GALLERY: The strife is o’er, the battle done- historic victory for March as county council caves in over Estover
- Credit: Archant
A momentous decision today by Cambridgeshire County Council will pave the way for a 99 year lease being offered to March to take control of all 18 acres of Estover playing field.
In one foul swoop the general purposes committee tore up plans for housing and tore up splitting the field with housing one side and sports pitches next door.
The widely predicted U-turn was even bigger and more dramatic than any of the supporters packed into a committee room at Shire Hall dared hope.
But supporters didn’t have it all their own way – Labour leader Paul Sales described the decision as “scandalous” and questioned the potential loss of revenue to the council.
The proposal to allow all of the land to be offered on a 99 year lease- at a peppercorn rent- was introduced by deputy council leader Mac Maguire.
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The Tory elder statesman said: “This is a valuable facility for the community.”
The motion was seconded by Councillor Steve Count, a former March town councillor (he quit last week ahead of today’s debate fearing conflicts of interest).
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He said: “Sport provision is not a primary duty of this council but public health is.
“Our agenda is to help our budgets in future years. Encouraging people to have active lifestyles, having a healthier population will help our future healthcare budgets.”
The motion was carried with 13 in favour, three against and one abstention.
Last summer Cllr Count unveiled a ‘homes for leisure’ plan at a public meeting to win support for up to 100 homes to be built at Estover in return for the county council awarding up to £500,000 for sports facilities on the remainder.
However this was opposed by many town councillors and community spokesmen and a later public meeting – chaired by Cambs Times editor John Elworthy-rejected any housing on Estover.
Today’s vote reflected that call – with UKIP county councillor Peter Reeve, who had spoken at the second public meeting, leading the charge to keep Estover homes free.
Cllr Reeve thanked March town councillors, local residents and the Cambs Times for making a successful stand.
“I’ve never in five years seen such a significant U turn of a council decision,” he said.
At the last meeting about Estover he was shocked at the sense of “agressively forcing through” a decision to get a windfall”.
He also apologised to the people of March for losing time in getting grant funding - if a long lease had been granted earlier they would have been able to access grant money years ago. “It is time we can never get back,” he said.
He then demanded a review into other pockets of land across the county which had short leases so were not able to benefit from applying for grant money.
Fenland District Council and March Town Council will now put £100,000 each into a budget which, coupled with potential funding from Sports England, will help start the ball rolling for improved sports facilities on the 18 acre field.
It is hoped that a multi sports base will be created to provide, football, tennis, basketball, netball, proper changing rooms and community facilities.
Estover Playing Field Association member Mick Jordan, who spoke at the meeting, said they had been running the field, which has three full size football pitches, for 16 years. It has been in public use in its current form for around 70 years.
Because they have only previously had short term leases they have been unable to access grant funding to update the sport facilities.
Fenland District councillor Mike Cornwell (Con), portfolio holder for health and well being, said: “A top quality sports and leisure facility is sadly lacking. We are updating the George Campbell in March but we are short of 48 acres of land that is needed for a town this size.
“Sport and exercise is well below national and county averages. Fenland is a deprived area in term of health and well being in terms of smoking, weight, low general involvement in activities. We need to develop Estover as a key sports facility to encourage people to live healthier lifestyles.”
Resident Mike Shermer, who spoke at the meeting, said: “My concern is the land being lost to the people. This field is fit for purpose. It is not fit for building as there is not the infrastructure to support it.”
Councillor Edward Cearns (Lib Dem) said: “We should not be going against the needs of the local community in order to achieve a need to increase revenue.”
Councillor Tony Orgee (Con) said: “If we built on Estover we would only be increasing the problem that March already has - which is of a lack of sporting facilities for the number of people in the town!
“Encouraging active lifestyle leads to healthy outcomes so in terms of saving money - providing sporting opportunities will be doing that for the future.”
Lib Dem leader Maurice Leeke said the victory belonged to the people of March and he was impressed at their passion.
“Selling a playing field was a chance to make a quick buck on the laxity of the Fenland District Local Plan,” he said.
Councillor Joan Whitehead (Lab) said she wanted to see a wider range of team sports at the site that were more inclusive.
Councillor Killian Bourke (Lib Dem) proposed an amendment calling for a proper costing exercise to be carried out to calculate the benefits of keeping a sports field versus building homes. His plea was thrown out by a majority of seven. Cllr Bourke abstained on the main motion.
Cllr Maguire dismissed the idea of a financial exercise: “you can’t do that - it’s a judgement call. You cant work out how much money trying to encourage people to be healthy will save the tax payer in the future. It’s a field.”
Councillor John Hipkin (Ind) said: “I have enormous respect for local opinion but this council is facing cuts of £150million. It is vital if services are under threat we need to seek to earn money. Housing has incredible local benefits; it brings employment and tax payers to the area. I’m not prepared to see off the possibility of earning considerable amounts of money in lieu of sports facilities.”
Cllr Sales said: “I have grave reservations about foregoing a large capital receipt.” After the meeting he said: “It is a scandalous decision. There‘s been no costing done in terms of loss of potential revenue.
“You cannot make a decision this big on the back of a fag packet. I shall be questioning the legality of this with the county’s legal team.”
Final approval is now expected from the Government for the transfer – most expect it will be a formality.