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Suffolk Coastal’s HQ deal faced with ‘disturbing’ delays and calls for a restart

PUBLISHED: 11:03 19 March 2018

Suffolk Coastal District Council's former headquarters at Melton Hill, Woodbridge. Picture: SIMON PARKER

Suffolk Coastal District Council's former headquarters at Melton Hill, Woodbridge. Picture: SIMON PARKER

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A company seeking to redevelop a Suffolk council’s former headquarters as housing claims the delayed project is set for approval in the coming weeks - despite calls for the deal to be started afresh.

An impression of what the front of the Melton Hill housing development could look like. Picture: HOOPERS ARCHITECTS/AUPGAn impression of what the front of the Melton Hill housing development could look like. Picture: HOOPERS ARCHITECTS/AUPG

Active Urban Property Group (AUPG) wants to build 100 homes at Suffolk Coastal District Council’s (SCDC) former Melton Hill offices in Woodbridge, sparking residents opposition.

The Ipswich firm won the council contract to redevelop the site in 2016 and its application for the homes was given provisional approval by SCDC’s planning committee in October 2017.

But it needed to satisfy conditions - including affordable housing – before councillors would grant full planning permission.

Since then, nothing has come before the planning committee and critics said the project had stalled, leaving the future of an important site in doubt.

Councillor Geoff Holdcroft in front of the new Suffolk Coastal District Council building, Riduna Park. Picture: RUTH LEACHCouncillor Geoff Holdcroft in front of the new Suffolk Coastal District Council building, Riduna Park. Picture: RUTH LEACH

It is understood a complaint has also been lodged with the Local Government Ombudsman, calling for SCDC to reconsider the application and hold a fresh public consultation.

Jim Bidwell, one of Melton’s district councillors, said the current situation was “very disturbing”. “The council would seem to have boxed itself into a corner by embracing this and there could be an extraordinary loss of face,” he added. “The process has become moribund and I feel the whole thing 
should be re-examined and started again.”

Suffolk Coastal’s deputy leader Geoff Holdcroft, who was involved in the deal, said he could understand people’s “frustration” but added “it is essential we make sure we get this right and that the developer has fully fulfilled the committee’s requirements”.

The proposals had already generated hundreds of objections, many criticising the design of the buildings, which have been described as “cheese wedges”. Public scrutiny has been heightened due to the site’s prominent location and its role in SCDC’s accommodation plan.

The plan, which saw the council move to new £3.9million headquarters in Riduna Park, Melton, in 2016, is hoped to save the taxpayer £8m over 20 years through cheaper running costs.

Although SCDC insists it is still on course to make the savings, the council cannot finalise the sale of Melton Hill until planning permission is granted.

It is understood affordable housing is the main issue to be resolved. AUPG had entered a partnership with Flagship Homes, one of Suffolk’s largest providers of social housing, but the agreement was dissolved in August 2017.

Councillors familiar with the deal claim Flagship’s involvement influenced SCDC’s choice of developer, due to its reputation and financial position. They say Flagship’s withdrawal as a partner in the scheme should have led SCDC to question how AUPG could deliver the project alone.

David Hughes, a director with AUPG, said the partnership’s dissolution was due to a “change in personnel” at Flagship and he expected the planning application to go before the planning committee on April 19.

He insisted the affordable housing would be delivered and said its plans were submitted to the council’s planning department “before Christmas”.

Flagship Homes managing director Tony Tann has not commented on the partnership ending but said Flagship was still involved and “would be pleased to procure the affordable homes”.

He said Flagship was awaiting a response from AUPG regarding its offer.

Much of the criticism of AUPG’s proposals has focused on the difference between its designs and those in a masterplan, released in April 2016.

While the first plans were for 68 homes, retaining two older buildings and the Drummer Boy statue, AUPG’s revisions released last June were for 100 homes and to remove the older buildings.

People at a consultation event last year expressed “shock” at the “radically different” plans, which were “completely unsympathetic” to the surroundings.

Michael Bond, who represents Rendlesham at SCDC, but lives in Melton, said that if AUPG could not provide an adequate plan for affordable housing, the council would be prepared to start the tender process again.

“The council’s view is that there’s an asset, which belongs to the council, and, even if the whole deal falls through, the asset would still belong to the council and would remain valuable,” he added.

“Nothing would be lost except time - the council could retain a number of options, one of which would be a return to the market.”

‘A stunning, landmark development’

Active Urban Property Group said it had been working with planners to conclude all outstanding matters and receive approval.

AUPG’s David Hughes added: “The design changes made we believe successfully meet the committee’s requirements for additional car parking and the amends to overlooking and landscaping have been confirmed as satisfactory by the planning officers.

“The scheme of affordable housing has been reviewed to offer a variety of tenures and we are close to agreeing terms with a local provider. We fully appreciate the design style of the properties has come under some local criticism, which is not uncommon for applications, however we remain confident the properties will prove to be exceptional in appearance and quality. We are committed to developing the very best of each site’s natural attributes as with the Melton Hill site with its stunning river views demonstrates.

“The site has everything to make a stunning, landmark development.”

‘Application is still live’

Suffolk Coastal’s deputy leader Geoff Holdcroft, who was involved in the sale of Melton Hill, said it was important to ensure the developer met the planning committee’s requirements.

“As far as we are concerned, this application is still live and going through the proper planning process,” he added.

“Once a date is available for the application to be considered by the planning committee, we will advertise the details in the usual manner.

“The site of Suffolk Coastal’s old headquarters in Melton Hill remains ‘sold, subject to contract’. We have received the required deposit in full.

“However, the sale of the premises will only be completed as and when planning permission is given. Although we are making the anticipated revenue savings from the move to East Suffolk House, through reduced running costs, we currently retain ownership of the site and remain responsible for the security of Melton Hill.”

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