CONTROVERSIAL new powers to evict stubborn business owners from the ill-fated St James Centre are set to be introduced as the countdown to demolition ticks away.
Developers behind the £850 million replacement shopping mecca fear the flagship project could be “held to ransom” by a single shop owner if they do not have access to “last resort” powers to evict.
Council officials face a race against time to clear the site ahead of demolition getting under way in January, with leader Andrew Burns warning the project could be delayed by a year unless measures are agreed by next month.
Councillors will vote next week on compulsory purchase order (CPO) powers, forcing traders to sell at market value if they have not agreed a price voluntarily. The move comes as Cllr Burns admitted that political divisions over the landmark development could have been avoided if the announcement of the deal was handled better.
He said CPO powers were a “last resort”, but one the council needed “in our armoury”, adding: “We’re not trying to undercut people’s deals and we’re not trying to do anyone over.” Cllr Burns said: “If we don’t get this approved at this meeting, it knocks the programme back a year. If we get the CPO, demolition can start in January. We need the ability to encourage people to come to the table and be sensible.”
The St James Centre houses roughly 80 shop units. Sixty of those businesses are believed to have already agreed to vacate their premises, but even one hold-out could delay the whole project by a year, Cllr Burns warned.
“A single shopping unit that might have a value of say, £200,000, can’t hold the whole £1 billion worth of development up to ransom,” he said.
The move is expected to face stiff challenges from rival parties after opposition councillors railed against the lack of consultation around the project. A vote to approve a vital £60m loan package for the development only passed thanks to the ruling SNP-Labour administration’s overwhelming majority, with opposition councillors engaging in a fiery debate.
If approved by councillors, the powers would need to be signed off by the Scottish Government. A CPO allows local authorities and public bodies to force property owners into a sale in order to make way for a project “in the public interest”.
Martin Perry, director of development at TIAA Henderson Real Estate, said: “Since we secured outline planning permission for the redevelopment of the St James Centre in 2009 we have had ongoing conversations with existing retailers, owners and other leasehold interests within and surrounding the development site. As a result, nearly 60 per cent of all the required interests to proceed with the redevelopment have been structured to allow vacant possession to be achieved in spring 2015.
“The city council has been asked to promote a CPO to support the acquisition of the remaining interests to align with the spring 2015 date to allow us to progress with the exciting transformation of the area. Discussions with all affected parties to ensure satisfactory relocation where required will continue throughout the next few months to minimise the impact on trading interests within the centre.”