Written evidence submitted by Woking Borough Council
Woking Borough Council’s 15 year experience with PWLB
Woking is a small Borough of 100,000 residents, South West of London adjacent to the M25 with 63% of the Borough being in the green belt. Woking has one of the highest levels of borrowing from the PWLB which currently stands at £1.4 Billion. We started borrowing from the PWLB 15 years ago and this paper summarises why we borrowed from the PWLB, what we have achieved and the lessons we have learnt.
I would argue that for the UK to come out of the current crisis as quickly and as successfully as possible the Government needs Local Government to be proactive and invest in their local areas; any prohibition or the continued unnecessary additional margins on PWLB rates will delay the UK recovery and create austerity for decades to come.
Our motivation in all the investment we have done and still have planned is to support the local economy and long term sustainability. Whilst we seek to ensure, where we are able, that any investment we make is financially viable and not at a net cost to local taxpayers unless there is a clear service priority to do so, we do not do so solely for income we do so because it fits the wider strategic objectives of the Council.
Our focus has been on regeneration and meeting the needs of local people key examples are-
Sheerwater (A GLA housing estate built in the1950s)
First the access road with its consequential regeneration of the dilapidated business parks to increase occupancy and jobs as well as securing the retention of Wandsworth Electric and the introduction of ASDA.
Second the Leisure Facilities at Bishop David Brown School to help address the health and well-being issues within the community and to support the improving performance of the school.
The creation of new and more accessible and useable green spaces in a “central park” and the introduction of district heating and sustainable energy.
Finally the extensive programme of investment in housing to meet local need and increase supply which has been supported by Housing Infrastructure Fund Marginal finance.
Thameswey (An “arms Length” company owned by WBC)
We have been using Thameswey Housing as the vehicle to support the delivery of homes since 2005. It was designed 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 The Earn Your Deposit Scheme whereby money is set aside each year towards a deposit on a home of their own.
Housing Infrastructure Fund
The success we achieved in securing the £95m HIF Bid, which I believe was the first to have been contracted in the UK, was recognition of all we had done and our demonstrable ability to deliver. It will enable circa 4,500 new homes, some paid for by us but the majority by the private sector. This involved us in developing practical working relationships with both SCC and Network Rail.
Retail - 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 our two town centre shopping malls) and started its transformation to diversify its uses. We also partnered with the Peacocks (our other shopping Mall) and supported its investments when banks were unwilling to lend; also 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 initiative around Victoria Square.
This initiative was a culmination of the ambition to renew the role of the town centre and make it a place fit for the 21st Century. It changes the character of the town and seeks to meet the Government targets for housing delivery by increasing residential development in sustainable locations where the need for transport is minimised. The residents have easy access to walking, cycling, public transport and a car share scheme if a car is needed. The scheme provides some 430 homes and has inspired other businesses to seek to deliver the same level of residential accommodation financed by private investment.
Within the Victoria Square development is the Hilton Hotel with conference facilities, feature restaurant and sky bar which will support business as well as local residents and visitors.
Victoria Square incorporates facilities for medical provision ranging from the usual opticians to dentists physiotherapist and similar activities that will be operated by local GPs and the St Peters Hospital the local Acute Trust. It also includes family entertainment and education all of which will enhance the diversity of the Town Centre.
From 2010 we have been investing in the infrastructure in the town centre to improve pedestrian and cycle facilities and enhance the integration with public transport both buses and rail. This has been supported by EM3 and done in partnership with SCC.
We have been investing in environmental initiative 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. Our scheme with Natural England, which in comparison to other investment is modest at below £300,000 over the long term, is nationally significant and by creating positive environments for the Great Crested Newts 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.
Thameswey Milton Keynes
The only major investment made outside the borough was to build a combined Power and Heat energy station in the centre of the Milton Keynes Regeneration area. This was done as part of the Government’s initiative through English Partnerships. This project has always struggled and the 2008 financial crisis has slowed down the ability to get the project into profit. The technology learnt during the project however has helped Woking develop its own successful Combined Heat and Power Plants within the Borough.
We have been active in acquiring office accommodation in the town centre to ensure that the better accommodation remains in employment use. We did this due to the ongoing loss of employment space through “Prior Approval”. This has enabled business, particularly small and medium business to remain locally and maintain employment levels; the larger businesses that have also been helped in this way include McLaren, Petrofac, Wood Engineering, Fidessa and well as health organisations such as Central Surrey Health.