Canterbury City Council’s decision to buy the whole of the Whitefriars shopping precinct was always destined to spark debate.
Already the owner of one half of the centre in St George’s, the authority has formally completed the purchase of the second half from private owners for £75 million.
After the announcement on Wednesday, social media went into overdrive.
What emerged was a runny blend of reasonable conclusion, rabid denunciation and feverish theorising.
One lady claimed that the purchase is somehow linked to the failed Westgate Towers traffic trial, which died five years ago next month. Another asked why the money couldn’t be spent on the NHS, it being pointed out to her that Canterbury City Council has nowt to do with funding the health service.
And one bloke complained that this was the authority “spending our council tax on s*** again”.
So after all that let’s instead head in the direction of sober reality.
First of all, the council did not simply have £75 million rattling around the biscuit tin to splurge on a fanciful property deal.
The money is borrowed from central government at a low interest rate and repaid over 25 years. It is part of a programme to make councils self-sufficient as their funding from the centre dries up over the next few years.
Let’s not overlook something else crucial here: this deal effectively places into the public ownership the whole of the Whitefriars precinct, the first half having been bought by the authority in June 2016.
Some of those critical of such public ownership are the selfsame people who accuse the government of yearning to “sell-off” or “privatise” the NHS.
Moreover, if we want to speculate then let us say this: no one in their right mind could think that the NHS in its present state could make money while a shopping centre patently can.
But, as council chief executive Colin Carmichael points out, this is about more than just money.
“Taking full control of Whitefriars and its future plans means we will not need to liaise with anyone else when taking key decisions about the heart of the city centre,” Mr Carmichael said.
“It also means it will be easier for a future council to sell the whole shopping centre or parts of it if the economic circumstances change.
“Our post-war predecessors made the far-sighted decision to buy land which allowed the council to develop what is now the retail heart of Canterbury, and we are happy to continue that ambition.”
In all, this deal is poised to create a vital source of revenue to pay for services and hands the council control over a key shopping area in the city.
It is refreshing to see such business acumen in a local authority – our local authority, to boot.