Cash row council denies making mind up about project before decision

A CGI image of the proposed Belle Vue Park entrance in Sudbury. Picture: BABERGH DISTRICT COUNCIL

A CGI image of the proposed Belle Vue Park entrance in Sudbury. - Credit: BABERGH DISTRICT COUNCIL

Council leaders are at the centre of a row over a Sudbury landmark project after it emerged a bid for Government housing cash for retirement homes had been lodged four months before a decision.

Opposition Green councillors at Babergh have accused a small band of decision-makers at the authority of having “already made their mind up” before the Belle Vue site was marketed or a cabinet decision had been made – a claim the administration denies.

Babergh District Council’s cabinet in March agreed a bid by Churchill Retirement Living to turn the old swimming pool site into 46 retirement flats, while Belle Vue House will become private housing. That was one of six bids brought forward.

But Freedom of Information documents revealed the authority had made a bid to the Government’s Land Release Fund requesting a grant of £550,000 back in November 2020.

That bid was for “unlocking delivery of 55 housing units through site levelling, remediation and reconfiguration", and specified that they were "retirement living units".

Green group leader Leigh Jamieson, said: “This seems to show that officers had already been in discussions with the developer Churchill and were looking to bring retirement flats on to the site before it was marketed and before the cabinet had decided to sell.

“It’s all part of a pattern that indicates that a small group on the council had already made their minds up about a sale to Churchill, despite the appearance of a public tender.”

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The council has stressed correct procedures were followed, and said Belle Vue House and part of the swimming pool site were openly marketed.

It was hoped the Government grant could help fund the work to the park entrance, which is being led by the council.

Michael Holt, Conservative cabinet member for economic development at the authority’s Conservative/Independent/Liberal Democrat administration, said: “No deals for Belle Vue were agreed in advance or outside the democratic process.

“Of course we are going to try to secure external funding wherever possible to reduce the cost for our taxpayers and it is not unusual for us to make bids speculatively – but this does not mean that minds had already been made up nor that we would somehow then be able to bypass the democratic decision-making process.

“Once it was announced that the hotel proposal would not go ahead, we were clear that we would be looking to sell part of the land for development, while creating an open and welcoming entrance for Belle Vue Park, with the addition of a new café, accessible toilet facilities and a better connection to the town centre to ensure the park could be enjoyed by the local community for generations to come.

“The process for marketing the site was open and the final decision was made by Babergh District Council.  After many of years of discussions, we are now looking forward to finally being able to deliver on these plans – and will continue to explore other external and match funding opportunities for the park in the meantime.”