Private Eye, Rotten Boroughs, No.999 Friday 7 April 2000, p.11

(or... doesn't this sound familiar)

A frightening example of how a secretive council can pull the wool over the eyes of its taxpayers emerges from Durham.

The Labour city council has put an extraordinary gloss on the humiliating renegotiation of its deal with joint venture partners Arnec to build Walkergate, a grandiose and controversial entertainment complex (see Eyes passim).

At a meeting from which press and public were barred, the council's inaptly named strategic policy committee (strategy and policy are alien concepts in Durham) was presented with a report by senior officers which made it clear that Amec has the council over a barrel. The developers have exacted crippling financial concessions from Durham in exchange for going ahead with the scheme.

Centrepiece of Walkergate is a multiplex cinema, opposed by many Durham residents because a) the city already has a perfectly good four-screen one; and b) there are numerous others within a short drive. The report revealed that Amec and the proposed operator Warner Villages, now have cold feet about it, too "Amec have recently approached the council's officers indicating that as result of a downward turn in the commercial leisure market (particularly in relation to multiplex cinemas)"... they are unable to make "the minimum commitment... previously proposed".

Warner Villages is now demanding a "reverse premium" of £1.2m-in other words, the council has to give Warners a whopping unbudgeted-for bung in order to take on this white elephant. Meanwhile Amec will pay almost £1.7m less than previously agreed in exchange for Walkergate and other redevelopment sites in Durham.

In a magnificent understatement, the report notes: "Clearly the present proposal is disappointing." To the local press, however, it was presented as some sort of triumph. The Northern Echo, which was not given any of the financial details, merely carried a breezy report about how the meeting had "paved the way for building to start", followed by approving quotes from council leader Maurice Crathorne of the "good news for jobs" variety.

How will the council, whose finances were described as "critical" in a district auditor's report (Eye 993) at Christmas, cope? A cuts package of nearly £1m in services is on the way next year. But at least the £1m "millennium film" contract for chief executive Colin Shearsmith's tennis chum Brendan Quayle appears safe for now.

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