Fenland Council: 82 year tenancy of Cambs Police proved a stumbling block too much to acquire redundant court house at Wisbech

Wisbech Court House

Wisbech Court House - Credit: Archant

Fenland District Council has today (March 24) issued a statement on the sale of the former Wisbech Courthouse and the regeneration of the Nene Waterfront. Here is the statement in full.

Wisbech Court House and police station

Wisbech Court House and police station - Credit: Archant

Fenland District Council has long recognised the strategic importance of the Nene Waterfront in the regeneration of Wisbech. Its firm commitment to that regeneration has been clearly demonstrated by its active engagement in driving forward and levering in significant external funding for this £50 million award-winning development.

Wisbech Court House

Wisbech Court House - Credit: Archant

Delivery outcomes include the state of the art Boathouse business centre, a successful Foyer Scheme, land assembly (including a successful Council-led Compulsory Purchase Order), decontamination of previously undevelopable sites, enhanced access arrangements and environmental improvements. The recession significantly impacted on bringing forward the housing sites; however, agreements to develop the former gas works site are progressing well along with interest in the other sites.

Wisbech police station

Wisbech police station - Credit: Archant

In line with that regeneration commitment, Members decided, following the closure of the redundant Courthouse, to engage with the Ministry of Justice over the purchase of the building in an attempt to consolidate the site with the adjacent Council land to enable a more comprehensive scheme to be developed.

The Council recognises that it is not a developer; consequently, it was likely that the comprehensive site package would have been opened up to the private sector market to determine the most appropriate and best value use.

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No specific decision had been made in advance of the intended acquisition - basically all options for the site were on the table for consideration with any private sector partners.

A key problem identified that had to be overcome was the long-term tenancy (82 years remaining) on advantageous terms of the Police within the building.

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The Council worked closely with various public partners, including Cambridgeshire County Council and the Police and Fire Authorities, to develop options for relocation of the Police. However, this would entail significant costs for the partners. For the Council the overall package included the purchase price of the Courthouse and relocation and associated land costs totalling nearly £600,000, along with ongoing annual revenue costs to the Council of more than £30,000 while the Courthouse remained vacant.

The Council can confirm that the Police have never stated that they would not relocate from the property. However, the Police have not been in a position to indicate when they would be able to relocate, thus leaving the issue as a genuine uncertainty from the Council’s point of view.

The Council was committed to meeting such costs, without any financial support from Government or European agencies. However, without the guarantee of the police relocation, particularly within the MoJ timescale for disposal, there remained a financial and corporate risk to the Council. There was then the added risk that the development could not be delivered, thus presenting further uncertainty for the Council and Council tax payers’ money.

The discussions with MoJ commenced late 2011 and support from the MoJ was positive. However, the MoJ stressed that it was under pressure from the Home Office to dispose of all of its redundant properties as soon as practical, which included the Wisbech Courthouse. After months of negotiation the MoJ provided FDC with an initial target completion date of 5 April 2013.

However, after further negotiation and a subsequent time extension to 17 June 2013, the MoJ was clear in its approach that if the Council could not conclude the contract by the end of November 2013 it had no option but to put the property on the open market. The Council’s partners were aware of this deadline in developing and agreeing alternative arrangements for the relocation of the Police.

The Council appealed to MoJ for more time to reach the necessary partner agreements and was granted until 6 January 2014 for the purchase contract exchange and completion. This was subsequently extended to 31 January 2014 to allow for the proposed Cabinet meeting on 23 January 2014 and to receive a response to a letter from the Council’s Leader from the Police Commissioner. This correspondence received from the MoJ made it clear to the Council that if the partner agreement could not be completed by the end of January 2014 they would proceed with the disposal to other interested parties.

Such risks as outlined above were not seen as a best ‘value for money’ position, particularly at a time when public finances, including the Council’s, were being very significantly reduced by the Government’s austerity programme. Consequently, the Cabinet, having considered formally the options and risks, reluctantly decided at its meeting on 23 January 2014, not to proceed with the acquisition.

This member decision was based on the submitted Cabinet report and the ensuing debate related to the proposed purchase. The Council informed the MoJ of that decision on 24 January 2014.

Following the decision, all members of the Council and affected stakeholders, including the local MP, were fully advised of the situation on behalf of the lead Portfolio Holder, Cllr Chris Seaton. This information was circulated via email on 28 January 2014, some six weeks prior to the recent developer purchase of the courthouse. This period of time gave interested parties time to intervene and help shape the direction of the proposals.

The Council was aware that the MoJ would put the property to market but did not know the details of when. It subsequently became aware of the purchase on the same day that it was released in the House of Commons. The Council understands that the contract had been completed that day.

The Council welcomes this recent announcement that the site has been sold to a local private developer. It allows the risks outlined above to be taken by the private sector while also enabling this important regeneration project to proceed. There is in place an adopted Supplementary Planning Guidance (SPD) for the sites that provides a clear framework for the scale, design and quality of the combined development sites. This enables the Council to maintain an influence on the regeneration of this key site in the overall Nene Waterfront.

In addition, the Council owns the adjacent sites. Therefore it makes sense for the private and public sectors to work together to realise the most appropriate development of the combined sites. It should also be recognised that the Council is not itself a developer and its aim was always to dispose of the sites to the private sector for delivery at the appropriate time in the market. The recent events are the first step in this process.

Terms were recently agreed with G B Construction Ltd for the development of 70 houses on the land at the rear of the Nene development area. The formal Build Lease is in its final stage of agreement and G B Construction is committed to the delivery of this development, along with its RSL partner Circle, for the provision of much needed affordable and private sector housing in the town. In addition, the contract terms protect the Council’s interests in the land and do not allow for the selling on of the Build Lease or the site.

It is important to note that the Council, in its regeneration role, has to balance the sale timing and level of income against the delivery and community benefits of any of its land/asset disposals. The NWR sites were no exception, in that due to the housing market downturn little interest had been shown in the sites. The Council kept a close eye on the state of the market, including carrying out a soft market testing exercise with major developers.

Consequently, when approached by G B Construction Ltd, the proposal was taken seriously and the purchase details were independently assessed by external valuation specialists. Their advice confirmed that the offer by G B Construction was at an acceptable level and offered the Council ‘best value’.

This position was fully outlined in the Cabinet report to help members come to a decision, and all relevant senior members were fully briefed by officers in advance of the meeting.

In addition, the Council was keen to see the development come forward to deliver much needed housing for the town acting as a gateway scheme and a catalyst for further development. Following the purchase by G B Construction there has been stronger interest in the other Nene Waterfront sites.

Any major regeneration project of this kind involves tough challenges and difficult decisions, the details of which are not always immediately apparent to all. Successful outcomes require hard, painstaking work, commercial sensitivity, operating within the appropriate legislation and minimising the financial and corporate risks to the Council and local taxpayers.

The Council will continue to pursue its agenda for the regeneration both of this vital part of Wisbech and Fenland as a whole, building on the successes it has already achieved. Those successes include:

£1.5m contribution to the recently opened College of West Anglia Engineering block

£400,000 contribution to the recently completed Thomas Clarkson performance space

Successful design competition for the Coalwharf Road project

Contribution to help facilitate the delivery of Centenary Gardens

Enabling the delivery of Cromwell Park Tesco store and Cinema complex

Introduction of a Wisbech loyalty card

Serving of Section 215 notice on Constantine House to help force owner to remediate

All of this demonstrates how the District Council not only supports the important elements of the Wisbech 2020 Vision but is prepared to facilitate, enable and deliver relevant regeneration projects.

In conclusion, the Council has driven forward the shared ambitions for Wisbech. As with any major project, problems arise, but these have either been resolved or alternative routes have emerged. The key point is that regeneration delivery continues for the benefit of the local community. Fenland District Council will continue to shape the regeneration of the District in the best way it can in order to realise economic growth and regeneration.

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