County council leader Steve Count signals massive U-turn on Estover as he pledges ‘if we develop this land it will be gone forever’

County council leader Steve Count

County council leader Steve Count - Credit: Archant

Embattled county council leader Steve Count today signalled the biggest political U-turn of his career as he backed away from building on Estover playing fields.

Estover Playing Field. Picture: TREVOR WATSON

Estover Playing Field. Picture: TREVOR WATSON - Credit: Archant

In a sensational twist to the Cambs Times ‘Hands Off’ campaign, Cllr Count threw caution to the wind by pledging instead to hand over half the field to March Town Council on a 99 year lease.

And the remainder, he says, should be offered on a seven year lease to other groups wanting to use it for sport.

The extraordinary move was unveiled last night as Cllr Count briefed a handful of local Tory councillors.

Cllr Count, who called a public meeting last summer at the Oliver Cromwell Hotel to propose half the site for housing and half for sport, has shifted position in the wake of overwhelming public opposition.

Digger and workers in the field next to Estover for excavation work.

Digger and workers in the field next to Estover for excavation work. - Credit: Archant

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He is also a candidate for March North in the May elections to Fenland District Council and clearly felt he could jeopardise both his own chances – and those of other councillors- unless he revisited his earlier thoughts.

What is being proposed, in a motion Cllr Count will take to the county council on February 12, is for March Town Council to take on a 99 year lease on 10.8 acres of the 18 acre site.

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And with a seven year lease to other sports groups on the remaining seven acres, he hopes funds can be found from Sport England and the Football Association to dramatically improve facilities in the town.

Although he had hammered home the need by the county council to raise funds, Cllr Count said it had an obligation “sometimes to not just look at finances. I know our budgets are difficult at the moment but if we develop this land it will be gone forever.

Hands off Estover

Hands off Estover - Credit: Archant

“That is the argument the people of March have made to me and I will be trying to convince the people in the council chamber.”

He added: “I am not confident of success but I am hoping for success. There are no more arrows in my bow.”

His statement is in marked contrast to the public meeting last August when a packed hall overwhelmingly rejected his homes for leisure package.

“I want to know what public has to say,” he said. “No-one is making firm proposals. “This is officers’ latest thinking and as far as I am aware the first time in 30 years for an opportunity to go to the people of March and say something that may happen.”

He outlined plans that would have meant allowing the county council to build 99 homes on Estover in return for £500,000 to be spent on sports pitches and a clubhouse.

Councillor Pop Jolley, until recently cabinet member for leisure at Fenland Hall, said it ought not to be about money but about “the future of the town, the future of our children. That ground will do everything they want and it ought not to be about value”.

He told Cllr Count: “You’re getting this so wrong. It’s unbelievable. There is money to develop that field – we are fed up being dictated to over housing in the wrong place.”

Town mayor Kit Owen said: “Estover’s established use dates back 75 years – local opinion strenuously opposes any residential development there.”

Independent and former Tory councillor Peter Tunley said today the whole issue had been “an utter, absolute disgrace. I believe not only should Cllr Count fall on his sword over this he should take with him Cllr Clark, the leader of Fenland Council, also Steve Barclay, our MP.”

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