Bath and North East Somerset Council’s top officer has said the council will need to sell up its commercial interests in the city to make it financially viable.
Chief executive Will Godfrey said, in the long run, the authority, a major landlord in Bath, needs to sell its shops and restructure its finances.
He told the Local Democracy Reporting Service he was speaking hypothetically when he said in a recent webinar that “the future isn’t in office development” and the council remains committed to its flagship Bath Quays project to build offices and housing.
Speaking during a recorded debate on “The Future of the High Street” by the Thinking Space Initiative, Mr Godfrey said: “Our budget is about £120million.
“We depend on £16million of income from our commercial estate to balance our budget and be able to provide lots of services.
“We have 60, 70 per cent of tenants saying they want to renegotiate their rent. The reality for me is we need to rebalance our whole asset base.
“We need to come out of retail space and restructure the finances of our business. Doing that over a 10, 12-month period will mean taking some perverse decisions to balance the budget rather than thinking long-term about the future of the city centre.”
He said the council is constrained by the need to deliver a balanced budget every year but greater flexibility would allow it to collaborate with partners and be more successful.
“We’ll still balance our budget but do it in a more considered way,” said Mr Godfrey.
“At the moment we can’t do that because we can’t set deficit budgets.
“We’re probably an extreme example, in that we’ve got much more commercial property that supports our budget than most other authorities.
“We need to go to Government and say we can solve this problem, we need you to help us by relaxing some of these rules, even for a short period of time, to allow us to test some of these solutions.
“I’m not advocating a complete free-for-all but we are going to have to think differently.”
Mr Godfrey also said: “People have been moving away from retail development and thinking the future was offices. The future isn’t in office development.
“A lot of people thinking about moving that way are now thinking that the future is working from home.
“The high street and towns and cities need to be repurposed.”
Speaking after the webinar, he said was to a “large extent a theoretical debate” so it would be wrong to connect his comments to the council’s policies.
He added: “The council remains committed to developing Bath Quays as a major investment to support future economic growth.
“What the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted is that over a period of time the council will need to rebalance its property portfolio to secure a more sustainable income stream in order to protect services.
“However this is a long-term approach. It would be perverse of the council to make short term decisions such as selling assets over the next 12 months – this would not be in the interest of council finances and its services.”
Stephen Sumner, Local Democracy Reporter