WHEN Gordon Brown brought his Cabinet to Southampton, a wave of optimism swept across the city. He spoke in glowing terms of a region well-placed to weather the recession, and heaped praise on a city he described as “the gateway to the world”.
But now, just 33 days after the trip, which the Daily Echo can today reveal cost Hampshire police alone almost £38,000, the gloss has gone, revealing a more tarnished reality.
In the space of less than five weeks, the city has been rocked by a series of economic setbacks: Hopes up to 400 new jobs would be created in Southampton through a new Government department being sited in the city were dashed when it was announced it would be based in Tyneside instead.
Funding has been withdrawn for Guildhall Square
Port firms, local politicians and business groups had pitched Southampton as The Marine Management Organisation’s “natural home”, but the north-east won out because of its “broad range and good balance of marine interests”.
The future of Southampton docks, on which 12,000 local workers depend, is under threat from Government proposals for a “swingeing” increase in ship taxes.
Fears have been raised that many of the port’s biggest customers could quit the city for cheaper alternatives abroad in the face of 67 per cent rises in their tax bills.
Ambitious building projects at five Hampshire colleges, costing a total of £160m, hang in the balance after funding was suddenly shelved.
Southampton docks faces a ‘swingeing’ increase in ship taxes
Schemes at Southampton City College, Itchen College, Taunton’s College, Totton College and Brockenhurst College are all on hold, pending a review, because The Learning and Skills Council said it had run out of cash to pay for them.
And now we can also reveal that the South East England Development Agency (Seeda) has pulled the £4.6m it had promised for the revamp of Guildhall Square, as a central part of plans to develop a cultural quarter.
Southampton taxpayers could now be forced to foot the bill for the scheme to create a plush granite plaza stretching from East Park to the steps of the Guildhall.
Funding has been shelved for college building projects
The City Council remains committed to the project, despite the developers behind the £50m two landmark 18-storey glass towers that were to house the new arts complex having pulled out last year.
Southampton’s Cabinet member for economic development, Royston Smith, said the authority would not be knocked off course by Seeda’s “disgraceful” decision.
The council is already paying the £500,000 costs of pulling down the derelict former Tyrell and Green building, converting the eyesore into a temporary park in a bid to attract a new firm to take on the scheme.
“If necessary, we will borrow the money to continue with Guildhall Square where Seeda has let us down,” said Councillor Smith.
“It will be going forward where possible, but with Southampton taxpayers’ money, where it should have been with promised money where the Government has let us down.
The Marine Management Organisation will not be coming to the city
“We promised we would deliver this and we will find a way to deliver it.”
Cllr Smith believes the pulled funding provides just another example of Southampton being let down by the “hollow words” delivered when Cabinet came to the city last month.
“I never thought it was anything more than an expensive publicity stunt,” he said.
“They said they were coming down to listen to people, but they didn’t talk to a single member of the public.
“Who did they listen to and what did they hear? They didn’t hear anyone saying please take all our investment away, but that’s exactly what they’ve done.
“We have a Secretary of State who says he is Southampton’s voice in the Cabinet. We’ve lost anything up to £70m in the last week, so I challenge anyone to say this is a voice in the Cabinet.
“In light of what has happened in Southampton since that visit, I would hope for any other city’s sake that they don’t announce plans to go there, because they’re clearly a jinx – they certainly haven’t done us any favours.”
Southampton Itchen MP John Denham, the Secretary of State for Innovation and Skills, last night accused the Tory councillor of talking the city down.
“As local MP, I share the disappointment about Seeda’s decision, but recognise they have to make tough decisions on priorities,” he said.
“But I think Cllr Smith needs to be honest with the people of Southampton. His party committed themselves to £5 billion of public spending cuts, starting from April.
“No Conservative politician can stand up and complain about any project being cut, because it’s perfectly clear that if they were in power there would be more cut.
“I think Royston Smith should stop his campaign of talking the city down, and putting everything that happens in the worst possible light.
“If I were in charge of economic development, I would want to be talking the city up.”