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Council Leader provides weekly update in latest column

Posted on 1 Oct 2020

In last week’s column we were preparing for the anticipated new Covid restriction, and they inevitably did come.

Whilst the new guidance may not constitute a full lockdown, they are nonetheless difficult, particularly the ban on household visits. As the father of a lockdown baby, I know how difficult the ban was first time around and I am expecting it to be equally so this time.

We have been living through this pandemic for over six months now. I understand that people are becoming weary and are longing for some form of normality. But now is not the time for complacency to set in. Not when, just a few days ago, there were 712 new positive cases recorded in Scotland, the highest daily total to date, and locally the NHS Ayrshire and Arran region has been recording the highest rate of positive cases since June.

We in Ayrshire have done a good job at keeping the virus suppressed and we must keep it that way by following the guidance.

Restrictions weren’t the only thing to return last week. North Ayrshire Council held its first full council meeting since the March meeting was cancelled due to the pandemic.

The meeting, which was held virtually, had a busy agenda which saw the meeting continue till after 7pm. Whilst we were unable to use the council chamber, the meeting was recorded and as usual is available online to view.

As well as reports by council officers, full council meetings are an opportunity for councillors to ask questions to the Cabinet as well as tabling motions. One of the questions I faced was on the purchase of the Kings Arm’s Hotel in Irvine.

The Council completed the purchase of the Kings Arms at the end of April. The historic building, which is at the heart of the town centre, has lain empty for several years and its condition has deteriorated significantly. With no prospective buyer on the horizon, we decided the best course of action was for the Council to intervene, bring the building into Council ownership and for us to create new council houses.

As you can imagine, there are not many questions asked by opposition councillors at full council meetings which are to welcome or congratulate the administration on a policy or investment decision and thus the question on the Kings Arms was on whether the project represents value for money. My response to that is clear – yes, it represents value for money, particularly as the building was purchased below market value by the housing revenue account for the purposes of providing new council housing. Importantly it also provides a social return by bringing the building back into socially productive use.

The question however gave me the opportunity to highlight that this is not the only project where we are converting an empty building in our towns into council houses.

 In Largs, the Council has purchased the former Police Station building with the intention of delivering a second phase of the housing development currently underway at St Colm’s Place.

And at 36 Bank Street, Irvine, we are currently in the design process for plans to convert the empty office block, situated at the traffic lights, into houses too. This building has lain empty for 12 years and is not suited to modern office space, even before Covid-19. Residential use is not only more appropriate but will also see the building returned back into use.

I believe these are exciting developments which provide a model that can be used in other towns. That’s important because the story of deteriorating empty buildings is one repeated across most of our communities.

A key plank of our Community Wealth Building strategy is how we maximise the use of our land and assets for the common good and this approach very much aligns with those aspirations. We are currently developing a Regeneration Delivery Plan which will set out in more detail how we can use Community Wealth Building to regenerate our towns and communities. Our Community Wealth Building expert panel will provide some feedback on our early draft plan later this week, but it will also be open for members of the public to participate in its development over the coming weeks.

As I have said many times over the last six months, these are challenging times but there is no appetite to return to the old normal, we must build something better. A great deal of work is ongoing to do just that