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REGENERATION BOARD RECOMMENDS ARUN SPENDS SAINSBURY'S 'TOWN CENTRE IMPROVEMENT' MONEY FITTING OUT ITS OWN PROPERTY FOR TENANT

When Arun District Council gave planning permission for Sainsbury's to build a new superstore on the outskirts of Bognor Regis, there was an agreement that Sainsbury's would give £500,000 (known as 'Section 106 money') to Arun to be used to mitigate the likely damage to the town centre caused by the advent of the supermarket.

Arun gave the task of allocating the use of this money to the Bognor Regis Regeneration Board, which meets in secret and publishes no minutes or agendas. However, because this group, which was set up by Arun and is still part funded by them, has no legal status or even any visible existence, it can't actually do anything at all.  So Arun gets round this by receiving 'recommendations' from the Board and immediately adopting them without question.

This Board, most of whom are not elected by anybody, has already obliged Arun by giving £100,000 of this money to Councils, including Arun, for purposes which are unclear but include such things as 'public realm improvement.'

Now the Board has obliged Arun again by agreeing to recommend giving a further £15,000 of this money for the fitting out of the former Museum premises in Little High Street, Bognor Regis. This property is owned by Arun but has been empty for some time, since the Museum moved to West Street.  Arun does not appear to have made any effort to re-let the premises as not even a sign has appeared in the window to indicate that it might be available.

So, instead of re-letting the property and receiving an income to take a tiny bit of pressure off cash-strapped council taxpayers, Arun has decided to assist an arts group by giving them some kind of special deal to go in there, probably rent-free, including funding their fitting out costs from public money.

Critics of this arrangement are not criticising the arts group, although it has to be said that their business model, apparently non-profit-making, appears to be a kind of marketing front for artists who may well seek to be paid commercial rates.

Regardless of this, objections centre around the fact that public money is being diverted towards Arun's own property, when Arun should be taking steps to maximise its income from the premises in the normal commercial market, for the benefit of all council taxpayers.  Excuses from Arun that the property is impossible to let are dismissed by property experts in the town with the comment that all properties can be let providing the price asked is appropriate.

It is further questioned whether this qualifies within the original purpose of the money, being to mitigate potential damage to the town centre by the existence of Sainsbury's.  Critics agree that this may bring an empty shop back into use and for a beneficial purpose, but argue that this could just as well have been done by normal commercial processes which could have resulted in a rental income for the Council, rather than the expenditure of public money - which could have been put to better use.

September 2012

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