Brentwood Baytree Centre regeneration pledge: sceptics ‘will choke on words’

The leader of Brentwood Borough Council has pledged to spend as much as £100million on refurbishing the Baytree Centre despite doubts that it is deliverable.

A planning application is expected to be submitted for the Baytree Centre’s regeneration later this year.

It has been almost 12 months since the authority bought the town centre shopping site from private ownership.

Initial plans indicate the potential for a mixed-use scheme incorporating improved retail, leisure and community space.

But while planning to spend large sums, the borough council said it is faced with “diminishing capital finance and reduced access to grants and external funding”.

It added: “The council will need to monitor spend against available funds carefully to ensure that it does not spend or commit in advance of receiving funding.”

The pledge from the council’s leader, councillor Chris Hossack, came as the authority passed its budget for the coming year on February 24 – including raising average council tax bills by £5 meaning the council’s share of the council tax bill for a Band D household will increase to £198.63.

But it was its capital financing plans that sparked hefty scrutiny from opposition members.

The council has also committed to spending as much as £80m on redeveloping the Brentwood Centre, £15m to relocate the depot in Warley in order to unlock the land for housing and £1m on golf course improvements.

Indicative figures, until projects are refined and finalised, have estimated the total potential capital investment could cost a maximum of £198m but as little as ££72m.

Councillor Phil Mynott (Lib Dem, Brentwood North) said the council had earlier admitted within its budget report that the council could not make those financial commitments.

He said: “It wafts the idea of those things in the face of the public and hopes the public will believe it.

“That is what is what is going on here.

“It is not a commitment and I challenge anyone including the leader to claim it is.

“If it is not then frankly don’t put it in the budget.”

Cllr Hossack said: “I don’t know what town you have been living in because look at the evidence of what we have aspired to do in previous budgets and delivered in subsequent budgets.

“You will choke on your words when we bring through regeneration in this town centre through the Baytree Centre.

“We will do it.”

The council’s purchase came two years after plans to boost the underperforming centre were revealed but never acted on.

In 2018, a report highlighted that the shopping centre suffers from a very high level of vacancies with 14 units currently empty – equivalent of 30 per cent of the floorspace.

According to planners behind the proposals for a single hybrid planning application – that would have comprised improvements to the chapel ruins, Chapel High and the interior design – the Baytree Centre “does not currently cater for the full range of day-to-day retail needs”.

They went on to say that the centre lacks other uses that would be expected of a shopping centre in this location, especially a range of restaurants and leisure facilities. One of the main issues lies in the visibility of the centre.

The purchase of the centre gives the council full control to expedite an improvement strategy for the town – in conjunction with William Hunter Way, which has been talked about for a shopping and leisure destination since proposals were first drawn up in 2007.

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter