East Sussex County Council’s decision to grant the lease of a derelict school site in the heart of Lewes to the Subud organisation has come under further scrutiny this week.
Questions are being asked about the sale of the St Anne’s School site, including why the transaction hasn’t been completed two and a half years after the tender was agreed.
At the East Sussex County Council meeting on February 9, calls were made for the sale to be reviewed for reasons listed above, and the fact it could have been a ‘prime site’ for new housing in the town.
Councillor Carolyn Lambert, who spoke at the meeting in support of Councillor Rosalyn St Pierre, who has been working with local residents on their concerns, said: “I fail to understand why we are still apparently waiting for an organisation to complete a transaction two and a half years after their tender for the site was accepted by the county council. This was a controversial decision at the time and is more so now, given the pressure on local authority budgets and the need for affordable housing in Lewes.
“The decision to award a 999 year lease is an extraordinary one which is not in accordance with the county council’s policy of awarding leases of a maximum period of 99 years and prevents the county council carrying out its responsibility to achieve best value for the site, particularly in this time of austerity.”
Local Liberal Democrats are so concerned about the County Council’s decision they have reported the matter to the District Auditor for independent investigation.
Rita Ellis, a member of the public who spoke at the council meeting, said the 4.4 acre site, plus the grant of access across the County Hall car park, had been valued at a ‘conservative’ £3.5m by a trusted Lewes agent, while the site was sold to Subud for just £525,000.
In a letter to the Express, she added: “The discrepancy between the land value and the value of the Subud bid seems particularly stark in the face of the draconian and dangerous cuts to front line services by ESCC. This is further emphasised by the dreadful shortage of affordable housing for young families in Lewes.”
An East Sussex County Council spokesman said: “We use all of our assets in ways that best support the priorities of the council. For our properties and sites this will mean, in some instances, the priority will be to get the best financial value and in others it will be that the development of services for the community is a higher priority.
“The decision to dispose of the former St Anne’s site as an asset of community value was taken following an extensive consultation with people in Lewes. At the time of consultation, use of the site for services that the community could use and access was their priority.
“The process of sale or transfer of a site is complex and even more so for use as a community asset. It is important that it is completed correctly and we will not compromise on this for the sake of getting a quick transfer.
“The disposal of the site was subject to an open and transparent scrutiny review concluded last year and there are no process or procedural reasons that would require us to consider reopening the bidding process.”
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