Northgate House should be developed, Calderdale Council just need to convince the public why’ was the title of a letter that I wrote to the Courier in June when an offer for the site from Broad Street developers the Gregory Group emerged, but it would also be an equally valid title for this letter.
What has changed between then and now though is that the Council’s handling of the affair will make securing public support much harder than it should be.
The Council resolved to dispose of the Northgate House / Central Library / Archive site for redevelopment in 2008, but the outcry that this decision created resulted in a further resolution in 2009 to retain Central Library and the Archives until viable alternative proposals with ‘broad public support’ had emerged.
The redevelopment of the site, in my humble opinion at least, just makes sense. The Council’s office requirement can support Broad Street or Dean Clough, an improved Library and Archive can anchor a new public service hub, and a large, high profile retail pitch can be created.
The 2009 resolution has, regardless of it’s legal status, clearly put the Council in a difficult position because even if a scheme does emerge that provides these benefits and that officers and members are confident enough to pursue without necessarily securing public support, a commitment has been expressed to do just that.
It should have been hoped then that the reaction in June to news of the Gregory Group offer would have served as a shot across the bows of senior officers and members as far as the importance of securing this support is concerned.
Clearly though it has not and one wonders whether those senior figures are aware of how the phrase ‘behind close doors’ is interpreted when used as a prefix to ‘Council debates’. For their benefit, it is not positive, and yet this is precisely how the issue re-entered the public arena four months later. This was bad enough, but somebody really did not think through the impact of ‘mega-plans finally being revealed’ just a day after a ‘behind closed doors’ meeting.
The not unreasonable conclusion that somebody might come to is that the Council, either oblivious to or dismissive of public sentiment, has spent the last four months drawing up plans, and then met in secret to rubber-stamp them.
The Courier reports that Cabinet’s recommendations will be subject to approval by the Full Council in December, but, again, in the absence of any opportunity to engage, the not unreasonable conclusion to come to is that this approval is a formality. So much for the commitment to ‘broad public support’.
This is fast becoming a far greater issue than ever it should have been and the reputation of the Council is suffering as a result. At best, we might shrug our shoulders and put it down to mismanagement.
At worst though, are the conclusions that the public will unfortunately jump to when linking offers from property developers with ‘behind closed doors’ Council meetings. Perception is everything and the Council would do well to remember that what it does not say is just as important as what it does.
It is equally regretful though that the Council’s handling of this process will make these developments, and all of the associated benefits that they will bring to Halifax, that much harder to achieve.
Whether or not it is the Council itself or, following whatever public procurement process is required, a development partner who submits the planning applications, the mistrust and suspicion of the Council that has been stirred will manifest itself in a greater degree of resistance to these development than should be the case.
Back to the beginning then. Northgate House should still be developed and the Council still needs to convince the public why. Rather than pressing straight ahead towards securing Full Council approval to whatever plans have been prepared it might though want to take a little time and go beyond why and to think about letting us know the what, when, who and how as well.
This may create a delay beyond December, but it will save time in the long run because only a full and frank disclosure of all of the relevant information will generate the public support required to both respect previous commitments and get these schemes moving forward.