Shailesh Vara Letter

Update 25/03/2014: The above letter from the Ministry of Justice makes clear that Fenland District Council did not request an extension beyond January to allow time for the police report on property usage due in April. As such, the suggestion that the Ministry of Justice refused a request for an extension is clearly inaccurate. The above letter is self explanatory.

Update: I have now seen emails from a second private developer, offering to buy the courthouse site at the full guide price of £150,000. Fenland District Council need to explain why more than one developer felt £150,000 was value for money despite the fact that the property had a sitting tenant, when the Council did not regard it in the same way. This is particularly the case given that they were in a better position to remove the sitting tenant than developers.

In addition, if more than one developer was offering the full asking price this suggests that the property should have gone to auction in order to test to what extent either of these two developers, or indeed any other developer, would have been willing to pay more than the guide price.

Finally, given that the second developer was told that the sale was so far progressed as to prevent their offer being accepted why, simultaneously, was the property being marketed as going to auction? These are questions that Fenland District Council and the Ministry of Justice need to address as a matter of urgency.

On Friday 14th March a local private developer purchased Wisbech Magistrates Court without the property going to auction, and with Fenland District Council having declined the opportunity to acquire the building. Below is my statement on the matter for the information of constituents.

To many local residents, including myself, the Nene Waterfront is the most important regeneration site in the constituency. Located on the marina waterfront in Wisbech, at the heart of the town, adjacent to the only port in Cambridgeshire, a short walk from the market square, next to a large car park, and within close proximity to any potential new railway station, it is a unique once-in-a-generation site with the clear potential to boost the regeneration of the town. It is key to the Wisbech 2020 plans.

Fenland District Council’s decision to give up the opportunity to control the regeneration of this waterfront site, as reflected in the fact that the area’s key courthouse building has now been sold for just £150,000 – less than the cost of an average house – to a local private developer, is surprising. Five different explanations have been given in the last four days, some of which contradict. I want to address each in turn.

Firstly, it was reported that the police refused to give confirmation of their willingness to move and that this led to Fenland District Cabinet deciding not to purchase the site. Yet the police have confirmed to me their willingness in principle to move this summer.

Cambridgeshire Police are due to report just next month on moving out of a number of police stations as part of new working practices, and a reasonable assumption could therefore be made that they would be willing to move from the property in Wisbech. It is unsurprising that the Police would not commit to a move ahead of their own property review, but this would have involved minimal delay. If the Police’s refusal to commit to a move was such an issue, I would happily have discussed it with Sir Graham Bright, the Police & Crime Commissioner, and the Police Minister.

Secondly it was suggested that the Ministry of Justice refused to delay the sale despite repeated requests from Fenland District Council. The Ministry of Justice dispute this, stating “when disposing of surplus assets, we will always seek to achieve overall value for money for the taxpayer”.

It would be odd for a Government department to refuse a delay of a few months over such a small sum if the Council said they still intended to buy the site as part of a prime redevelopment scheme under the Wisbech 2020 plan. Indeed had this been the case, I would have requested a delay from the Minister, a fellow Cambridgeshire MP. I was not asked by the Council to escalate this with the Ministry of Justice.

Thirdly it was suggested that the Council could still control the redevelopment through planning rules, but benefit from private capital being used rather than taxpayer money. It is simply inaccurate to suggest that this option offers anything like the same level of quality control.

The planning committee is independent of the Council executive and so cannot be directed to deliver the executive’s specific wishes. In addition, any attempt by the planning committee to do so could be appealed by the developer to the planning inspector. The developer simply has to act within the planning rules. So the Council cannot control the quality of the regeneration in the same way they could do so from buying this site.

Fourthly it was suggested that the capital commitment for the Council was not the £150,000 purchase price, but a higher development cost requiring approximately a further £500,000. As such the Council suggest it makes sense to bring in private capital now.

Yet there would be plenty of scope to bring in capital once the site had been secured – such as through a joint venture or onward sale to a private firm. The key is that the Council would have been able to attach planning conditions to this onward sale or joint venture, over and above the minimum conditions available through general planning rules. It has been suggested that some firms had already expressed an interest in working with the Council to develop the site. The difference is that the Ministry of Justice has no regeneration vision for the Nene Waterfront, and so have not attached the planning conditions that the Council could have required as local custodians.

Finally, it was suggested the decision not to purchase enables money to be made available to redevelop the March swimming pool instead. This does not make sense.

The £150,000 cost could be met from reserves, without impacting plans for swimming in March. In addition, given that the sale was at a discount due to the Police being sitting tenants, any proposed move by the Police this summer would have added value. So the Council could have bought the property at a discount, agreed a move with the Police a few months later, and added value to its purchase within a matter of months.

Indeed if the Council now help facilitate a move of the Police this summer, this will give the private developer the increased value – from the site no longer having a sitting tenant – that they did not take advantage of for themselves. It would be a contradictory argument to suggest that public funds should be used for this purpose in order to exercise control or influence over the redevelopment, when for £150,000 they could have retained both control and an increase in value for the taxpayer. I hope the Council will therefore clarify whether any public funds will be used to facilitate a future move by the Police from the station.

A further issue requiring clarification is the development of the land at the rear of the Nene Waterfront sold by the Council to another local developer just six months ago. The Council said yesterday that this land has now been resold or is likely to be sold to the owner of the courthouse site. I have asked for clarification on this transaction.

As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I have spent the last four years in Parliament reviewing value for money for the taxpayer on deals involving a wide range of public bodies. I cannot see how this decision – to give up control of the prime redevelopment opportunity in Wisbech for £150,000 – is value for money. It is also a matter of concern that this has arisen so soon after the Whittlesey supermarket confusion, and against a backdrop of only one enforcement notice to date being served on any of the derelict buildings in the district – an issue I have repeatedly raised.

There is significant public interest in the future of the Nene Waterfront which is a key strategic site for Wisbech. I hope Fenland District Council will now issue a detailed statement as a matter of urgency explaining its actions to local residents.

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