Council only acting with the law when they tell Cambridge college they won’t have to cough up an extra £35,000 for NHS for Estover homes plan

Estover playing field

Estover playing field - Credit: Archant

A bid by NHS England to secure £35,000 from one of Cambridge’s richest colleges as part of building 95 homes on land they own at Estover in March will have to come from monies already agreed.

Fenland Council revealed that a planning officer who told St John’s College that she has found a way to save them having to find the extra £35,000 was simply following the law.

“All planning applications which attract S106 contributions have a limit each scheme can contribute to the S106 pot depending on the financial viability of the particular development and unfortunately the ‘wealth’ of an applicant cannot be taken into account,” said a council spokesman.

“In relation to Estover, that limit has been set following a viability assessment and that is the total amount the scheme is able to provide.

“The allocation of S106 monies to different calls on the pot had been completed based on the consultation responses submitted on this application a little while ago.”

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The spokesman said: “ Just because the NHS have now come forward with a new call on the S106 pot doesn’t mean the total pot gets any bigger; it just means the total pot has to be shared out amongst the various different calls upon it.”

The spokesman said that planning officers have no discretion to increase the total pot.

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“Officers have consequently had to revisit the way in which the pot can be divided between the various calls upon it,” said the spokesman.

“They decided that, on balance, the NHS requirement should take priority over some of those other calls. “Ultimately, however, members of the planning committee will decide how the pot should be distributed based on the different calls upon it, should planning permission be granted.”

The statement follows the assurance by Alison Callaby, senior development officer at Fenland District Council, in an email sent to the college’s agents following the 11th hour decision in February to defer a decision on the controversial plans.

The planning officer said that “we consider that the NHS contribution can be met through diverting monies from the Nature Reserve and library contribution.” These sums, together with the expenditure, were agreed as part of a S106 (community benefit) agreement.

The request for £35,000 followed a campaign by this newspaper after we questioned an earlier response by the NHS that March did not require extra cash for its GP surgeries as they had capacity to take on extra patients.

But, as we pointed out, that was in 2015 when the application was submitted and following our campaign Sophie Emerson of NHS England updated their requirements by stating that situation “is now different” hence the request for £34,546 for Mercheford House.

Ms Emerson said the money would be used “by way of refurbishment, extension or potential relocation, for the benefit of the patients at Mercheford House, a proportion of the cost of which would need to be met by the developer”.

Officer support for the scheme surprised many particularly after the council accepted a viability assessment removing the need for affordable housing to be included.

Councillor Mike Cornwell, a ward councillor and the portfolio holder for health and well being, described non-delivery of the requirements for affordable homes as “a direct affront to our policy”. The college’s agents said the scheme was not viable if they had to provide 25 per cent of the homes as ‘affordable’.

He said: “The application is inadequate and must be re-assessed in more detail before it goes further. “

Ms Callaby’s latest letter offers only a modicum of hope for St John’s who has been told that because of the long delays in getting it before the planning committee, numerous fresh studies are needed.

Transport assessments undertaken in 2014 must be done again, she said, accident date analysed, and Network Rail re-consulted.

“It is noted that a key thrust of the objections raised in respect of transport issues related to the growth in rail freight and the resultant level crossing down time,” she said.

March Town Council believes proposed increases to both passenger and rail freight traffic will increase the times the level crossings are closed and create further congestion.

Town clerk Clive Lemmon also wants to know why the application is even being considered when it goes against the neighbourhood plan.

And he says the town council believes insufficient attention has been paid to flood risk and drainage.

“At this point in time it appears the current infrastructure cannot cope,” he said.

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