COUNCILLORS have agreed plans in private to pump taxpayer support into redeveloping Cathedral Lanes shopping centre into restaurants and bars, the Observer can reveal.
The amount of financial support for revamping the controversial shopping centre, which many Coventrians for decades have wanted bulldozed, has been kept secret.
A £5.5million sale of the largely empty mall in Broadgate by previous owners Hammersons to London-based Shearer Property Group was announced in October.
It has emerged leading councillors met in private in September to agree financial support from the Coventry Investment Fund. The £50million pot provides grants and loans to businesses in an attempt to help struggling firms, and attract investment to kickstart the city’s economy.
Councillors on the Coventry Investment Fund cabinet committee will meet again tomorrow “to approve amendments” to September’s decision “in respect of proposals for investment at Cathedral Lanes.”
Minutes from the private meeting on September 25 reveal no details of the investment due to commercial confidentiality.
The minutes from the September meeting attended by council leader Ann Lucas, deputy leader Phil Townshend and cabinet member Rachel Lancaster, add: “In addition, the cabinet committee noted that there was a perception from citizens that prior to the erection of the Cathedral Lanes building, there had been an open vista to the cathedral from the Precinct.
“However, this had not been the case and the cabinet committee requested that archive photographs of Broadgate be used on any hording that may be erected during works to the Cathedral Lanes building as a reminder to citizens that there had always been buildings at that location.”
The wording appears to recognise the potential sensitivity of the council financially supporting an unpopular building, next to the Lady Godiva Statue in the city’s main square, which many have argued should be knocked down to open up views to the cathedral.
The September meeting minutes state the council’s funding would be made “to successfully bridge the viabilty gap and allowing the refurbishment of the Cathedral Lanes to proceed.”
The document adds it would be “subject to planning permission and confirmation that the balance of funding for the project has been secured commercially.”
Coun Kevin Maton, cabinet member for business and enterprise, and finance cabinet member Damian Gannon, are expected to attend tomorrow’s meeting with Coun Lucas.
Council leaders have said the new owner’s investment in Cathedral Lanes had demonstrated private sector confidence in Coventry city centre on the back of redevelopment, including a European-funded revamp of Broadgate in 2012.
Last month, Coun Maton said: “The new owner of Cathedral Lanes is on record as saying that the ambition of the council and the changes in the city centre played a part in the decision to purchase the shopping centre. Partners like this will play a key part in our work to make Coventry great again.
“Coventry needs a wider variety of shops and leisure opportunities and we are working hard to make sure we deliver this.”
It is hoped the first phase of Cathedral Lanes’ redevelopment will be completed with the first bars and restaurants opening by Christmas next year.
Council leaders are keen to boost the city centre economy, which is ranked 47th for UK retail performance, desite Coventry being the 13th largest city. They also say Coventry’s economy is underperforming by £1billion.
Shearer Property Group claims to have attracted interest from several leading restaurant brands.
One of the mall’s current tenants, Wilko’s, has committed to the mall under a ten-year lease.
Jonathan Browning, chairman of the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership, has said it is “a perfect example of the private and public sector working together to boost the wider economy and the sub-region’s appeal.”
He added: “Improving Coventry’s restaurant and bar offering is a major factor in improving the city’s reputation as a tourism and leisure destination.”
A Coventry council spokesperson said: “The Coventry Investment Fund was set up for exactly this type of investment, where a loan to a company allows an important scheme to get off the ground.
“Coventry needs to invest in business to be able to prosper and regenerate. Any loan would be made at a commercial rate meaning taxpayers get a return on that investment and of course any new retail outlets moving into Cathedral Lanes would be paying business rates to the council.”
It also means taxpayers carry the risk of the loan. The council declined to reveal the value of the loan.