DESPITE an impassioned plea from a ward councillor and the leader of the town’s community forum, the green light has been given for the sell-off of land in Stanford-le-Hope for a new flats and shop scheme.
At Tuesday’s meeting of Thurrock Council’s Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee the last hurdle for the multi-million pound scheme for 22 new flats, a supermarket and a new two deck public car park was cleared.
The Council’s Cabinet had already sanctioned the sell-off of part of the site to developers for £350,000 and its planning committee had approved the overall scheme, which will be built in the town centre on the King Street car park and an adjacent derelict plot.
However, local councillor Shane Hebb successfully called in the sell-off for further consideration by the scrutiny committee, when he revealed the Council had received other bids for the site.
On Tuesday evening he told the committee: “The King Street site is right in the heart of Stanford; a prime regeneration site – a decision will leave either a legacy to be proud of, or one to frown on. I recognise that there are good intentions behind this proposed sale; however, I have felt the need to call it in.
“Stanford residents and the community forum are working hard on a neighbourhood plan, and a key part of that plan will be ideas for this site. To sell it now undermines this process.
“As a Council, we want to encourage residents to engage in shaping their communities – what message does it send to the people of Thurrock to sell this site so prematurely?
“Secondly, I do not feel this sale as proposed represents best value for Thurrock. Financially, £350,000 is a derisory sum for a site that has panning permission for 22 flats. £350,000 is the value of a family home in Stanford; not a large block of flats. I am aware of the importance of the non-financial value to be achieved through the sale, namely the potential regeneration through the implementation of the agreed planning permission for flats and a supermarket.
“Whilst these plans meet all the necessary standards for planning permission, in my opinion it is not an adequate plan for our town. It should not be assumed that just because the first idea to come forward was acceptable in strict planning terms, that it is automatically the right thing to do for Stanford. The Council controls the land and can view things differently.
“We are told, of course, that this plan is the only plan. Indeed the Cabinet report states ‘no approaches have been received from other developers wishing to develop the site.’
“I have today received emails from a different developer who is interested in the site. A developer who has been in contact with officers who was prepared to pay £350,000 or perhaps more for this site, and who has been overlooked.
“This new developer may have better plans for the area, and may be prepared to pay a higher sum to implement them. Selling the site to them may achieve better value overall than a rushed sale now. In truth, we don’t really know, because we haven’t even looked at it. The fact is this committee cannot have confidence that the proposed sale represents best value.”
Cllr Hebb was supported by Terry Piccolo, chair of the Stanford Forum, who questioned the scheme’s validity and saw it as damaging the town, saying it would not increase local trade.
“You are not going to stop people leaving the town to shop, that just doesn’t hold water,” said Mr Piccolo who compared the size of the proposed new store to others in the region.
He said local residents were not opposed to town centre development, but they wanted “something meaningful.” He also detailed progress on the neighbourhood being drawn up in conjunction with residents, but conceded it would not be ready for up to two years.
Cllr Hebb concluded by saying: “If at the end of the process it is clear flats and a supermarket is the right option for Stanford, I would be willing to support it. Right now, today, we cannot be sure this is the right offer, and I urge you to refer this decision to the full council for a decision.
“We only get one opportunity to sell King Street car park. Let’s make sure we get the best result, not just an acceptable one.”
After a lengthy period of questions to officers and representatives of the developers, councillors debated the issue, with Cllr Phil Anderson saying: “We have never offered this site on the open market and never invited any offers.
“In crude terms we are saying the developers will make £1.6m profit while the Council that owns the land will make £350,000. Is that a fair split?
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity and in straight stewardship of funds we can’t show we have got best value.
“I think we ought to look at it again.”
Committee chairman Cllr Richard Speight summed up, detailing the process that had been gone through and saying that he was concerned that the Council would be taking a big risk if they delayed.
He established with estates officer Ian Rydings that proposals to purchase and develop the site had been received as far back as 1996 but none had come to fruition until the current proposal.
He said: “Is the threat to Stanford’s regeneration too big a risk to take. I’m on the side of getting things moving, the time to regenerate is now, not in five years time because of other developments such as London Gateway. This is a most crucial time for Stanford.”
In the end councillors voted 4-2 in favour of rejecting Cllr Hebb’s call-in and his motion to delay sale for up to six months, with Cllrs Wendy Curtis, Terry Hipsey and Martin Healy joining Cllr Speight and Cllrs Anderson and Charlie Key supporting Cllr Hebb.
Cllr Key had summed up his dilemma by saying: “I’m not saying this is the best value for the site, I’m not saying it isn’t , I’m just not sure we have had the best information.”