Sale of five key North Northamptonshire Council-owned sites including Lawrence's Factory agreed behind closed doors
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The sale of five strategic sites owned by North Northamptonshire Council was agreed without members of the public or press able to listen to the discussion.
NNC’s ten-strong all-Conservative executive met at Corby Cube yesterday (Thursday, June 8) to talk about the sale of the sites across North Northamptonshire. But the item was heard in closed session because the authority said it related to the council’s financial or business affairs.
Only executive members were able to discuss the item – with no scrutiny from backbenchers or opposition members. Cllr Jim Hakewill (Ind, Rothwell and Mawsley) was present at the meeting but was not allowed to take part.
No detail was made available of which sites were involved on the council’s agenda in advance of the meeting but afterwards our reporters pressed the council for more information and were given a basic list of the sites involved.
The sites are:
- The vacant St John Ambulance Hall, Thrapston – an empty commercial unit and the entire parking area at the end of Bullring Lane.
- Land adjacent Phoenix Parkway, Corby – a small triangular ransom strip of contaminated former steelworks land in the council’s ownership next to Baileys.
- Fields south of junction four of the A14 off Loddington Road.
- The former Lawrence’s Factory at Gladstone Street, Desborough – the controversial site that, at one time, was earmarked for council housing.
- Former arable land directly adjacent to junction 9 of the A14 – near Symmetry Park
Several of the sites have rocky histories, most notably the Lawrence’s Factory, which has been an empty eyesore since it closed in the 1990s. Kettering Council eventually bought the site and, most recently, had plans to build more than 40 desperately-needed council houses on it. Aldi also proposed a store there and locals called for the council to contact retailers to see if there was any interest.
The land next to the A14 Junction 4 was bought by Kettering Council as a ‘strategic’ purchase in 2016 for £110,000. That purchase was also not open to public scrutiny.
So why are the sites being sold?
Minutes released after the meeting show that the sale of all sites was agreed as they were said to be ‘surplus’. But further details of the sites were still not released to the public as part of the minutes.
The sales will now be handled by NNC’s Executive Member for Assets Cllr Graham Lawman in consultation with senior officers and will not go before the full council.
The minutes say say that the sales will ‘bring the sites forward for redevelopment, providing wider economic development benefits in a reasonable time scale’ and that ‘there are controls through the planning process, including consultation associated with that process, for the community to be engaged in the outcome of the development.’
Other considerations were positive contributions to the North Northants area housing supply and a reduction in the council’s revenue holding costs.
And what’s the problem with selling land?
There isn’t always a problem. North Northamptonshire Council has its own strict rules for land sales which mean that ‘surplus or underutilised’ sites has to be be disposed of at ‘best value’.
All local authorities own parcels of land and buildings across their council area. Sometimes that land can be considered surplus to requirements and can be put up for sale to raise cash. Usually, the money raised from land or property sales can only be used to fund capital (building) projects and cannot be used for the council’s day-to-day spending.
The sale of assets can be vital to an area’s prosperity and can be used to improve life for local people. For example, former steelworks land sale receipts gathered over many years in Corby were partly used to fund the 50m swimming pool and the Corby Cube.
What about when things go wrong?
Asset ales can also be controversial, because not everyone agrees on which sites should be sold. If decisions are made behind-closed-doors, the public often don’t know about the disposal until it is a done deal and don’t have a chance to make their own representations.
Councils often make these decisions in private because they don’t want to give developers or other bidders the upper hand when it comes to the price they are willing to pay. But, back in 2010, an agreement made in private by Corby’s Labour-led administration saw a key piece of land at St Mark’s Road sold to Tesco for just £82,000. A fruitless police investigation followed, and in 2020 the same parcel of land – now with a huge Tesco Extra built on it – sold for a whopping £47m.
Councils also went through a spell of buying up expensive investment property, with Kettering Council buying the RCI building for £4.35m in a secret deal and Corby Council borrowing £44m to buy investments properties.
Other councils saw North Northants as an attractive place to invest, with Norwich City Council buying up a Corby cold storage facility for £7.2m and Southampton City Council buying a warehouse at Warth Park in Raunds for £8.2m.