The Cabinet Member for Council Transformation, Sustainability, Transport and Strategic Planning and the Group Director, Business Transformation submitted a joint report concerning a proposal for the sale of a site at Gorse Hill, Swindon, to enable the development of 241 homes, with 44% of the total scheme delivering affordable housing.
Councillor Peter Greenhalgh, Cabinet Member for Council Transformation, Sustainability, Transport and Strategic Planning, explained the background to the proposed scheme that would provide 106 affordable family homes representing 44% of the total scheme, secure £30m of investment in a development that would support the local Gorse Hill economy by increasing the number of residents and by creating new work and training opportunities, and secure £1.022m investment for landscaping works allowing more local people to make more use of the open space areas.
The Chair commented that he recognised that this proposal was likely to be controversial and that, as evidenced by the attendance at the meeting and the comments made at the Open Forum held immediately prior to it, there was considerable opposition to the plans from many residents living close to the proposed development site. However, the Cabinet did, on occasion, have to make difficult decisions, and to consider what was in the best interest of all residents of Swindon. He referred to the demand for housing, particularly, “affordable housing” in Swindon. He noted the pressures for affordable housing in this area and that the last two Council properties that had become available in the area had attracted 150 application bids for each property. There was clearly a real demand for such housing. He referred to the economic benefits of the development for the local economy and to the jobs and training opportunities that it was hoped would develop out of the delivery of the scheme. He noted the planned improvement to the existing open space and to the re-investment in sports pitches and a new pavilion. He outlined the background to the scheme which had started in 2006 with the Council’s Allotment Review and decision to invest £1m in Allotment improvements, funded by way of the disposal of the under used allotment provision at Pickards Small Field. This had been followed approximately a year later by the interest in developing the site by the Haboakus Group. The company had developed a proposal and had undertaken consultation with the local community about it. However, as a result of the recession the scheme stalled and it was only in recent months that Haboakus had again approached the Council with a revised scheme. This was a new larger scheme impacted by the change in economic conditions, particularly, the significant change in land values. The new scheme did offer significant benefits for Swindon and its local economy and would provide a significant number of affordable houses in an area where many people on the Council’s Housing list wished to live. He noted that many of the concerns that had been highlighted at the Open Forum related to planning issues and these would be considered by the Planning Committee once a planning application was submitted. The proposed site disposal was dependent on the company receiving planning permission for its plans.
Councillor John Ballman, Gorse Hill and Pinehurst Ward Councillor, highlighted the concerns of local residents at the loss of this important area of public green open space. He advised that the proposal for such a large development was unacceptable to local residents and a petition of over 500 signatures opposing the development had been gathered in one day. Whilst the disposal of the site may have been proposed some years ago it was only recently that many residents had become aware of it. He believed that if the Council wished to dispose of this site it should first think of disposing of it to the local community. He referred to the Government’s Big Society approach and the soon to be introduced provisions of the Localism Act 2011 relating to the Community Right to Challenge and Assets of Community Value and the ability this would give local communities to take over sites such as this. He asked that consideration of the disposal should be deferred. He explained that a proposal had come forward from the local community that the land should be used to create a community urban forest/open space, managed by a local community group. This proposal has considerable local support and was seen as both a positive way of protecting the open green-space and involving the local community. The Ward Councillors were supportive of this approach and believed the local community should have the first opportunity to obtain the site, whether through a land trust, community grant or some other appropriate mechanism. He advised there was a local group willing to step forward and start the process, but they would need time to develop their proposals and that was why the decision should be deferred.
Councillor Rochelle Russell, Gorse Hill and Pinehurst Ward Councillor, referred to her opposition to the proposal and support for a deferment to enable the community to develop its own plans for the area.
Councillor Des Moffatt, Western Ward Councillor, commented on the impact on his ward of a development of the size envisaged. He opposed the proposed disposal. He suggested that a decision to defer the proposal should be made now and it should not be left to the planning process.
The Chair and Councillor Peter Greenhalgh, Cabinet Member for Council Transformation, Sustainability, Transport and Strategic Planning, referred to the concerns raised regarding the loss of playing / football pitches and gave an assurance that no pitches would be lost as a result of the proposed development. The Chair advised that he was happy to amend the proposed recommendation to include reference to this. He also believed that Haboakus would be very likely to support a community land trust or similar initiative to be responsible for the open green space within the development.
Councillor Andy Harrison referred to the use of Section 106 funding to support housing on this site and the flexibility of the description “affordable homes”. He did not believe the benefits of the scheme would compensate for the impact of a development of this scale on local residents.
Councillor Dale Heenan commented that the Planning Committee would be responsible for reviewing many of the areas of concern highlighted by residents once a planning application was received. He referred to the likely timescale of the planning process and could see no reason why the development of the community’s own proposal could not proceed at the same time. It could then be implemented if permission for the development was refused. He noted that the relevant provisions of the Localism Act were due to be implemented in April 2012. He suggested a proposed amendment to the report’s recommendations should the Cabinet wish to support this.
(At this stage the meeting adjourned for ten minutes)
The Chair noted Councillor Heenan’s suggestion but believed there was no need for a specific recommendation as disposal of the site was dependent on the granting of planning permission and there was no reason why the community could not undertake the development of its proposal at the same time. He explained the reasons why the Cabinet did not wish to delay a decision on this matter, this particularly related to the timescales associated with the availability of Homes and Community Agency grant to support the affordable housing provision on the site.
Councillor Bob Wright expressed his concerns regarding the proposed development and noted that there had been objections from the community to the proposed disposal of the Allotment site and to the first Haboakus plans for development of the site in 2006/07. He also referred to the value for money aspects of the proposal and the return available to the Council.
The Chair reiterated his earlier comments regarding the proposal, which he believed offered real benefits to both the Council and Swindon residents, particularly, in terms of providing affordable homes in an area where people wanted such homes.
Resolved – (1) That approval be given to the disposal of the site at Gorse Hill, Swindon, identified in Appendix 1 to the joint report (‘the Plan’), to enable Haboakus to develop 241 homes, on the basis that 44% of the homes are affordable, subject to the scheme being granted a suitable planning consent; and the Secretary of State’s consent should that be necessary.
(2) That, as part of the consideration for the disposal referred to in (1) above, Haboakus spend not less than £1.022m, being the ‘surplus value’ of the scheme, on agreed landscape improvements on the open space adjoining the proposed development, shown hatched on the Plan, including providing a new changing pavilion to serve Southbrook Recreation Ground; and that Haboakus and the Council explore the potential to set up a community land trust or other community based model to maintain the open space.
(3) That the disposal proceed on the basis that there be no loss of playing/football pitches on the site as identified in the Plan.
(3) That the allocation of £772,000 of Section 106 Planning Agreement funding towards 14% of the affordable housing provision within the scheme referred to in (1) above, be approved.
(4) That the Director of Planning and Transport be authorised to take the necessary action under Section 228 of the Highways Act 1980 to formally adopt as public highway the land shown cross hatched on the Plan which will form part of the access to the proposed scheme referred to in (1) above.
(5) That the Head of Property and the Director of Planning and Transport in consultation with the Director of Law and Democratic Services, be authorised to make such appropriations to planning purposes in respect of the site, referred to in (1) above, as required.
(6) That the Director of Law and Democratic Services be authorised to complete all necessary and ancillary documentation to give effect to the scheme referred to in (1) above, on such detailed terms and conditions to be determined by the Director of Law and Democratic Services in consultation with the Head of Property and the Director of Finance, in order to protect the Council’s interest.
The reasons for the decision and alternative options are as set out in the report to the meeting.
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