Consideration was given to the report of the Executive Director that gave an update on the current position of the proposed residential development at Blackfriars.
Past attempts to develop Blackfriars had been unsuccessful, principally due to many constraints including complex ground conditions, land assembly and the need for costly road infrastructure. In February 2018, the Council had provisionally been awarded grant funding of £3.24m by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government part of Housing Infrastructure Fund to finance the construction of the road infrastructure necessary to develop this site. Whilst working through the design process it became clear that the viability gap on this site had increased and officers successfully re-negotiated a revised offer of grant funding to £8.7m for the delivery and construction of the road infrastructure. It was noted that the funding was specifically for the road infrastructure and could not be used for any other purpose.
Members were keen to ensure that the development at Blackfriars provided the opportunity to improve access to Battle Station from the east side of the track. This would not only improve access for the ambulant disabled who had to currently travel to Hastings and return to be able to exit the station, but may also reduce unnecessary car journeys from one side to the other. Local Members had previously met with the rail companies who were amenable to improving access if available. Officers agreed to ensure that access to Battle Station from the Blackfriars site was included at the relevant planning stages; it was noted that in order not to jeopardize the HIF, development work needed to begin on site in 2021 at the latest.
Part of the land needed to complete the road infrastructure was in private ownership and following previous Cabinet approval the Council had entered into negotiations to acquire the necessary land; however agreement had not yet been reached on all parcels of land. The HIF allocation was subject to conditions, including time constraints and if agreement for the land deal could not be reached quickly, there was a risk that the HIF allocation could be lost.
Furthermore, under the conditions of the grant funding agreement, the Council was required to use all available powers to acquire the land including Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPO) should negotiations fail. Specialist legal services would be necessary to pursue a CPO and a full detailed report would be made on receipt of this advice. The rationale for procuring this advice and proceeding with this route was detailed in the report.
Whilst initially it had been considered that a Joint Venture (JV) in partnership with a Registered Provider (RP) was the preferred way forward to deliver such a scheme, following advice, the establishment of a JV partnership would require extensive legal and financial advice to ensure that the JV’s structure was appropriate and legitimate. It had become apparent through early negotiations with RP partners that it may be difficult to reach agreement for a number of reasons including RPs becoming increasingly more commercially driven against the Council’s public sector ethos which included environmental standards and meeting local need. Further external advice and research would continue into the structure and governance of JV partnerships which may add time onto the development program, potentially delaying the meeting of key milestones.
In addition, since this initial authorisation a subsequent report approved the creation of a Council owned Local Housing Company to implement a Housing Development Program. As part of this process, the Council would need to ensure that enough experienced resource was brought into the organisation to deliver on this ambitious programme. In light of this, it was considered that the Council kept other delivery vehicle options open to deliver the Blackfriars site as an alternative to the JV model.
Should it be necessary for the Council to progress CPO to acquire the land a resolution from full Council would be required and the Council would need to instruct specialist legal and valuation services to advise upon the necessary steps; a further report would be submitted to Cabinet if negotiations could not be concluded in January 2020.
It was noted that in order to maintain momentum, and in line with Homes England milestones, the Council must procure architects to work up a Reserved Matters Planning application and contractors must be procured to begin work on the road construction which recently received a resolution to grant Planning Permission.
RESOLVED: That the Executive Director, in consultation with the Cabinet Portfolio Holder Housing, Welfare and Equalities, be granted delegated authority to:
1) accept the increased offer of grant funding from Homes England;
2) acquire land in third party ownership to allow for a whole-site development;
3) begin the Compulsory Purchase Order process for land at Blackfriars should it be necessary, subject to a full report to follow; and
4) finalise the delivery vehicle, that may include the Council’s housing delivery company, through which the site will be developed.
(When it first became apparent Councillor Vine-Hall declared a personal interest in this matter as he owned a property in the vicinity and in accordance with the Members’ Code of Conduct remained in the room during the consideration thereof).