Controversy over Chinese state-owned company's involvement in Wigan town centre redevelopment
Wigan MP Lisa Nandy has spoken about the involvement of BCEGI UK, the British branch of the Beijing Construction Engineering Group, in the scheme to renovate The Galleries.
National security, geopolitics and genocide are not normally matters which local councils in this country have to consider when they award contracts.
But a deal between Wigan council and a Chinese state-owned company is causing controversy in the town where a £135m transformation is planned.
As part of a joint venture partnership with North West property developer Cityheart, the company will lead the three-year construction programme.
Much of The Galleries shopping centre and Wigan Market would be demolished to make way for up to 464 homes, a 150-room hotel and a multimedia centre with a cinema, bowling alley and indoor mini golf.
Plans to replace the current market hall with a more ‘contemporary’ space have not been popular among traders – but trade is not their only concern.
Some have accused the council of ‘cosying up’ with the Chinese government.
And the council itself has even been accused of ‘acting like communist China’ after it suspended a librarian who raised concerns about the redevelopment - although the council says reasons behind the investigation are long-standing.
Wigan MP Lisa Nandy who is Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, has also come under criticism for not speaking out against the deal with BCEGI UK.
It is despite the MP calling for a ‘political boycott’ of the Beijing Winter Olympics only this week, saying that the UK government must take a stand against China.
It comes months after Parliament declared that genocide is taking place against Uyghurs and others in the Xinjiang region of north-west China.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Ms Nandy explained why the Labour Party voted alongside Tory backbenchers to condemn China’s actions in Xinjiang.
“The position that we’ve taken is that in the absence of UN inspectors being able to get access to Xinjiang, the world has an obligation to treat this as a presumption of genocide in the absence of any further information,” she said.
“The ball is in China’s court to allow UN inspectors to see what is happening on the ground and determine whether a genocide is or isn’t taking place.”
The MP believes public bodies do have a responsibility to consider the human rights and national security implications of any contracts they award – but she has received ‘reassurances’ from the council and the company on both fronts.
Ms Nandy has spoken in Parliament about Britain’s ties with the Uyghurs through global supply chains, importing cotton borne of forced labour, and said ‘not a penny of public money’ should be spent on allowing their ‘mass persecution’.
She has also called out the ‘increasingly aggressive actions’ in Hong Kong, claiming that the Chinese government is ‘undermining’ the joint declaration.
But she has stopped short of calling for a blanket boycott of trade with China.
“I am realistic about the role of Chinese companies,” she said.
“Most of them are either owned or have some links to the Chinese government and they are deeply embedded in the global economy.
“Our lateral flow tests that we use here in the UK, a lot of the PPE that we’ve got and quite a lot of the paracetamol that we use is manufactured in China.”
Instead, she says, the cross-party consensus of Tory backbenchers, Labour and other parties, are campaigning to stop the government from allowing ‘preferential trade deals’, giving China better access to the UK economy.
She recognises that support for Chinese-state owned enterprises from their government allows them to ‘distort foreign markets’ and ’tilt the playing field’.
In December, just days before Wigan council announced the deal, BCEGI UK received a £7.1m boost from its parent company, according to its accounts which state that the ‘ultimate controlling party’ of the Beijing Construction Engineering Group is the State-Owned Assets and Administration Commission of the State Council in The People’s Republic of China.
The Labour MP describes the situation as a ‘perfect storm’ in which local authorities who have faced ‘huge cuts’ to funding over the last 11 years are forced to find companies that can provide the best value-for-money deal.
“At the same time,” she said, “you’ve got Chinese companies who are able to compete much more easily on a playing field which just isn’t level.”
BCEGI UK is already involved in a number of projects around the North West including the redevelopment of Bolton’s Crompton Place Shopping Centre, the Airport City project in Manchester and Middlewood Locks in Salford.
The company says it pays taxes and reinvests all of its profits here in the UK.
Ms Nandy, who has met representatives from BCEGI UK, says the company has assured her it has a ‘one-way’ financial relationship with the Chinese state.
She has also received assurances from the council that the construction company will have no access to databases with confidential information.
And the MP has been pushing for guarantees that all councillors will have the opportunity to discuss the redevelopment plans at a full council meeting – but she says local scrutiny alone is not sufficient, calling for government action.
She says this is a national issue that needs to be addressed nationally – and as for Wigan, she is satisfied with the reassurances she has received so far.
“If it were to transpire that BCEGI UK were passing money back to their parent company that would then be handed to the Chinese government, I would seek assurances from the council that they would find a way of writing into the contract that that did not take place as a condition of handing over money.”
The Wigan MP says the biggest issue that has been raised by her constituents about the redevelopment is handing over public space to private companies.
However, Wigan council has confirmed that neither BCEGI UK nor Cityheart will own any land in the town centre, nor will they have a management role.
Construction director Aaron Adams, who is heading up the Galleries project for BCEGI UK, said the company is excited to be working with Wigan council.
“We are here as Wigan council and Cityheart’s chosen trusted construction partner and our focus is on providing an exceptional service as part of the team set to deliver this project that will bring significant lasting benefits for Wigan and its people.”
The company says it will use local supply chains and employ local labourers, which will benefit regional economies and help fuel growth and employment.
Still, some are concerned about the content of the redevelopment plan, highlighting the cost of the project which has risen since first announced.
A protest against the demolition is due to take place on Friday (July 16).
Independent councillor Paul Maiden, who is organising the protest, said there is ‘anger’ and ‘frustration’ among people who have ‘big concerns’ about BCEGI.
“But even if it was a better company building it, it’s still a bad development.”
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