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Ashford Borough Council projects including Mecca Bingo scheme set to be paused as lockdown causes £4.5m budget gap

A Kent council is set to put the brakes on a number of multi-million pound projects after lockdown left a £4.5m gap in its finances.

Plans for the redevelopment of the former Mecca Bingo site in Ashford and construction of a 500-space multi-storey car park in Station Road are among the schemes expected to be halted.

A view of ABC's proposed Vicarage Lane development, with the cinema screen to the right and rear of Mecca Bingo in the middle
A view of ABC's proposed Vicarage Lane development, with the cinema screen to the right and rear of Mecca Bingo in the middle

Bosses say it will allow them time to "take stock" and assess which of the projects "may provide the greatest amount of benefit in aiding economic recovery".

The gap in Ashford Borough Council's 2020/21 budget has been put down to four "significant areas" - parking and enforcement, commercial property, garden waste and planning application fee income.

In a report prepared ahead of a cabinet meeting tomorrow evening, officers fear a loss of parking income could total £1.2 million this year, while less parking enforcement could cost the council an extra £222,000.

In commercial property income, the report says a loss of £1m is expected which "not only reflects lost rental income but also the increased costs in service charge and business rates, which will now be borne by the council for empty units".

International House - which the council bought in February 2014 - is showing a possible loss of just under £129,000, while it is feared a number of small independent traders in the council-owned Park Mall shopping centre "will find it difficult to survive in these conditions".

The frontage of the former Mecca Bingo in Ashford is set to be retained under ABC's plans for the site. Picture: Ian Grundy
The frontage of the former Mecca Bingo in Ashford is set to be retained under ABC's plans for the site. Picture: Ian Grundy

Although the government has provided £1.3 million of funding to deal with the pressures, the council says it is not enough to close the gap.

The authority is therefore proposing to reach into its reserves to pull out £4.5 million to help combat the crisis.

Ahead of tomorrow evening's meeting where the plans will be discussed, authority leader Cllr Gerry Clarkson (Con) said: "The council is facing a significant financial challenge but it is one that we will meet.

"We will develop our financial strategy to maintain the viability of the council and to continue to deliver services.

"We are also developing a recovery delivery plan which will set out how we will meet this challenge and what our focus will be on as we seek to rebuild our local economy following these unprecedented times.”

Cllr Gerry Clarkson, leader of Ashford Borough Council
Cllr Gerry Clarkson, leader of Ashford Borough Council
ABC's plan for the Vicarage Lane car park and Mecca Bingo site
ABC's plan for the Vicarage Lane car park and Mecca Bingo site

Deputy leader Cllr Paul Bartlett (Con) says pausing work on developments during the summer would be a sensible move, but he doesn't want to see a lengthy stoppage.

"My view is that we should send a very clear message that Ashford is still open for business," he said.

"I think a pause is OK, but we need to be very careful that we don't harm our own chances in the future by pausing for too long.

"I think a good example is Netflix - if it can see Ashford is still going along with its own pipeline of projects, I think it would sway it to carry on and it would choose to build its studios in Newtown.

"If Ashford stops then it could send the wrong signal to people who we don't want to send the wrong signal to."

Ashford Borough Council bought International House in 2014
Ashford Borough Council bought International House in 2014

As well as the Station Road multi-storey car park and Mecca Bingo scheme, Cllr Bartlett says plans for the 'Ashford Shard' on the HomePlus Furniture site in Beaver Road are also set to be halted.

A Better Choice for Property - the property investment company owned by ABC - is behind the 16-storey tower block project after it bought the ex-B&Q site from the Southern Housing Group last year.

In a statement, ABC said it has seen many reductions in government funding and faced many challenges over the last decade to continually balance its budget.

It said the Covid-19 pandemic is "unprecedented" and is "generating a financial pressure that has not been seen before".

The 'Ashford Shard' tower block will go over 16 storeys - this view shows it from Victoria Road
The 'Ashford Shard' tower block will go over 16 storeys - this view shows it from Victoria Road

A spokesman added: "The longer term impact will be considered as part of our medium term financial plan which identifies budget gaps and how we will manage these pressures while leading the recovery effort for our community.

"Decisions around how to bridge any financial gaps will then need to be taken which could involve new, innovative ways of working to cut costs, but we have every intention of ensuring front line services are maintained."

The Station Road multi-storey car park will offer 500 spaces if built
The Station Road multi-storey car park will offer 500 spaces if built

In the report prepared for the cabinet meeting, it says there is a possibility of ABC stopping its fortnightly garden waste collections for three months.

But a council spokesman says suspending the service would be a last resort.

Residents pay an annual fee of £37.50 to have their 240-litre brown wheelie bins collected and ABC says it would lose £150,000 if it was suspended.

ABC says its waste contractor has managed "service delivery well" during the coronavirus. Picture: Gary Browne
ABC says its waste contractor has managed "service delivery well" during the coronavirus. Picture: Gary Browne

Other authorities have stopped collecting the bins during the pandemic so staff could be redeployed to help keep other services running.

But the report says: "Currently the contractor has managed service delivery well during this difficult time and is in regular dialogue with council officers.

"While there has not been a need to suspend garden waste collections at present, this position is finely balanced."

A council spokesman added: "Our priority remains ensuring refuse and recycling collections continue during these difficult times, and we are pleased to have received such positive feedback from the public to the huge efforts our refuse collectors have gone to keep them going over the past few months.

"We are closely monitoring the situation and are liaising with our contractor Biffa to ensure this continues therefore some services, such as street cleansing and garden waste, may need to be temporarily suspended – this would only be a last resort and clearly our focus remains on keeping any disruption to a minimum."

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