Arch insists it had no option but to remove Berwick’s town team from its lead role in delivering the Portas project and its £200,000 prize.
A report by Arch project director John Lord reveals serious concerns about the performance of the town team in delivering its regeneration goals.
As a result, Berwick Town Council was asked to manage the project and decided to form a working group of councillors, local businesses and community groups to decide how to spend the money.
The decision, and particularly the lack of communication about it, has drawn sharp criticism of Arch and Northumberland County Council from various quarters.
But Mr Lord said: “The decision to stand down Berwick town team has only been made after months of strenuous efforts to get the pilot on track, and numerous initiatives by Arch and the county council to support the board.
“The record speaks for itself: Berwick town team has only managed to deliver a fragment of its original programme, and it has failed to respond to repeated requests for a very simple business plan and to reform the board.”
The interim review by Arch, the council’s arms-length development company, says the town team’s “internal turmoil has been a key factor”.
It stresses that it did not want to be seen in the role of kingmaker but felt it had to intervene to get the project back on track .
The town team has always disputed those claims, pointing to the success of its pop-up shop and the reintroduction of river boat trips as evidence that its efforts were starting to pay dividends.
The town team was originally formed in summer 2012 after Berwick was selected by retail guru Mary Portas as a pilot project, winning £100,000 that was subsequently match funded by the county council.
At that stage it was planned to invest £50,000 in aesthetic quick fixes for the high street, another £50,000 on improvements to the charter market and an in-kind contribution of £70,000 of marketing consultancy for high street businesses.
However, progress was slowed by the resignations of original members Andrew Marshall and Keith Siseman, later replaced by Michael Richardson and Chris Hardie.
It is now clear that Arch and former council chief executive Steve Stewart had concerns about the slow rate of progress, governance and transparency issues as far back as March.
“By this stage it was clear that Berwick town team’s plans were very different from the original bid,” said Mr Lord. “In particular, the proposals relating to marketing consultancy had been shelved.”
He says that by early summer it was clear that there was a split in the board. He claims that individual board members were leading on ‘their’ projects but there was no collective commitment to the town team programme.
When town team chairman Ed Swales resigned in September Arch decided it was time to step in.
“Although Berwick town team moved quickly to recruit three new board members, none of these individuals had any connection with the original bid,” said Mr Lord.“At this stage, the county council and Arch agreed the position was not tenable.”
He felt it was safe to assume that internal turmoil had been a key factor in the town team’s problems.