Agenda item

Property Acquisition - Riversdale, Thetford (Agenda item 18)

Report of Councillor Paul Hewett, Executive Member for Property & Projects.


Councillor Mark Robinson, the Executive Member for Customer, Digital & Performance declared and interest in this item due to him being a trustee of the property.  Councillor Robinson refused to comment or vote on this item.


Councillor Paul Hewett, the Executive Member for Property & Projects presented the report.


Ralph Burton, the Assistant Director for Property & Projects was in attendance to answer any specific questions about this property transaction.


This report had been brought to Full Council for approval as under the financial procedure rules, in order for it to be a delegated decision, the relevant budget needed to be approved. However, in this instance there was not a budget in place for this project until February/March 2022.


This was an opportunity that the Team had been exploring in great detail and would transform this particular part of Thetford. This was not a decision that had to be made in statute, but this project had significant potential and under the Council’s ‘thriving places’ objective, Councillor Hewett believed that it would enhance the local area, increase visits and public engagement and would ultimately have a positive impact for Thetford as a whole.


The report highlighted the opportunity for the Council to acquire a strategic significant building on the river frontage in Thetford.  Keystone Development Trust were seeking to dispose of the property and the Council owned land either side and therefore, with the property coming up for purchase, this felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity to resemble all of the land to support any future opportunity to regenerate this part of Thetford. The river frontage was a prominent feature in the town centre and was a strategic important property that would enable the Council to make a step change in the transformation of Thetford town centre.


This was not a purchase with a commercial ambition.  This was a purchase with a regenerative ambition which might involve the removal of the current building at some point in the future but for the short-term the Council would be leasing the building back to Keystone Development Trust to continue keystones purposes within it.


The question Councillor Hewett was asking Members to support was to agree and authorise Option 1 of the report.


The recommendation was proposed and seconded.


Councillor James thanked both the Executive Member and the Assistant Director for Property & Infrastructure for being incredibly supportive towards her as a Ward Member on this particular issue.  This was a really exciting opportunity for Thetford, and this was a fantastic opportunity and prospect for the regeneration of Thetford.  Currently, the town had considerable investment happening and people wanted to be in the river area and this purchase would support that continued development and enhancement of what she called the jewel in Thetford’s crown and urged the Council to continue its bold and innovative approach to deliver for its residents and support the purchase of this property. 


Councillor Brindle, also a Ward Member for Thetford, agreed with most of what Councillor James had said, the river area was certainly the jewel in Thetford’s crown, and was delighted that the town had the huge benefit of two rivers to enjoy. Firstly, however, he asked for reassurance that in any future development, the public footpath located between the building and the river would be retained for people to enjoy, and secondly, after noticing some reference in the proposal about parking, he was not concerned about losing a few spaces located around the existing building but if any future development did take place on the site, extra parking spaces would need to be created. He asked for reassurance that any new building, whoever built it, would have adequate parking facilities included because, at the moment, and as the Council was the parking authority in Breckland, Thetford was becoming very short of parking spaces.


The Assistant Director for Property & Projects assured Councillor Brindle that his comments would be taken into consideration, but the aim of the Council was not to take anything away from the area that the public currently enjoyed and any future schemes for this space would have to take into account Planning Policy to ensure adequate parking was available and the footpath was retained, as well as waiting for whatever that future use looked like.


Councillor Hewett echoed the above comments and assured Members that there were no current development plans in place for this site as that would form part of what this investment would regenerate.  He was aware that Thetford Town Council was currently doing a strategic review of their own car parking spaces and he hoped that Breckland Council would be involved and be engaged in every step of that process to ensure that, as Councillor Brindle rightly stated, that car parking provision, not just for this area but for the whole of Thetford town centre was right and appropriate, for what was one of Breckland’s busiest and successful market towns.


From what he had heard, Councillor Brindle felt that the above comments fell short of assurance by stating that these issues would be taken into consideration rather than providing confirmation that these measures would be put in place and repeated his concerns. Thetford Town Council was not a parking authority and it had, at the moment, a small site in the form of Thetford market square that allowed parking for 19 vehicles which was a trivial contribution towards the current total, with the current total of parking spaces in Thetford being at a minimum.  


Councillor Atterwill whilst he could see the benefit of this proposal, had some concerns about the strategy and asked Councillor Hewett a question about capital budget and where the money was coming from for this project. As Members were well aware, they had yet to agree the forthcoming budget and there was a reliance in the capital budget for the sale of a considerable asset, that was earmarked in the budget to happen in the forthcoming financial year.  No-one knew where the Council was with that until April and there was a chance that this particular sale might not go through but if it did come to fruition, his concern was that the Council might end up in the position of possibly borrowing for future capital projects. 


Another concern that he raised was that if the Council did purchase this building, planning permission would have to be sought, and then possibly sell it on to a potential developer.  He was disappointed that this was not a Breckland Bridge project.  He felt it would provide him with more reassurance if Breckland was going to carry out all this work and develop the site itself and therefore have total control of what was planned for the site.


On a final point, Councillor Atterwill was aware that Breckland was looking to lease back this building to Keystone Development Trust but referring to the report, there were currently no tenants, and the building was in a state of disrepair.  He asked if Breckland was going to realistically realise any revenue income for rent whilst all this work was taking place or was this building going to remain empty - he was reluctant to support the recommendation on this basis.   


Referring to the capital budget concern, Councillor Hewett explained that these were not linked transactions, the acquisition of this asset was not linked in any way to the disposal neither was it reliant on the sale of another asset whatever that asset might be.  The Finance Team could explain in some detail and the capital budget funding was from existing resources. 


In terms of Councillor Atterwill’s other questions, the Assistant Director for Property & Projects advised that in regard of controlling any future development, if it was the direction that the Council decided to take, which was the intended strategy, the control that the Council would have would be through the sale contract; therefore, there would be an element of control, to determine what any future development.  The question in respect of Breckland Bridge, this could potentially happen but would be reliant on funding available at the time, hence the strategy to dispose of the building with a planning permission, for another to take the investment on and deliver the scheme.


Councillor Atterwill was grateful for the responses, but he explained the reason behind him wanting it to be a Breckland Bridge project. He had recently attended a Housing Briefing, which he thought was excellent, and had found that there were currently 110 people on the emergency housing register, and a total of 1,263 households on the housing register, and this proposed project had huge potential to ease that burden or at least reduce that number.     He would have preferred something more creative that could support such housing in Breckland.


On the capital budget, Councillor Atterwill felt that his question had not been answered, and asked again, how close would Breckland Council be for an authority that needed to borrow for capital expenditure rather than using its reserves if the sale of the property did not go ahead, and this building was purchased.


Alison Chubbock, the Assistant Director of Finance & S151 Officer explained that the capital programme already included the receipt mentioned but it also included two linked projects that would not go ahead if that receipt was not received.  Therefore, there would not be an impact on the capital budget if that receipt did not come to fruition.  In terms of borrowing, the Council was already in borrowing position at the moment; however, internal balances were being used and therefore did not have to borrow externally, and neither project would have an impact on the capital receipt.


Councillor Birt expressed his concerns that within the agenda pack there was not any information about future costs and risks and over the years, Breckland had made some poor investments, although he agreed, that it had done well in other areas.  He felt that this purchase, if approved, would increase the pressure on the Council and was concerned that the Council was considering such a purchase now in the current climate.


Councillor Hewett disagreed with the aforementioned comments and reminded Members of Councillor Birt’s past comments in respect of the Green Britain Centre.  This was not about gaining headline news and reassured Councillor Birt that the Council had never lost millions in capital value on any investments that Breckland had made. The Council’s investment portfolio was used to keep council tax down and to generate £3m every year to ensure that this authority could provide the services that its residents required, and to allow this district to thrive.  This was a regeneration opportunity not an investment opportunity that all Members should support.


A point of order was raised which was not supported.


The recommendation was read aloud, and following a vote of 4 votes against and one abstention from Councillor Brindle, it was


RESOLVED that Option 1 of the report be agreed and authorised – to approve the acquisition of the Riversdale property and proceed with a project to undertake the necessary design and development of a new regeneration river-front scheme in Thetford to support the continued regeneration of the Thetford town centre.    


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