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Nationalising the Land: Why FHDC Was Right to Buy Out Cozumel

February 7, 2020 11:14 AM
By Tim Prater, Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Folkestone and Hythe District Council
Originally published by Folkestone and Hythe Liberal Democrats

Tim PraterYesterday Folkestone and Hythe District Council announced they have bought the land and purchase options of their former developer partner Cozumel that forms much of the Otterpool Park site for around £25 million plus costs.

Although this represents a large profit for Cozumel since they bought the racecourse a few years ago, it removes a partner from the scheme that was likely to push for the development - especially on their land - to be more commercial than the Council. If they had remained as partners, it is likely over the long term they would have made MUCH more profit, and sought that the value of their land was maximised - that's what property developers do.

Equally, many people had expressed concerns about the suitability of a company registered off-shore for tax purposes to be involved with the Council in any way. They are now not involved.

All parties - including the opposition parties - on the Council had been consulted on this purchase.

I am not yet onboard with the Otterpool development as a whole, but the question on whether we would prefer the former racecourse land and much nearby land in the hands of the Council or an overseas registered property developer was a no-brainer to me. I supported the purchase. Pre-knowledge of this scheme was why I supported the motion on December which enabled the Council to spend up to £100 million on the Otterpool Development subject to ensuring that all Parties were consulted, and that this purchase could only proceed with majority consent. This purchase met those tests.

Clearly in any negotation you have to keep quiet on the offer, price and details, as to make those public hands a huge advantage to the other person in the negiotation (or others that might gazump you), which could cost the Council, and ultimatately tax payers, money or the opportunity. Leaking that information would both be against the interest of Council tax payers and illegal.

The Council is now in a better position to make its own choices on the Otterpool area - and what any development there looks like - than it was alone. It is also in a better position to decide what any return on that development is invested in: infrastructure improvements for the district, council housing, affordable housing, environmental sustainability and more. I'm still to be convinced that the Council is committed to delivering all those objectives, but recent announcements of building 1,000 new Council homes in the next 10 years and £10m towards making the council Carbon Neutral by 2030 are big steps forward. It is making moves in the right direction.

The Government requires Councils across the country to make provision for a huge amount of new house building. Almost every district is looking at building a similar number of homes over the next 20 years. It's a sad truth that if the Council doesn't plan, then developers will step in and be given permission to build schemes in our district that no-one wants. We can disagree with that Government policy (amongst many others) but that's the reality we face. In Feb 2019, the National Audit Office said:

"If a local authority can't show it has a five-year supply of land for housing, developers have greater freedoms to build where they want, risking ill-suited developments."

In 2017, the Folkestone and Hythe Liberal Democrats said:

"We believe that the development is far too large, is being railroaded through against the wishes of the local community, is environmentally unsustainable, seems to contain insufficient social or actually affordable housing and will not serve the housing needs of local people."

And we were right. So we've pushed for it to be smaller and less dense, environmentally sustainable, contain or enable a huge amount of new Council and affordable housing, enable a massive investment in district wide infrastructure and for the development planning to involve all elected Councillors and groups, not just a select few. And to be fair, with announcements around Council house building and the Carbon zero fund, and opening up decisions making on this and other areas, there have been big steps in that direction. Some of our tests are being met. There is, however, further to go, especially on affordable housing, making Otterpool an environmental exemplar, and commitments to infrastructure. Will they be met too? We'll see.