by Susan van de Ven on 19 April, 2018
Nigel Cathcart’s characterisation of the Battle of the Rouses in the current issue of the Bassingbourn Village Voice is, unfortunately, apt.
This is a battle for a key piece of land. In my view it has nothing to do with building essential housing. Rather, it is the County Council looking to squeeze money out of every one of its assets, because its ship is sinking fast – in large part due to central government ending its revenue support grant to local authorities; also due to its own short-term political decision-making. The County Council has to carry out its statutory functions and hasn’t the money to do so.
Battles are being fought everywhere as a result of this calamitous financial state – besides land, to salvage what we can of collapsing children’s centre services, to eek out another year of a basic bus service, to fill pot holes before someone has an accident, and so on.
Central government sits comfortably at a distance holding the purse strings, while the council wages battle both for and against local people. This perversity is personified in the fact that the County Council’s Chief Finance Officer and Chief Legal Officer are also Board Members for the council’s own recently formed commercial development company, ‘This Land,’ which exists to make money off County Estates public land that it ‘buys’ from the County Council, with a loan – from the County Council (!).
Once land is ‘sold’ to This Land, it sits in a realm outside of the council, without meaningful accountability to local democratically elected representatives.
The mechanism for transferring land from the council to This Land is the council’s ‘Commercial and Investment Committee,’ comprised of elected councillors. It isn’t clear whether their role is anything more than to note or protest the confidential papers that pass over their committee table.
The sale of land from County Estates has intensified thanks to the failure of South Cambridgeshire District Council, the Planning Authority, to produce a viable Local Plan. So, as is well known, all land outside of village frameworks ordinarily protected by planning policy has been up for grabs by commercial developers – including The Rouses. For any speculative developer who’s been waiting and watching, this unique window of opportunity has been the time to pounce. Those who attended last year’s public meeting at The Limes will have heard the council’s development company representative, Mr Hasselder, describe a large housing development scheme for The Rouses, which drew much anger and frustration. (Incidentally, the development company has changed its name – last summer, This Land was known as ‘CHIC.’)
Next, an officer from the County Council Estates team, Mr Conrad, was tasked with working out a detailed scheme ahead of the sale of The Rouses to This Land. Mr Conrad recognized the overwhelming strength of local feeling against the development of a highly sensitive piece of village land, though was still given marching orders to prepare the sale. He worked methodically to significantly reduce the scale of the scheme and safeguard a significant portion of the site through a 99-year lease to the parish. He kept your parish, district and county councillors well informed along the way, and attended the January meeting of the Parish Council where he conveyed his proposition for what was essentially a compromise scheme. He didn’t ask for a vote or blessing but set out his stall. It would be for the village and its representatives to consider and respond to any planning application in due course.
On February 23, confidential papers passed over the Commercial and Investment Committee’s table, including a 10-unit scheme and the transfer of the balance of The Rouses site to the parish on a long lease. Although I am your local representative at the County Council I wasn’t invited to the meeting, nor shown the committee papers, due to their confidential status. But I learned that the papers had been ‘noted’.
Fast forward three weeks to March 16: Mr Conrad and I were both made aware of a different proposal – 26 units and no lease of land to the parish – that had been prepared for the March 23 Commercial Investment Committee meeting – the new scheme’s formulation excluding both Mr Conrad and me, and with no consultation with the community.
Why? Apparently, highways access to the 10-unit scheme via South End was deemed to be unsatisfactory. How and why then propose a much larger scheme, and without due process? No answer.
Everything that you may be thinking was wrong about this turn of events was expressed most vehemently to the powers that be. On March 20, I met with the County Council’s Chief Executive Officer and Chief Finance Officer, who quick as the whole thing had erupted, informed me that the whole thing would be pulled – and there would no longer be any scheme at all in the system. The Rouses would not be sold to This Land at this time.
Bassingbourn Parish Council was meeting that night, and I would need to report on The Rouses. I was not willing to defend the Council’s inexplicable actions, so asked the Chief Finance Officer to attend, which he did.
Understandably, there was much jubilation in the village given that the scheme had been pulled. But there remain important unanswered questions and concerns about what next.
The County Council still owns The Rouses, its financial position is worsening, and next year a new Local Plan consultation begins – meaning that proposals for new planning frameworks can be brought forward. My guess is that the County Council will remain interested in developing The Rouses – with or without regard for the community’s interests.
Since these events I have asked the council for a full explanation of the process that led to the ‘new’ scheme being prepared for the Commercial Investment Committee without consulting the community or its representatives – but have yet to receive a satisfactory reply.
You can be sure that I will do my best to work with the local community to help achieve what it wants. But as you can see, the County Council is increasingly undemocratic and unaccountable, and desperate to improve its financial position. Therefore, I’d see the current quiet as a ceasefire – not the end of battle.
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