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Future of Saddlers Centre at risk after M&S news - MP

By Pete Madeley | Walsall | News | Published:

The future of the Saddlers Centre has been put in jeopardy by the imminent closure of its Marks and Spencer store, an MP has warned.

The Saddlers Centre in Walsall

Eddie Hughes says he has 'grave concerns' over the Walsall shopping centre, after M&S announced it was pulling out of the town as part of a dramatic retreat from the high street.

The store opened in 1980 and was the centrepiece of the Saddlers Centre, which Walsall Council bought with a 'high risk' loan of £13.8 million last year.

Mr Hughes, the Conservative MP for Walsall North, said he was 'deeply saddened' by the closure, which will see 94 staff lose their jobs.

Eddie Hughes

And he added: "These are worrying times for the future of the centre as a whole.

"When a major store goes from any shopping centre there is always the chance of a domino effect and other stores following suit.

"Taking out such a large, high risk loan to buy the centre was a reckless move from the Labour controlled council right from the start.

"It was an attempt to commercialise the council that looks to have backfired."

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Walsall Council struck a controversial deal to buy the Saddlers Centre in August 2017, at a time when service cuts such as library closures were being signed off due to financial struggles.

Bosses initially refused to say how they had financed the purchase, but the details were revealed following a Freedom of Information request to the Government's Debt Management Office.

The council took out a £13.8m interest-only loan over five years, with £92,460 to be paid twice a year and the full balance due in February 2023.

Councillor Sean Coughlan, the Labour group leader who led the authority at the time, insisted the council would reap the benefits of rental income on the units, as well as regenerating retail in the town.

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Last month he hailed the project a success after announcing a forecast revenue profit of £506,000 in the first seven months of ownership.

However, as of last night the council was expected to fall under Conservative control, with Tory leader Mike Bird running a minority administration.

Mr Bird has always opposed the decision to buy the site, arguing that the poor performance of the centre in recent years made it a bad buy.

Accounts released last August by previous owners Topland Limited showed the firm made a loss of £2.8m in the 2015/16 financial year.

Mr Hughes added: "The decision of M&S to pull out leaves an almighty hole that needs to be filled as soon as possible. The longer the centre operates without a flagship store increases the likelihood of a bleak future."

Former mayor and councillor Pete Smith also opposed the deal.

He described the loss of M&S as 'another nail in the coffin of the Saddlers Centre', adding. "There are loads of empty shop units there and the loss of M&S will be a further blow.

"I believe that there should be a full inquiry into the whole saga surrounding the purchase of this loss making centre and the findings made transparent and public."

M&S says it will close 100 stores by 2022 after a huge dip in profits.

Pete Madeley

By Pete Madeley
@P_Madeley_Star

Political Editor for the Express & Star. Responsible for local and national political stories, opinion, comment and analysis.

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