A CASH-STRAPPED council is now the owner of a derelict retail unit after agreeing to take out a whopping £1.5m loan to buy the site.
Hartlepool Borough Council – which needs to make savings of £16m – has confirmed contracts have been exchanged with owner Schroders for the Jacksons Landing unit, at Hartlepool Marina.
The deal, paid for using a two-year interest-free loan from a Government growth fund, has sparked controversy among some councillors who question the impact on taxpayers if they can’t sell the land on and raised concerns there is no “specific use” yet identified for the premises.
But council leaders say the town “must not stagnate” and insist it will help regenerate Hartlepool.
Hartlepool Council decided to buy the five-acre site, which has been empty since July 2004, for redevelopment amid fears that a developer might have bought it and not done anything with it for a further decade.
They say the £1.5m sale forms part of much wider proposals, which are currently being developed to regenerate key areas.
Council leader Christopher Akers-Belcher said: “In the 10 years it has stood empty, Jacksons Landing has been a blight on the marina and the wider area and the prospect of that continuing for years to come was totally unacceptable.
“In spite of the current difficult economic conditions, the town must not stagnate.
“It must grow and prosper and to achieve that we must make the most of assets such as the Jacksons Landing site.”
Labour councillor Robbie Payne, chair of the council’s regeneration services committee, added: “The purchase of the Jacksons Landing site will be one of the cornerstones in a bold vision for improving and revitalising Hartlepool and giving people the confidence to invest in it.”
Conservative group leader Ray Martin-Wells said: “While £1.5m is a tremendous amount, I believe it represents good value for money and I understand that several developers have already offered the council a profit should we wish to quickly turn the building around.
“I look forward to seeing proposals for its future use, which will hopefully generate income and jobs.”
But independent councillor Paul Thompson said: “Hopefully it will remove a blight on the town but I hesitate to get too excited due to major concerns about what happens if the council can’t move it on in two years.
“The council would then be stuck with huge interest rates and I understand the concerns of many residents about spending this amount of money at a time of huge cuts.
“Also, the council believes it can do in two years what the previous owner couldn’t manage in 10. It makes me question what the grand plan is.”
Councillor Jonathan Brash said while he wasn’t against it in principle, he has raised major concerns about the move.
Coun Brash added: “What concerns me is the absence of a clear vision and if we can’t achieve it then it is going to have a knock-on affect to the taxpayers of Hartlepool as there will be costs associated that will fall on the council if we can’t bring the site back into use.
“We are in a difficult situation with funding being cut and this is a risk, which I hope pays off. But there is always that fear that it won’t and will become a huge white elephant for the taxpayer.
“The money is from a specific national pot but questions will be asked as to whether the £1.5m could have been spent on something else.”
In July the finance and policy committee, and subsequently full council, gave officers the green light to buy the site instead of withdrawing its interest and relying on the owner to market the site.
Councillors agreed to buy the land - valued at £10m before the credit crunch - and hold it until the market improves and a “suitable viable” scheme is identified.
The aim is to have identified an alternative use or to sell it on by December 2014.