Revealed: Inflated price agreed for council's former HQ which 'made affordable housing unviable'
PUBLISHED: 07:00 09 August 2019 | UPDATED: 06:46 11 August 2019
The redevelopment of a Suffolk council's former headquarters faces fresh controversy after documents emerged claiming its inflated price made the project "unviable".
Woodbridge residents have accused East Suffolk Council of jeopardising the future of its former Melton Hill offices by accepting an unrealistic offer for the site, which they claim has led to delays getting new housing delivered.
The criticism comes after a report lodged on ESC's planning website showed the developers, Active Urban Woodbridge Ltd (AUWL), paid £6m for the site - more than double the £2.45m value suggested as a "benchmark" by the council's own advisors.
ESC defended its actions, saying it was the council's duty to seek the best possible price for its land.
But opponents say the council should have known the inflated price would have sparked the problems over viability and affordable housing provision.
Michael Holland, who lives next to the site, said the council was in a "difficult position" having agreed a price "they must have known was far too high to deliver the affordable housing required".
"This will be at a permanent cost to the people of Woodbridge and Melton, and those badly in need of affordable housing for social rent," he claimed.
Suffolk Coastal District Council, as it was at the time, agreed the sale with AUWG in 2016 as part of its relocation to new offices which was supposed to save the taxpayer £8m over 20 years.
Councillor Geoff Holdcroft said after the deal was agreed that improvements in the property market had enabled a "higher value for the site than we had initially envisaged", which, together with the sale of other assets, would cover the cost of its new headquarters at Riduna Park.
But three years later the old offices have become a derelict eyesore, while AUWG's housing plans are yet to gain full approval - meaning the council has not received the agreed price.
The proposals have attracted significant opposition over its 'cheese wedge' design of the building and the number of homes, which some say is over-development.
Comedian Griff Rhys Jones said they put the town under "considerable threat".
MORE: Griff says 'cheese wedge' homes plan puts town 'under considerable threat'
One of the biggest problems has been affordable housing provision.
AUWG's initial application, for 100 homes including 32 affordable units, received provisional approval in 2017.
Almost a year later, however, the developer withdrew the application, having failed to find a social housing provider.
AUWG then submitted a revised application, which sought to halve the number of affordable homes by applying for Vacant Building Credit (VBC) - a scheme introduced nationally to promote brownfield development.
The council refused the application in November, saying it did not meet criteria for VBC.
AUWG is appealing the refusal but also submitted a further application last month.
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Although the latest application includes 32 affordable houses again - opponents believe that as only eight will be social rent, with 24 sold through a shared ownership scheme the affordable quota is still insufficient.
Woodbridge resident John Saggers said: "This all sounds a pretty long way from one might think of as 'affordable' for those people on the council waiting list who would like or need to live in Woodbridge but can't afford to."
Woodbridge mayor Eamonn O'Nolan said the lack of truly affordable housing was "particularly unacceptable" as the site was an asset owned by the community.
The Carter Jonas report, which was written last August but only recently published, sheds new light on the problems.
It summarises the council's position as being that the "lack of viability arises because [AUWG is] paying too much for the site". However, its author Colin Brown adds he finds the position "quite illogical".
He said that as both landowner and planning authority the council ought to decide which of its priorities was most important - "securing what is clearly now an unviable price for its for council offices, or delivering as many affordable units as possible."
He said he found it "slightly perplexing" that the council expected AUWG to take a hit when its own advisors acknowledge that at £6m the site cannot deliver enough affordable housing.
Caroline Page, who represents Woodbridge at Suffolk County Council, feels SCDC made a "curious choice" in seeking to monetise a publicly owned site for such a small short-term gain.
"A real case of pawning the family silver to pay for the housekeeping, instead of investing it in long-term benefits for the people who owned it - us," she added.
AUWG previously recognised there had been design concerns but added: "We are confident that this will be a fitting design for the site and will be a highly attractive development."
Council expects to be paid agreed price
East Suffolk Council said its "duty" was to seek the best possible price - and so awarded the contract for the Melton Hill site to the highest bidder.
The council said its sale details were "entirely clear" in that the buyer must comply with planning policies, including providing a third affordable housing.
"The contract price remains the same and the council expects to be paid this price, and for the contract to be honoured," a spokesman added.
"It is entirely reasonable that the developer provides the affordable houses as expected, given the price agreed took this policy requirement into account."
ESC said it would soon announced the date of the planning meeting at which the application will be discussed. The meeting will include a full report, setting out details of the proposals and consultee responses.
The report will also include an assessment of the application, including the deliverability of the affordable housing.