Council chiefs have completed the purchase of the Church Square shopping arcade for an eye-watering £26.6m - just hours after axing funding for school crossing patrols.
The move, which is likely to provoke anger among some residents already reeling from a series of budget cuts, is said to be part of the council’s regeneration vision for the town centre.
The £26.6m of taxpayers money handed over by council chiefs for the shopping centre exceeds the £20.6m worth of savings they must find in their budget by 2020.
In a bid to make those savings, councils have axed lollipop crossing and moved to three-weekly bin collections.
Questions are now bound to be asked about how council chiefs can justify such a purchase, particularly at a time when they are making swingeing cuts to vital services.
The council has borrowed money to make the purchase and say it will help drive their regeneration vision for the town.
Council leader Barrie Grunewald said: “We are committed to investing in our borough, in a prudent way, to both increase our income streams and to help bring forward our town centre regeneration plans.
“This investment has taken some time to come to fruition and has not been easy but I believe it is the right thing to do for the borough as a whole.
“Our vision for the town centre talked about us having only one per cent of the retail space in the town and that because of this, we were limited in terms of what we could do. By taking control of Church Square Shopping Centre we can now properly plan for new town centre development.
“I hope this action will make people realise just how serious we are about turning the town centre around, as doing nothing would equate to ongoing decline. Now is the time to act.”
Referring to how the purchase relates to the council having to cut its annual budget, St Helens Council’s chief executive, Mike Palin said: “Our budget works on the basis that we have a set amount of revenue monies we can spend per year.
“This has reduced by over £70m since 2010 and we are required to reduce our annual spend by a further £20.6m by 2020 to balance the books.
“Separate from the amount we have per year for services we can borrow money to make investments where there is an income stream on a year on year basis to cover the cost of that investment.
“This purchase has been made on an investment basis whereby the cost of managing the asset and paying down the borrowing is less than the income anticipated.
“This means the investment has a positive impact as well as giving us the control required to bring forward regeneration plans for the town centre as a whole.
“What we cannot do is borrow money to spend on services as they do not generate a revenue stream to pay-down the borrowing. We still have to cut £20.6m from our annual spend by 2020.”
With the purchase now complete the council will be writing to all current tenants making them aware of the ownership change and will be working with professional advisors on options for improving the centre.