got involved in these investments. A council’s basic function should be to provide services to their citizens not speculate on the markets. I fear these ‘investments’ will become the next financial scandal.

In fact, worse still, the council’s margins on their borrowing to rental income are so tight that it might not be able to reduce rents when asked – if they are asked – to negotiate future CVA agreements. This inflexibility might force businesses in to bankruptcy, ultimately losing local people their jobs.

HBC’s ruling Labour group will ultimately blame the government for not giving them enough money and I do have a lot of sympathy with local authorities having to reduce their spending and working on lower budgets. However the choice to borrow huge sums of money and to gamble them on risky investments is solely the decision of the Labour run council.

‘…questioning the officers is not allowed.’

Carpetright got new owners last autumn to stave off collapse – it had debts of over £40m.
Poundstretcher has seen a wave of store closures and redundancies and half of its 450 stores are said to be at risk.
Bensons for Beds parent company was placed in administration earlier this year with managers buying the bed company but cuts are planned.

The Conservatives were the only voice in cabinet who would ask difficult questions in an open, public forum. In fact I remember being specifically criticised for doing so by a Labour councillor. I was ‘told’ the questions I directed at the officers should have been asked of them at behind closed doors briefings.

I felt it was my function as an opposition member of the Cabinet to ask questions in an open forum so the public could hear what the officers of the council had to say.

I respected former council leader Peter Chowney and his choice to continue Jeremy Birch’s decision to have opposition members sit in cabinet, along with his willingness to engage and listen.

Unfortunately all the difficult questions will now be asked behind closed doors as the new Labour leadership has stifled debate.

Councillors can debate decisions taken by cabinet at full council meetings, by way of ‘call back’ but the public won’t have the opportunity to hear from the officials who run HBC because they are not committee style meetings and questioning the officers is not allowed.

Hopefully the Government will come to its senses and outlaw the use of public money to invest in this way, otherwise buckle up for more unscrutinised, behind closed doors, multi-million pound property roulette.

Are you happy with the way Hastings Borough Council is handling YOUR money? Let us know what you think in the comment section below.

3 thoughts on “The multi-million pound property roulette that’s going on behind closed doors right here in Hastings

  1. You sound quite bitter that you have no seat at the table of a labour council. On previous occasions the tory councillors let down their constituents by deliberately not attending meetings. You seem to want your cake and eat it. The local tory MP cannot even reply to many local residents letters of concern. I was referred to read the Daily Mail for my answers! Maybe some more investment from the Government should be your first concern and you should be pursuing your elected MP. Also whilst she is enjoying her huge salary maybe she could lead the way and request that carers are paid an adequate payment … don’t even get minimum wage … for their 24 hour 24/7 care they provide to family members. The care provided is not to make a person feel good but is essential and saves the Government a fortune. Carers deserve to be treated with dignity and humanity not slave labour. Poor families are the taboo of this Government.

  2. I do have sympathy with local authorities in regard to being asked to provide more and more services on a diminishing budget. However, I have no sympathy with them when they choose to use ratepayers money to speculate on land or property, or any venture that entails such a high risk to the capital.

  3. Residents have had no clue or information when HBC went shopping for these retail sites. Well not until after they had already signed the cheques and announced the purchase of them.

    Most have been acquired after several stories in the national press of how several councils across the UK had already got into trouble venturing into the world of commercial property. And when there was writing on the wall how buying retail units was akin to entering a minefield.
    But despite the councillors here soldiered on and went on their spree.
    Due to the lack of transparency with the council we will never know what the rents are for these units and their profit margin. Or of course if they have done any deals to keep those doors open.
    And how about the site downtown where they are going to build some restaurant – how is that “investment” going.

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