Council accused of bringing in deal for Sudbury's Belle Vue Park ‘behind closed doors’
No deal was done on the sale of a Sudbury landmark before the cabinet decision, Babergh District Council chiefs have stressed, after it emerged a bid for Government housing cash for retirement homes had been lodged four months before a decision.
Babergh District Council’s cabinet in March agreed a bid by Churchill Retirement Living to turn the old swimming pool site into 46 retirement flats, while Belle Vue House will become private housing. That was one of six bids brought forward.
But Freedom of Information documents revealed that the authority made a bid to the Government’s Land Release Fund requesting a grant of £550,000 back in November.
That bid was for “unlocking delivery of 55 housing units through site levelling, remediation and reconfiguration,” and specified that they were “retirement living units”.
Opposition Green councillors at the authority have accused a small band of decision-makers at the authority who “already made their mind up” before the site was marketed or a cabinet decision had been made – a claim the administration denies.
Green group leader Leigh Jamieson, said: “This seems to show that officers had already been in discussions with the developer Churchill and were looking to bring retirement flats on to the site before it was marketed and before the cabinet had decided to sell.
“It’s all part of a pattern that indicates that a small group on the council had already made their minds up about a sale to Churchill, despite the appearance of a public tender.”
Cllr Jamieson said that community bids should have been given more time, adding: “A bit more time and a bit more openness in the procedure would allow the public and other interested parties to come up with better solutions.”
Revised plans for the old swimming pool site came forward at the end of last year after original plans for a hotel there fell through.
While the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has not yet confirmed successful bids for Land Release Fund grants, it is understood Babergh’s bid was not successful.
Plans for retirement living homes cannot proceed until a planning application has been lodged and agreed, both of which are yet to happen.
The council has stressed correct procedures were followed, and said Belle Vue House and part of the swimming pool site were openly marketed.
It was hoped the Government grant could help fund the work to the park entrance, which is being led by the council.
Michael Holt, Conservative cabinet member for economic development at the authority’s Conservative/Independent/Liberal Democrat administration, said: “No deals for Belle Vue were agreed in advance or outside the democratic process.
“Of course we are going to try to secure external funding wherever possible to reduce the cost for our taxpayers and it is not unusual for us to make bids speculatively – but this does not mean that minds had already been made up nor that we would somehow then be able to bypass the democratic decision-making process.
“Once it was announced that the hotel proposal would not go ahead, we were clear that we would be looking to sell part of the land for development, while creating an open and welcoming entrance for Belle Vue Park, with the addition of a new café, accessible toilet facilities and a better connection to the town centre to ensure the park could be enjoyed by the local community for generations to come.
“The process for marketing the site was open and the final decision was made by Babergh District Council. After many of years of discussions, we are now looking forward to finally being able to deliver on these plans – and will continue to explore other external and match funding opportunities for the park in the meantime.”
Belle Vue Action Group
The Freedom of Information request had been lodged by the Belle Vue Action Group, campaigners against the retirement living bid.
It said that the options drawn up in summer 2020 included “three retirement living options” drawn up “months before any marketing process”.
The group added: “We have had deep concerns around the process in how the sale of the site and the new park entrance proposal has been managed and also when talks actually started with Churchill given a council application featuring a similar number of retirement flats was made months before the site was marketed.
“We have brought our concerns to the attention of the Chief Executive at BDC and are eagerly waiting a response.”