Conservatives attack Mendip land deal

Mendip’s Conservative Group yesterday launched a scathing attack on Mendip’s Social Housing program. The Mendip plan would see four sites being developed to provide around 160 homes. Importantly these would be social housing.

The Conservative group have focused on two issues:

  • Firstly the effective preferred bidder status of Aster. The Conservative Group note that normal budgetary procedures have not been followed. No competitive tender organised. And as their press release rather dryly puts it “did not fall within 8.5.2 (d) of the Constitution and could therefore be made “not in accordance with Council’s budgetary procedures”.
  • Secondly the inclusion of the Easthill site which adjoins Frome Cemetery in the plans. The Conservatives argue this is currently a designated green space. It is shown as such in the Local Plan. They decry the loss of an attractive wildlife haven with a rich and diverse ecology. As Councillor Eve Berry, the Conservative Ward Councillor, stated “It is simply ridiculous to be developing this land. There has been no consultation with local communities and no understanding of the destruction that would be caused to the wildlife and habitats at this site.”

However as we reported last week, there have been concerns about due process too. Cabinet decision to proceed with the deal on 2 November. Five Frome LibDem Councillors asked for the decision to be “called in”. In other words considered by the Council’s Scrutiny Board. Ordinarily that would involve a full debate. Questions would be raised on specific aspects of the plan. Questions that Cabinet would then be obliged to address.

Instead, the Leader intervened at the start of the meeting. She stated they would refer the matter back to Cabinet. So instead of a full debate, the Scrutiny Committee simply voted to send it back to Cabinet. And as a result, Cabinet will not have any specific objections to discuss.

Councillor Philip Ham, the Conservative Chairman of the Scrutiny Board, resigned in frustration. He told The Leveller “we are supposed to be able to scrutinise decisions taken by the Cabinet to ensure that the interests of Mendip residents are protected. This has been a stitch up. I was denied access to background papers. I was placed under pressure by Officers on how to conduct the meeting and there has been no opportunity given for proper debate and scrutiny. The Leader of the Council uses fine words in stating that her administration welcomes transparency, but her actions speak louder than her words. Her administration dithered and delayed and now they have closed down open debate on this matter, particularly with regards to the market value of these sites. It seems that they are mis-managing the Council finances to save face.”

Meanwhile the Conservative Group are seeing red. They claim the Cabinet now propose to quickly reconsider the proposals on 26th November. In their view Cabinet “seem intent on pushing them through, subject to agreeing to a review of the plans to develop the site at Easthill.

5 comments

  • Following the example of the National Conservative government surely …?

  • I understood that it was the previous Conservative Council who put forward this land for development- applying for a Government land release funding grant to facilitate the process. Of course, their intention was to sell the land to a private developer for private houses, not social. The level of hypocrisy is astounding.

  • All this was organised under the previous conservative administration. Once again the liberal democrats (or whoever) have been left to pick up the pieces from the last god knows how many years, and now the torys are complaining about it.

  • Comment from LibDem councillor Lois Rogers (Mendip DC Wells Central councillor)
    Further to your recent report on the objections to the Easthill development, you obviously didn’t know that Mendip’s previous Conservative administration applied for government funding in 2017 to help finance the sale and development of Easthill for private housing.
    I attach below four references:
    The original government announcement which includes a link to the list of sites including four in Mendip that they have now apparently forgotten about
    A press release from James Heappey, the Wells MP whose constituency covers two of the sites, welcoming the funding for new homes, a press release from Mendip district council making the announcement, and a local news report.
    Frome Town Council’s clerk says they were not formally notified of the plan at the time which seems very strange but obviously they would have received the press releases.
    You can draw your own conclusions about why these development plans might have been acceptable for private housing but not for social housing and why people’s memories might have become slightly selective…

    1.
    https://www.gov.uk/government/news/45-million-funding-boost-to-support-councils-unlock-land-for-thousands-of-homes

    2.
    PRESS RELEASE: MP welcomes Government cash for local development
    Wells MP James Heappey has welcomed the news today (Friday) that the Housing Minister has earmarked £294,000 for areas in Glastonbury and Street to support the building of homes on publicly-owned brownfield land.
    Funding from the Land Release Fund will make land available for new homes in Cemetery Lane in Street and Norbins Road in Glastonbury as part of the Government’s drive to ensure 160,000 new homes can be built in the next two years.
    Housing and Planning Minister Dominic Raab said he admired the ambition of Mendip District Council, after it was revealed money has been awarded to 79 schemes from 41 councils across England.
    Following the announcement, Mr Heappey said: “I am pleased the Housing Minister has responded positively to Mendip District Council’s ambitious plans.
    “It is great news that people want to come and live in Somerset and with house prices so high in the county, I hope these plans will help alleviate pressure on the housing market by making publicly-owned land available and made suitable for development.”
    The money means the land will be released by 2020 and will ensure necessary works can be done to ensure the Council is supported through the development.
    ENDS

    3.
    MEDIA RELEASE
    March 2018
    Council secures funding to help unlock land for housing.
    Mendip District Council is the only Somerset based local authority to have been successful in a bid to access funding from a £45 million government fund to support councils in unlocking land for thousands of homes to be built.
    The local authority was successful in being granted access to funds totalling £826,000, after applying to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government through The Land Release Fund. The funding is phased over three years with over a two thirds of the money, bid for by Mendip District Council not being made available to the local authority until 2019/20.
    The council is planning to use the funds to support early investigation and exploratory works to assess feasibility of the sites across the district that may allow for future housing sites. Four sites have been identified to carry out investigation on in the following areas of the Mendip district:

    · Easthill, Frome
    · Cemetery Lane, Street
    · Norbins Road, Glastonbury
    · North Parade, Frome

    The Land Release Fund supports 79 projects across the country who will have access to funds to support building up to 7,280 homes on council owned land. Successful bids were awarded to councils demonstrating value for money, innovation and contributing to wider government housing objectives in their approach.
    Cllr Philip Ham, Portfolio Holder for Transformation at Mendip District Council, said: “It’s encouraging that Mendip District Council has secured access to this funding, to support housing provision in the district. However it is also important to make it clear that no decisions have been made by the council on any of the identified sites.
    “We also welcome the feedback on the council’s application demonstrating value for money and innovation.
    “As a council we are committed to working with our partners at a local, regional and national level, to build stronger communities where people are supported to live well in good quality homes.”
    The scheme sets out to support local councils to meet their ambition to unlock land by 2020 for homes. Mendip District Council along with the other successful authorities will be able to access the Land Release Fund money to combat barriers which can make land unusable for housing.
    The Land Release Fund is being administered through a partnership with the Local Government Association and Cabinet Office’s One Public Estate (OPE) programme.
    OPE provides councils with funding and access to practical support and expertise to deliver property-based projects with wider public sector partners, including central government departments.
    -Ends-

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