Council chiefs have finally admitted planning to purchase Irvine’s shopping centre – nearly six months after the bid was first revealed by our sister title the Irvine Times.

Chief Executive Elma Murray has said the local authority spent £238,000 on their proposals to purchase the Rivergate for around £55million.

This was after a Freedom of Information request from our sister paper the Irvine Times into costs incurred for its plan was upheld following a review – after NAC previously refused to give out the information.

While Ms Murray admitted the investment would have come with some risk, she claimed there would be many advantages to council ownership.

We previously revealed councillors considered the purchase of the shopping centre during a confidential meeting on December 20, 2017 – before the £55million bid was rejected by a majority vote.

Labour voted for the plans with the Conservative and Independent groups voting against it, while the SNP split between members within Irvine and Kilwinning voting in favour and others across North Ayrshire rejecting the bid. The SNP group’s deputy leader has hit out at the secrecy saying it prevented a frank and open discussion, while the Conservative group have said the £238,000 costs could have been better spent on local services.

Expert advice to inform the proposal was sought from CBRE property consultants, whose view on price for the mall was confirmed by a second opinion from Knight Frank Property Consultants.

In addition, extensive due diligence and specialist legal advice has been undertaken by solicitors, Brodies LLP, including a review of title, leases, contracts and procurement.

However the summary building condition report from CBRE was fully redacted, along with it’s summary Financial Model and Debt/Equity profile in the council’s response.

The chief executive also revealed divers had been sent beneath the River Irvine to inspect the concrete holding up the centre.

Ms Murray said: “Now that information has been released under Freedom of Information legislation, I want to take this opportunity to clarify the recommendations put forward by council officers on the Rivergate proposal.

“We have not been able to do this before now because of a confidentiality agreement with Kennedy Wilson, the current owners, which is a normal condition of this type of negotiation.

“The Rivergate Centre was being considered for sale last year and an approach was made to our council to consider the purchase.

“Our role as council officers, regardless of which political party is in power, is to develop proposals to grow our economy, maintain jobs and ensure the commercial success of our area for the benefit of all North Ayrshire residents and businesses.

“In this case the proposal was in Irvine, and a shopping centre, but equally it could have been any project that protects jobs in North Ayrshire.

“Council officers in our legal, finance, property investment, regeneration and economic growth teams were heavily involved in preparing the case for purchase.

Every aspect of the centre’s construction, its leases, future shopping trends and a number of other variables were examined to ensure this was a sound proposal.

“Divers even checked the concrete under the river. The cost of this was £238,000 and is much less than one per cent of the purchase price.”

Ms Murray added: “Although any investment will have some risk, in this case there were many advantages to purchasing the Rivergate.

“First of all, the council has access to low interest loans through the Public Work Loans Board. We were also able to take on this investment without impacting on our other budgets.

“Another big advantage to this proposal is that the rental income would more than have covered the cost of re-paying the loan. This would have allowed us to set up a fund to invest in other projects across North Ayrshire.

“It was therefore proposed that an initial investment fund of around £12m over the first 10 years be created. Around 65 per cent of the investment fund was to be re-invested into the Rivergate Centre and the immediate surrounding area of Irvine town centre.

“Some of the options included building a new multi-screen cinema (subject to an operator being identified) and a food hall.

“We would also have had funds to consider the Compulsory Purchases of other properties requiring investment, such as the Forum and Ruby Tuesday’s.

“The remaining 35 per cent of the £12m fund was to be invested in other projects across North Ayrshire and initial consideration was being given to Lochshore in Kilbirnie and Saltcoats town centre.”

SNP deputy leader Cllr Alan Hill said: “Keeping this project completely confidential was unnecessary and has prevented councillors and the public from having an open and frank discussion, even after the proposal was leaked to the press.

“Commercial confidentiality is one thing but a project on this scale should have been as transparent as possible to ensure meaningful discussion and debate.

“The SNP group were not opposed to a proposal of this nature in principle. We did however have different views on the risks and benefits associated with this particular project. That is reflected in how our members voted.

Conservative depute leader Todd Ferguson said: “The figures released today for the consultancy costs amount to £238,000 and we believe this could have been better spent to mitigate some of the cuts to services.

“Our group unanimously voted against as we decided that there were too many risks.”