Mayor Palmer says MoD housing project in Ely 'back on track' as Lib Dems say it was 'responsibility' to press for higher volume of affordable housing
PUBLISHED: 17:45 29 June 2019 | UPDATED: 23:20 29 June 2019
Mayor James Palmer told members of the board of the Combined Authority: "The MoD housing project in Ely is back on track following attempts to use the scheme for political gain."
Speaking at the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CAPCA) board meeting the mayor was referring to 92 homes currently sitting abandoned at former MoD property on the outskirts of Ely.
The problems arose when the Lib Dems at East Cambridgeshire District Council (ECDC) proposed the majority of these - as many as 50 per cent of them - should be allocated to affordable housing.
While it was acknowledged that Ely, like all areas, requires affordable housing, the quoted figure of £54,438 per unit put forward by Leader of the Lib Dems Lorna Dupre was unworkable according to Mayor Palmer and Cllr Anna Bailey, leader of the Conservatives at ECDC.
The Combined Authority has a central government grant of £100 million expressly for providing 2,000 or more affordable homes throughout the region.
At an extraordinary meeting of ECDC last week, it was proposed the 92 homes be purchased by the Combined Authority using this fund and that 15 of these would be allocated as affordable homes, while an additional 62 new homes be built on the site in the future, 30 per cent of which would be allocated as affordable.
Speaking to board members, Mayor Palmer said: "We simply cannot afford to have quality housing sitting empty anywhere in Cambridgeshire, and these former homes for American servicemen and women are ideal candidates for purchase and to be upgraded into exactly the kind of properties that people can afford to invest in.
"The problem was that the figures put forward by the Lib Dems were simply unworkable as they well knew, and so what we have come up with is compromise that will ensure that we get this site from the MOD who quite frankly couldn't care who they sold it to or what developers were moving in.
"The reality is that these houses have sat there unused for many years, and it has been very difficult in the past to get the MOD to engage.
"Complication arose because of the site being let to the US Air Force, and while the area has been maintained wherever you have empty houses you have the possibility for vandalism.
"Nothing is more frustrating to people looking to buy affordable houses when there are houses just sitting there that could be used, but are left empty.
"So as you can imagine, I was delighted that the Combined Authority were asked to assist in the sale of this property and to acquire these 92 existing homes, with the prospect for more new ones to be built.
"The problem is that you have to be very careful with the amount of money that you are investing to ensure that you get the best possible return on what is after all public money.
"And so we calculated an investment figure of around £35,000 per property allowing it to then be brought back up to current acceptable specifications.
"The problem was that others want unrealistic amounts of money to be invested in achieving larger numbers of affordable houses in an area where the average home is in excess of half a million pounds, and these figures were simply not financially sound.
"If this authority invests public money, we have to get the best deal on every pound we spend, and ploughing vast sums to achieve large numbers of affordable homes simply wouldn't have worked.
"So, I'm delighted that the proposal has been withdrawn and that we can now go forward with the plans to purchase these properties and the land with them so that we can achieve sensible numbers of affordable houses at a price that people will actually be able to purchase."
Cambridge City Council leader Lewis Herbert added: "I'm pleased like everybody else on this board that this matter has been resolved and in a way in which ECDC will still make some money from the project as well providing much needed affordable housing in the area.
"I certainly don't decry ECDC for their original proposal trying for 50 per cent affordable housing on this scheme - it is our objective to deliver affordable housing.
"This site is, after all, land with houses on it that have stood empty for many years now, and simply crying out to be renovated and used.
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"But whether this project should be considered a 'priority', well there I have to disagree with the mayor. I just don't see this project his way.
"People will accuse me of 'politics' but I actually think this is one of those projects where we should use our reserves to bring the scheme to fruition, rather than dip into our primary central government funding meant for revolving housing growth.
"It didn't help that when this proposal was originally put forward a 'confidential' notice was slapped down on every document, meaning that absolutely no community input was forthcoming to ECDC when they formulated their proposal."
Mayor Palmer replied: "The original motion has now been rescinded as you know; but it called for the authority to spend something in the region of £500k per affordable unit to deliver 50 per cent of the properties on the site in that way, and that simply was never going to be viable.
"The project is back on track, and we shall be working with the MoD to turn the site around as quickly as possible."
Cllr Lorna Dupre, leader of the Lib Dems on ECDC, told the Ely Standard: "There is an urgent need for more affordable housing in East Cambridgeshire, and particularly housing for rent.
"The need identified by the council is for 130 additional affordable homes each year in the district. The last time this figure was even remotely reached was 12 years ago.
"As the MoD homes in Ely are already in existence, with no need for planning permission, our view was that some of them could be turned round quickly to help meet this need.
"We felt it was our responsibility to seek more affordable housing on the site than the frankly unambitious 17 per cent (just 15 homes out of 92) proposed by the Conservative administration—and in particular to include some homes for rent."
She said Lib Dems - who won their original motion when some Tories failed to attend a council meeting - included 35 per cent (32 units) of affordable housing representing 22 per cent (7 units) as affordable rent and 78 per cent (25) as affordable shared ownership.
It would have been the East Cambs Trading Company - 100 per cent owned by the council - would need to forgo its total projected profit to subsidise the scheme.
Instead they want the Combined Authority to give a grant of £54,438 per unit.
Cllr Dupre said their figures were validated by council officers, and were deliverable provided the council's trading company agreed to forgo its expected £0.5 million profit, and the Combined Authority agreed the grant.
"The grant is not the highest awarded by the Combined Authority, so was completely realistic," she said.
"The Combined Authority has a central government grant of £100 million expressly for providing 2000 affordable houses.
"The figure of over £100,000 per property quoted at length both by Mayor Palmer and Cllr Bailey was not proposed by our group, and it is entirely wrong for a publicly-funded council press release to pretend that it was."
Cllr Dupre added; "It has become increasingly clear that this scheme is about generating a profit for the Combined Authority and for the district council, rather than about meeting the need for affordable homes.
"Indeed, Cllr Bailey had to declare her interest as a director of the trading company, and was not permitted to attend the debate or vote on the proposal for additional affordable homes."
She added: "Finally, it should be noted that shareholder committee meetings in March and April this year to scrutinise the East Cambridgeshire Trading Company and approve its business plan were postponed and then cancelled.
"This leaves a deeply worrying gap in the scrutiny of the company by the council. "Questions are also being asked about the solvency of the council's trading company."