Council leader apologises for '˜concern and anxiety' caused by New Homes project

Cllr Andy Smith, Leader of LDC SUS-160217-225105008Cllr Andy Smith, Leader of LDC SUS-160217-225105008
Cllr Andy Smith, Leader of LDC SUS-160217-225105008

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The leader of Lewes District Council has apologised to the residents whose livelihoods were threatened by the New Homes project, moments after the contract was officially terminated on Wednesday.

Speaking after the extraordinary cabinet meeting on February 17, Councillor Andy Smith said: “I would like to apologise to the people whose businesses and livelihoods were put at risk by this project, which would obviously have caused them great concern and anxiety.

“We are trying to be open and we are trying to rebuild that trust and confidence.

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“We’ve got an inquiry chaired by an independent expert and when they produce their report, it will be public for everybody to see.

“The inquiry is not about what we’re doing -this project was about building affordable housing on our district and there is a need for that - but it’s how we went about it.

“We do know what we’re doing, which is evidenced in other projects such as the North Street Quarter, which will deliver 416 homes.

“The council has different plans developing all the time. Sometimes they go through and other times they don’t. This was just one that failed in the spotlight.”

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At a specially-convened meeting, councillors heard that restrictive covenants on two key sites, the Buckle and Normansel Park Avenue in Seaford, which would have generated the capital need for reinvestment into affordable homes, made the scheme financially unviable.

Independent legal advice confirmed any attempts to lift the covenants would take time, expense and might not be successful.

Cllr Smith said: “We have an acute shortage of affordable homes in Lewes district and my priority remains addressing this local need. However, this cannot be achieved by entering into contracts that expose the public purse to undue risk. The finances on this project do not stack up and it was the correct decision to terminate the agreement today.”

The New Homes contract was between LDC, Karis Developments and Southern Housing Group. Cllr Smith explained all parties knew about the covenants before entering into the contract but were confident of being able to lift them, as the majority of covenants are simple to remove.

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However, it wasn’t until five months ago, when the contract was signed and the expensive work of ground testing carried out, that it was realised how complex these particular covenants are. This work, due to its cost, would not have been carried out before a contract was secured.

Cllr Smith is confident the failure of the New Homes project will not affect the council’s reputation when it comes to future proposals.

A Southern Housing Group spokesman said: “While we’re naturally disappointed this project is no longer going ahead, we’d welcome the opportunity to work with LDC in the future.”

Going forward, Cllr Smith said: “We will now reconsider our options for affordable housing in the district, and to this end I hope to begin an open and transparent consultation with residents and businesses on new proposals in the coming months.”

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Plans are already in the pipeline for new housing in Rectory Close, Newhaven, and Headland Way, Peacehaven, to replace council-owned garages that are under-used.

When asked whether any of the sites included in the New Homes project may be revisited for alternative developments, Gillian Marston, director of service delivery at LDC, confirmed some of the locations may be looked at on a site-by-site basis in future. However, these would most likely be the less contentious sites on the list, as opposed to controversial locations such as Hollycroft Field in East Chiltington, Steyning Avenue in Peacehaven, and St Mary’s Social Centre, in Lewes. During the meeting, Ms Marston gave an approximate breakdown of the money spent on the New Homes project by LDC, as requested to do so by Cllr Sarah Osborne, Leader of the Lib Dem Group at the district council.Ms Marston said of the funds allocated so far, £335,000 was spent on Robinson Road and £109,000 on Meeching Down - both of which are council-owned sites. Consultations cost £22,000, while £65,000 was spent on valuations. A further £22,000 was spent on transport studies and £53,000 on building sketches and designs. The remaining monies was put down to legal costs.

The funds spent on Robinson Road, in Newhaven, will not have been wasted though, as the council are still progressing with plans to build on the site. The New Homes Project Contractual Matters report states: “Robinson Road continues to be an obvious site to progress in that it was always envisaged that development here would be funded mainly from the council’s own resources. Plans are underway to relocate the council’s existing waste depot operation from Robinson Road to Avis Way in August 2017, making space for development.”

Cllr Smith accepted there are some “pretty obvious” lessons to learn from the failure of the project. Ms Marston agreed, adding that future developments on any of the sites would be quicker and more thorough as the necessary groundwork has already been completed.

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