HOW bright the future looked.

The News & Mail archive from September 2012 reveals that “Bandstand Square is set to receive a £150million facelift, Woking Borough Council has announced.

“Council chief executive Ray Morgan, flanked by leader of the council John Kingsbury and key stakeholders from Woking Shopping, also revealed that Marks & Spencer would act as the anchor store in a gleaming new 60,000 sq ft unit.

“An additional 60,000 sq ft of space will be occupied by other retailers in a project due to break ground in spring 2014.

“A planning application will be submitted early in the new year with approval all but assured. And 190 apartments, plus a new business-class hotel, will also rise up with building work estimated for completion in 2017.”

A little over 10 years later the council’s finances lie in ruins among the towers, Mr Morgan’s ambition to make Woking Surrey’s economic hub and oft-quoted comparisons with Singapore dragged down by the lack of the necessary commercial property skills and oversight required to keep the project anywhere near on track as borrowing snowballed.

A key finding of the recent Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ report into the council’s finances, investments and related governance identified that “What is clear is that the investments by the previous leadership were made with little provision or consideration of the council capacity and capability to manage these programmes effectively and efficiently.

“The council had the corporate capacity of a small district council, yet the investment portfolio of a very large city or metropolitan council.”

Another look at the News & Mail archive, from December 2016, shows how far the original schedule had slipped as the plans changed and costs rocketed. 

“With the ambitious £460 million Victoria Square project [as Bandstand Square became] due to be rubber-stamped, the chief executive [Mr Morgan] says the development aims to further propel Woking into the 21st century,” the newspaper reported.

There were, though, dissenting voices. Former borough councillor Sandra Simkin asked: “Why have the costs tripled since 2012? Mr Morgan has been urging his councillors to approve the development and risks plunging this borough into serious financial distress that it will never be able to recover from.”

Independent councillor John Bond emailed Mr Morgan at the time seeking clarification as to the viability of the project. “I also believe that the Victoria Square project has changed so fundamentally that it should be subject to a full public consultation before any decision is made,” he added.

As last week’s Section 114 notice said: “The financial challenges with which the council is faced …. accelerated between 2016 and 2021.” 

It also references the monumental scale of the borrowing: “The council has passed the majority of the loans drawn down from the Public Works Loan Board [a Government body] to various of its companies (£1.3 billion in total) principally Victoria Square Woking Limited and Thameswey Group Limited [owned by the council].”

And it includes this point: “The chief executive [Julie Fisher] has sought to ensure that the incoming external auditor (Grant Thornton LLP) is aware that the leadership team is keen to see the initiation of suitable enquiries to clarify how the matters described in this report unfolded in the period 2016 to 2021.”

As residents worry about what happens next, the leadership team won’t be the only ones looking for answers.