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Statement in response to the publication of the Public Accounts Committee report into local authority investment in commercial property

Date: 

Monday, 13 July, 2020

The Public Accounts Committee has made recommendations concerning the effectiveness of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government oversight of the use of Prudential Borrowing to buy commercial property for 'yield'.

Woking has not borrowed for ‘yield’. It has borrowed from the Public Works Loan Board to achieve local regeneration, local homes, and local jobs. Below are some of our achievements and activities.

Sheerwater (an GLA housing estate built in the 1950s)
We constructed a new highway providing better access to Woking’s business parks that has unlocked Sheerwater’s potential by increasing occupancy and generating jobs. It secured the retention of electrical manufacturer, Wandsworth Electric, and attracted supermarket giant, ASDA, to open a new store.

The new highway also enabled the wider regeneration of the former Great London Authority housing estate. Extensive investment in the regeneration programme that will boost local housing supply has been supported by Housing Infrastructure Fund marginal finance.

Meanwhile, new leisure facilities at Bishop David Brown School will help address health and wellbeing issues within the community, as will new, more accessible and useable green spaces. Whilst the introduction of district heating and sustainable energy will mean green, efficient, affordable energy for residents.

Thameswey (an ‘arm’s length’ company owned by Woking Borough Council)
Thameswey Housing has supported the delivery of homes within the borough since 2005. The company was created to help meet the need for intermediate affordable housing and has been expanded to also provide social equivalent housing with a cross subsidy from open market homes.

All Thameswey tenants can enjoy the benefits of Woking unique Earn Your Deposit Scheme whereby money is set aside each year towards a deposit on a home of their own.

Housing Infrastructure Fund (HIF)
The success we achieved in securing the £95m HIF funding, which we believe was the first to have been contracted in the UK, was recognition of all we have done and our ability to deliver.

Once complete, the project will enable circa 4,500 new homes, some paid for by us but the majority by the private sector. This has involved us developing practical working relationships with both Surrey County Council and Network Rail.

Town Centre
In 2010 we recognised that the High Street needed to change and diversify if it was to succeed. We acquired Wolsey Place (the older of Woking’s two shopping centres) and started its transformation to diversify its uses.

We collaborated with the Peacocks (Woking’s other shopping centre) and supported its investments when banks were unwilling to lend to enable improvements and secure jobs during the period of austerity and rising unemployment.

Combined, this secured jobs and new economic activity which, prior to Coronavirus, saw vacancy rates as low as 3%. This approach led to the development of the Victoria Square scheme.

Victoria Square
The scheme was a culmination of our ambition to reinvigorate the town centre and make Woking a place fit for the 21st Century. The construction project meets the Government target for housing delivery by increasing residential development in sustainable locations where the need for transport is minimised.

Located in the heart of Woking Town Centre, the scheme once complete will provide some 430 homes, allowing residents easy access to walking, cycling, public transport and a car share scheme.

In addition to residential properties, the Victoria Square development features a Hilton Hotel with conference facilities, restaurant and sky bar, that will support business as well as local residents and visitor; retails opportunities; a medical centre operated by local GPs and the Primary Care Trust; family entertainment and education opportunities. All of which will enhance the diversity of Woking Town Centre.

This landmark development has inspired other property developers to seek to deliver the same level of residential accommodation financed by private investment.

Transport
From 2010 we have been investing in the town centre’s infrastructure to improve pedestrian and cycle facilities and enhance its integration with bus and rail public transport. This has been supported by Local Enterprise Partnership, Enterprise M3, and delivered in partnership with Surrey County Council.

Environment
We have been investing in environmental initiatives through Thameswey since 1999. The energy investment is supportive in the context of regeneration. The work with communities and the wider landscape is equally positive.  

One recent scheme with Natural England, which in comparison to other investment is modest at below £300,000 over the long term, is nationally significant. By creating positive environments for the Great Crested Newt, it facilitates easier development on other sites as well as securing conservation.

The Hoe Valley Scheme with its major investment in improving the flood plain and taking some 300 homes out of flood risk also provided extensive habitat improvements and new community facilities.  

Office accommodation
We have been active in acquiring office accommodation in Woking Town Centre to ensure that vital office space remains in business use. We took action due to the ongoing loss of employment space through ‘Prior Approval’.  

This has enabled business, particularly small and medium businesses, to remain local and maintain employment levels. The larger businesses that have also been helped in this way include McLaren, Petrofac, Wood Engineering, Fidessa, as well as health organisations such as Central Surrey Health.”

Cllr David Bittleston
Leader of Woking Borough Council

Cllr Ayesha Azad
Deputy Leader of Woking Borough Council