08:19 Wednesday 19th March 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
[P]AUL STAINTON: The sale of Wisbech Magistrates Court to a private developer has been severely criticised by the town’s MP. It’s been sold for just £150,000, less than you’d pay for an average house. Earlier this year Fenland District Council decided not to buy the site, which is on the Nene waterfront, and could be part of the town’s regeneration. Now Steve Barclay the MP has written a lengthy statement on his website calling for the Council to explain to the town’s residents why they decided not to proceed . Well the Leader of the Council, Alan Melton, joins me now. Morning Alan.
ALAN MELTON: Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: Go on then. Explain.
ALAN MELTON: Well it’s quite simply this. The Council took a decision not to proceed with the proposed sale, because we felt that there was too much risk at stake, using the Council taxpayers’ money and assets. And quite frankly I’m quite pleased that somebody for the local development from the private sector has now purchased the building, and we can proceed to work in partnership with that developer at some stage to bring that building, all the site, back into fruitful use.
PAUL STAINTON: Not much of a risk though, was it? A hundred and fifty grand. You could have got so much out of that it could have been a flagship on the redevelopment there, couldn’t it?
ALAN MELTON: Sorry. Get the facts right. First of all ..
PAUL STAINTON: That’s what it went for.
ALAN MELTON: No no no no. We ..
PAUL STAINTON: Yes, yes, yes.
ALAN MELTON: No, no, no. Listen. This goes back.
PAUL STAINTON: What it was sold for.
ALAN MELTON: Let’s get the facts right please. First of all, we offered £100,000 to purchase the building. OK? And we set aside another further £250,000 to enable the Police to move, either to another site, or in conjunction with the Fire Service or whoever. OK? And we also set aside a further £350,000 for further additional purchases around that particular area. So the risk we were putting to the Council taxpayer was somewhere up to £700,000.
PAUL STAINTON: Did the Police tell you they wouldn’t move out?
ALAN MELTON: No. The Police have never told us they wouldn’t move out. I wrote to Sir Graham Bright on 9th January and asked them what their proposals would be. He wrote back to me on 20th January saying that they were undertaking a review, and their review wouldn’t be available until at least April 2014, which is fair enough. We went back to the Ministry of Justice and asked them if they would hold off until after 2014, so that we could make sure that we got the right deal in place with the Police and others. The Ministry of Justice blatantly refused. And in fairness to them, we had asked them before on three occasions for extensions of time, and they had granted it. But in this instance they were no longer prepared to grant us an extra time.
PAUL STAINTON: It seems you’ve missed a trick though, haven’t you?
ALAN MELTON: No.
PAUL STAINTON: You must have known the Police would move out.
ALAN MELTON: Eventually. But the fact of the matter is .. let’s get real about it.
PAUL STAINTON: So you’ve missed a trick.
ALAN MELTON: No we haven’t. Because I actually believe, and I’ve always believed, my philosophy is that where the private sector can be involved we should use the private sector. And you know we’ve always sold part of .. or were in negotiations to sell part of the Nene development site to a local developer. We’re talking about the second part of the site to be sold to a local developer. Now a local developer has got this particular site. You know, isn’t it good that we’re actually using private sector finance? The private sector are actually taking all the risk. And the District Council itself can use its resources to actually spend somewhere else in the district, where its probably needed more .. most.
PAUL STAINTON: But this is the flagship, isn’t it, the Nene waterfront, the most important regeneration site in the constituency. And you’re not in control.
ALAN MELTON: Of course we’re in control .. we’ve got control over it. We are the planning authority. And we will have the final say on the design and what’s built on that site. So yes we are .. have got some control over it. You know it’s not a question of a developer coming along and just putting on there what exactly what they want. We are the planning authority. My view is that we should work in partnership with the private sector. We should bring this site which is in a strategic position as you quite rightly say, a prominent position in Wisbech, and that site should be redeveloped to actually make something substantial for the people of Wisbech and indeed the people of Fenland.
PAUL STAINTON: What are the developers going to do?
ALAN MELTON: .. cost to the Council taxpayer. That’s the key. Minimum cost to the Council taxpayer.
PAUL STAINTON: What are the developers going to do then? What have you told them you’d like to see?
ALAN MELTON: The developers will be putting their proposals forward to us shortly. And of course as I said as planning authority we shall have a significant say in what develops on that site.
PAUL STAINTON: What’s your idea though? What would you like them to build?
ALAN MELTON: Well there is already talk of a mixture of social housing, private housing, flats sort of development. Possibly a hotel. We’ve always talked about chandleries and restaurants along there. We will see what proposals come forward. But I’m going to emphasise the point time and time again. Steve Barclay should recognise this. It is the Council who are not taking the risk. The risk is being taken by the private sector, as it should be. As a Conservative, that’s what I believe in, and that’s the way I believe we should proceed.
PAUL STAINTON: Will you meet Steve Barclay, or have you fallen out?
ALAN MELTON: Pardon?
PAUL STAINTON: Will you meet Steve Barclay to talk about all of his concerns, or have you had a bit of a falling out?
ALAN MELTON: No I haven’t fallen out with Steve Barclay. I’m just outlining the facts. He has his opinion. I have my opinion. I would have thought as fellow Conservatives together we would believe in the private sector taking the risk, rather than the public sector.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes, but the problem is, as Steve says, as you’ve said this morning, you don’t really know what you want there. You can sort of control it through planning, but you can’t make them build something, can you? They’re private individuals. They’re not going to build something they’re not going to make money out of, are they?
ALAN MELTON: Course they’re not. That’s why we will work with them very very closely. What we want ..
PAUL STAINTON: So you’re not in control.
ALAN MELTON: What we want to see is the sustainable development there which will actually benefit the people of Wisbech, and above all the people of Fenland. And don’t forget the private sector is taking the risk. Also, whatever’s built on there, we get the benefit of the New Homes bonus if it’s homes. We get the benefit of the business rates if it’s businesses built on there. In my opinion it’s a win-win situation for the Fenland District Council.
PAUL STAINTON: Alan. Alan. You could have built your vision for the regeneration of that waterfront. You could have had your plans, your vision, your regeneration. You could have driven it forward with this centrepiece.
ALAN MELTON: Could you please explain to me then and others as well where Fenland District Council would get the money from to actually build a multi-million pound development on there by themselves. We haven’t got the money. Hasn’t anybody heard of the fact that the Government have restricted our money? This year we’re suffering a council tax freeze again, and we will do next year. That’s what it boils down to. Because the public sector has no money. And Fenland District council currently is a debt-free authority, and I and my colleagues are not prepared to run Fenland District Council into debt at this stage.
PAUL STAINTON: So Steve Barclay’s wrong.
ALAN MELTON: I’m not saying he’s wrong. He’s got his view, I’ve got my view. And I would have thought as Conservatives we’d both agree that the private sector is better taking the risk than using public resources. After all, Steve Barclay is a key member of the Public Accounts Committee, a very effective member, and I’m sure that if I was in front of his committee, having to answer for the way that I was spending public money, he would cross examine me quite ferociously to understand why we were spending public money and not using the private sector.
PAUL STAINTON: Are you confident the regeneration of the waterfront there will be what you want it to be?
ALAN MELTON: I’m sure that with our discussions with the developers that are involved, I am sure that we shall have a bespoke development which will suit both Wisbech and Fenland, and a return to the Council taxpayer, and the overall benefit to the people of Wisbech and tidy up a key site in Wisbech.
PAUL STAINTON: Alan Melton responding to what MP Stephen Barclay had to say about the sale of the Wisbech Magistrates Court to a private developer. Severely criticised by the town’s MP, claiming that the Council have missed a trick. Alan saying no, no, not really, not at all. Steve’s got it wrong, and we’ve got best value for money, a private developer taking that on board, and they couldn’t have afforded to do it anyway.