Lewes District Council apologises after New Homes project report

Buckle car park was one of the sites considered for development in the scheme
Buckle car park was one of the sites considered for development in the scheme

Lewes District Council has apologised to residents following the publication of a report which criticised aspects of the authority's controversial New Homes project.

The controversial project was cancelled in February after the council was advised that restrictive covenants on two of its key sites - Buckle car park and Normansel Park Avenue in Seaford - made the scheme financially unviable.

Before the project, which was also known as the 49 sites plan, was scrapped the council set up a cross-party working group to look into the way the scheme was run.

The working group's report, which will be discussed by the council's cabinet at a public meeting on September 28, raises serious concerns over several aspects of the project - including its management, transparency and a perceived "lack of democracy" in the consultation process.

In its report, the working group said: "If consultation is to have a genuine purpose, both the nature of the proposition on which views are being sought and the timing of it are vital. Members of the community wish to understand how a proposal will affect them as individuals and may be understandably suspicious if they are only told about a proposal in general terms or too late in the day to influence decisions.

"With this project, the actual selection of sites proved contentious, since many stakeholders (ward members and residents especially) felt they’d had no opportunity to comment on and influence the list before it was finalised.

"There appeared to be a distinct lack of appreciation at the top whereby the council had received petitions about some of the sites but the signing of the contract went ahead anyway.

"On the face of it, this represented a blatant disregard for the feelings of the residents and denied members the opportunity to discuss those feelings in a formal setting of the council chamber."

They add: "On the evidence heard, the working group are strongly of the view that members and affected residents were denied the opportunity to comment on the initial site proposals; and this lack of democracy was a significant cause of the disaffection that arose towards the project from 2015 to its demise."

The working group also raised concerns over a general lack of transparency in the project, saying significant portions of the scheme were treated as being "commercially sensitive" and were therefore not made public. The group says the council continued to keep information from councillors and residents even after it became public elsewhere.

They said: "In this project the sites list became public knowledge with the issue of the tender documents only a few months after the pink paper was issued. Yet councillors continued to be constrained unnecessarily for a further three years."

The report also says that while technical officers at the council were asked for their expert opinions they were "given limited information about the project background and that limited attention seems to have been paid to their advice."

It also raised concerns about whether enough work had been done to examine the risks connected to certain sites and the affect of the May 2015 elections on the project.

Concluding the report the working group made a series of recommendations which call for greater transparency in future projects and more structured project management. They say many of these recommendations were already applied to the North Street Quarter project - the council's other major development scheme.

Speaking on Wednesday (September 21), council leader Cllr Andy Smith apologised on behalf of the council for the issues raised in the working group's report.

Mr Smith said: “When colleagues and I recommended that an independent review of the so-called ‘49 sites’ project be undertaken, I hoped the scope of the analysis would lead to a comprehensive examination of the process followed and, equally importantly, the identification of learning points and recommendations for the implementation of future council projects.

“I am very pleased that the cross-party working group, which consisted of councillors who had not been involved in the project, and which was chaired by an independent person who is not a councillor, has fulfilled this expectation.

“It is clear from the working group report, that while the ambition and motivation for the project were commendable, a number of issues, particularly around consultation and project oversight, should have been handled differently.

"Consequently, local residents and their elected representatives were understandably anxious, and sometimes angry, about how the proposals would impact on their particular community.

“On behalf of Lewes District Council I would like to apologise to them all for this deficiency.

“Coincidentally, a second independent review of the same project, this time by external auditors in response to a complaint from a member of the public, has been taking place quite separately from that of the working group. Critically, this external review reached very similar conclusions to those reached by the working group

“The council’s priority to address the acute housing shortage in area by building more affordable homes for local people has not changed. It will not change under my leadership.

“However, methods will change and recommendations from both reports will be followed, of that the people of this district can be assured.

“There is a great deal of work to do to address local housing needs, but this council will do it with local people, not against them.”

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