LEADER of Lewes District Council James Page this week apologised after he failed to show up at a Newhaven residents’ meeting about the sale of the Lewes Road Recreation Field and adjoining land.
Residents booed when they heard he was unable to attend the meeting at the Hut on Tuesday July 31.
The small venue was packed with at least 150 local people, many of whom wanted to keep the recreation ground and were angry that the sale had taken place so quickly or that it had taken place at all.
Organiser Jo Pettitt asked how many people supported a hotel being built on the land – not one hand went up.
In a statement to the Sussex Express cllr Page said: “I am genuinely sorry I was not able to attend the meeting that so many residents of Newhaven went along to. I thank Jo Pettitt, who organised the meeting, for explaining I was in London at another engagement and could not attend.
“I realise why residents feel the decision taken to sell the land happened within an incredibly short time frame but it was essential to secure a £350m investment opportunity for Newhaven to boost economic growth and create jobs in the future.
“In order to do this we had to move quickly. The council’s procedural rules, as set out in the constitution, give the leader of the council the power to do this [take decisions quickly],
“In fact, prior to completion on the sale of the land, the scrutiny committee, chaired by an opposition councillor, examined the decision and found it had been made entirely in accordance with the council’s rules.”
But at the meeting Mrs Pettitt said: “Firstly, I’d like to state that I found the 14 day consultation period before the sale at the end of June to be ludicrously short.
“The council received over 100 objections to the sale, including my own and they were ignored, the sale went ahead. The land had been taken as a given and a plan of progression after the sale had already been thrashed out behind closed doors.”
She described cllr Page’s plan to set up a cross-party working group to ensure the views of residents and businesses were taken into account as Roundtable Entertainments’ project developed, as shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted.
Mrs Pettitt said: “Surely any potential investor with a level of ambition and interest on this scale would not have targeted Newhaven without feeling confident about the potential financial viability of the project.
“So why feel the need to secure a feasibility study with the sale of our recreational land?”
She asked why residents were not given the opportunity to buy the land from the council and said the drip feed of information about the developer’s plans was creating a lot of alarm.
District councillors Steve Saunders and Julie Carr, who represent Newhaven, as well as MP Norman Baker, attended.
Cllr Page added: “There are no decisions taken ‘behind closed doors’ or consultation carried out ‘after the horse has bolted’.”
“The land was sold for £84,000 and this was strictly in accordance with the district valuer’s appraisal taking account of the many restrictive covenants on the site. Today we have published our community engagement plans for Newhaven. I want to build trust between the district council and the local community.”
Cllr Page said: “And this is why I have made it clear that no development will proceed without full public consultation scheduled and planned over many months.
“I want to reassure everyone that Newhaven residents will have every opportunity to have their views heard and taken into account.”
Lewes District Council’s website contains the minutes of all meetings held and decisions taken.
It also has details of its community engagement plan which shows how it will consult with residents about the proposals for a £350m leisure complex in Newhaven, which would include the biggest water park in the world. Visit www.lewes.gov.uk.
A facebook group has been set up by the residents: Lewes Read Recreation Ground - Residents’ Voice.