The Corby Northern Orbital Road: Sixteen years, £10m of public money, in private hands and crumbling away

The full, untold story of Corby's road that never was

Monday, 15th November 2021, 7:44 am

It was supposed to open up land worth millions, with opportunities for housing, jobs and new business across the north of Corby.

The Corby Northern Orbital Road was the final jigsaw piece in a scheme that would join up a network of A-roads around the town to ensure Corby was fit for the future.

But sixteen years after the building of the road was announced, and with £10m of public money sunk into the project, it remains unfinished, partly closed and mostly in private hands.

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Ten million pounds of public money - and this is what we have to show for it

Now a local councilor is asking serious questions about how this came to be.

After digging through hundreds of pages of of planning documents, agendas, public accounts, administrators' reports and even the Panama Papers, we tell the story of Corby's road to nowhere.

Thursday lunchtime, and a dog walker stops his car at the end of steel road. The high-pitched hum of cars taking part in a private track day at Rockingham Speedway is just audible in the background.

"I like walking my dogs down here," he says.

Only a few metres of carriageway are needed to join the road to Mitchell Road.

"It's quiet and they can have a run up and down without anyone bothering us. I'm quite happy with them leaving it like this."

The streetlights are installed, crash barriers are ready on the central reservation. A wide footpath with room for a cycle lane is in place. Trees have even been planted alongside the carriageway and road markings remain, directing the traffic that would never arrive.

Half way down the road are huge lumps of concrete and 6ft twisted metal fences stopping even the keenest of locals getting past.

Agonisingly, just a few more metres of carriageway are needed to join the final roundabout to Mitchell Road.

Councillor Mark Pengelly is calling for more to be done to get the road open

So near, yet so far.

With £10m of public money sunk into the asphalt, this part of the Corby Northern Oribtal Road has become little more than an incredibly expensive place for people to have a lunchtime stroll.

Back in 2005, Catalyst Corby announced that the Government had given the green light to the two-mile dual carriageway that would finish a circular route around the town.

The project was a joint venture between Northamptonshire County Council and private housebuilder BeLa Partnerships Ltd.

Inset: September 2008 and the bridge is lifted into place. Main picture: The bridge today.

BeLa, which owned the surrounding former quarry land on which the 5,1000 Priors Hall estate was to be built, applied for planning permission to develop the road in two phases.

In 2008 they were given the green light to upgrade the A6116 from the A43 roundabout (roundabout 1) to RS Components (roundabout 2) and to build a brand new section of road from RS to a third roundabout near the Morrisons distribution hub.

The road would then run on past Rockingham Speedway, with a bridge over the Willow Brook at Dingley Dell, on to roundabout four, opening up to the dualled and widened Mitchell Road, eventually emerging at Phoenix Parkway.

With better access, the entire area was set to see a price uplift, and the rest of Corby would have traffic diverted away from it.

Win, win.

The 2011 North Northamptonshire Joint Core Strategy, a strategic planning document designed to identify the best sites for regeneration, identified 300 adjacent brownfield hectares that was ripe for potential. The area, formerly used as a steelworks tip and pockmarked by contamination and buried toxic waste, could open up employment opportunities for 1,700 people - but only if the Corby Northern Orbital Road was built to provide vital access.

Technical drawings for the two-phase project

Documents submitted to Northamptonshire County Council's planning unit, which had oversight over all major infrastructure developments, state: "The Corby Northern Orbital Road’s objectives are to aid the delivery of 5,600 houses in the Prior’s Hall and Weldon Park developments in the vicinity of the Orbital Road.

"(And) to aid the movement of traffic through and around Corby by eventually extending across the north of Corby to complete an orbital road consisting of the A43 in the south east, the Western Distributor and A6003 in the west and the Northern Orbital Road in the north.

"The Corby Northern Orbital Road will make north east Corby more attractive to residents and businesses. It will improve access to the existing industrial and sporting developments as well as to proposed residential and industrial developments in a manner consistent with regional and national government strategic policies.

"The Corby Northern Orbital Road will complement the Priors Hall development, aiding in the regeneration of the town, by providing accessible, high quality housing to a skilled workforce and employment opportunities for these skilled workers within Corby. As one of the preferred growth locations within the sub-region, Corby has an important role to play and should contribute towards economic progression.”

Early estimates were that the road would cost between £12.1m and £13.2m.

In January 2008, the county council was awarded a £6.125m loan from the government's Community Infrastructure Fund (CIF) for phase one works.

The plans were given the go-ahead, Northamptonshire County Council handed over the £6.1m loan to BeLa who appointed contractor Costain to carry out the work.

Contractors moved onsite on August 1, 2008, and work on phase one was expected to take nine months. By the end of September, 35 huge beams were being lifted across the Willow Brook to create a bridge. Director of investment and marketing at North Northants Development Company Nick Bolton said: “This is the end of the beginning of the project."

He told this newspaper that the section of the road between RS Components and the bridge would be 'open by Christmas'.

Except, it wasn't.

The newly-dualled section between the A43 and RS Components was successfully completed by about 2010 and then the new section to the speedway roundabout also opened, although at that time it was a dead-end because the roundabout had not yet been linked up with the new Gretton Road.

Although built, the new mile-long section from the roundabout that would take traffic down to Mitchell Road, remained closed and blocked-off.

By now, the credit crunch was in full swing and house building had slowed to a snail's pace.

BeLa had taken on eye-wateringly large bank loans to invest in the development of Priors Hall - at that time the biggest building site in Europe.

Public accounts show a £23m loan BeLa had taken out to fund Priors Hall was due to be repaid in June 2008 just as the road construction was beginning. The firm couldn't repay the loan but directors were confident it could do so at a later date, so their lenders agreed to postpone repayment.

In early 2010 the first home was sold on Priors Hall and by the end of 2011, there were 100 houses occupied. Things were looking up.

But the end of March 2011, the independent auditors of BeLa's accounts said that the financing arrangements with the banks had expired and that there was a 'material uncertainty' that 'cast doubt on the company's ability to continue as a going concern.' At that point, BeLa owed more than £97m to banks and other creditors.

Then a year later, in March 2012, the company accounts again revealed that BeLa had still not negotiated repayment of its loans with the banks. Auditors issued another warning and most of the original directors resigned.

On April 8, 2013, it was reported in the trade press that BeLa - including the Corby Northern Orbital Road and its main assets at Priors Hall and Rockingham Motor Speedway - had been acquired by a Jersey-based corporation named Grey Rock, which became BeLa's parent company.

The directors of this firm are unknown as companies based in Jersey are not subject to the same transparency rules as UK-based directors. Grey Rock is based at an office block in The Esplanade, St Helier.

That same address in St Helier is listed multiple times in The Panama Papers - a major leak of millions of financial records of off-shore companies.

It was also reported at that time that Alfred Buller, the father of a talented racing driver, a BeLa director and the firm’s public face, would retain a financial interest in the Speedway.

The accounts for that year also show that in April 2013, BeLa had £83m of other debt secured on land owned by its subsidiary companies, and by April 2014, this had risen to a staggering £111m. The auditor issued yet another cautionary note in the accounts.

The South East Midlands Local Enterprise Project, a partnership between local authorities and businesses to drive growth in the region, had identified that 14,800 homes in Corby could benefit from the Corby Northern Orbital road and that 21,000 jobs could be created with the opening up of the land.

They said the road had a 'funding gap' of between £7.5m and £11.5m. So in November 2013, just seven months after Grey Rock took control of BeLa's assets, SEMLEP gave the green light to £3.85m of public money from the Government's Growing Places Fund to be handed to BeLa to help complete phase two of the Corby Northern Orbital Road.

Between 2013 and 2016 BeLa drew down £3.6m of that public money.

But the road remained incomplete.

In January, 2015, after further resignations, accountants were drafted in to try to steer the company back on course.

But in 2016, the firm's creditors withdrew their support and, unable to meet its financial obligations, BeLa and its subsidiary companies were plunged into administration.

Unfinished, so not yet handed to the county council, the Corby Northern Orbital Road eventually went into the pot of BeLa’s assets with its future to be decided by the administrators.

SEMLEP's board minutes from November 2016 state: "All steps have been taken as far as possible to protect SEMLEP’s interest. In approving the original loan the board were aware of the risks of the project in the submitted board papers and recommendations.

"Should the loan not be recovered in full or part the comfort would be that a new access road serving the commercial landholdings would have been provided with the funds for the benefit of future jobs and growth in Corby.

"The Board considered that all proper and reasonable steps had been taken to assess the risk relating to Growing Places Fund loans and grants and that all proper procedures had been followed in both the risk assessment and related due diligence surrounding the GPF loan programme."

SEMLEP were classed as a second tier secured creditor meaning there was a chance some of the public money could be returned.

Parcels of BeLa's land were sold off, including the Priors Hall development to Urban & Civic for £40m in 2017. That sale is also thought to have included the portion of the Corby Northern Orbital Road between RS Components and the Rockingham Speedway roundabout.

Records from 2018 show that Savills were paid £252,000 from BeLa's administration pot to market and aid the sale of Rockingham Motor Speedway.

In mid-2018, the firm's shares in the speedway were sold to a new company, Rockingham Automotive LLP. That £25m sale is thought to have included the unfinished section of the Corby Northern Orbital Road

The administrators' records show all but £4m of the £25m went to repay BeLa's secured loans to an equity company, its first secured creditor.

Rockingham Automotive is run by two entities based at the same St Helier address as Grey Rock, the former parent firm of BeLa Partnerships.

Later in 2018, Rockingham Automotive LLP announced racing at the circuit was to end and, with the aid of a £33m bank loan, redeveloped the site to become car storage.

Although Land Registry records have not yet been updated, it was announced this summer that the Constellation Motor Group, which owns Cinch, We Buy Any Car and BCA, had bought the speedway from Rockingham Automotive LLP for a whopping £80m - £55m more than it had changed hands for just three years earlier.

It's thought the unfinished portion of the Corby Northern Orbital Road was packaged up with the speedway as part of the deal.

Rockingham's website now boasts 'seamless access' via a 'private dual carriageway'.

SEMLEP eventually had £500,000 returned to their coffers from the administrators before BeLa was finally dissolved in August 2020.

In a statement to this newspaper, a SEMLEP spokeswoman said: "The SEMLEP Board awarded a loan of £3.85 million to Bela Partnerships Ltd from the Growing Places Fund towards the construction of the Corby Northern Orbital Road project, in order to support the creation of new jobs and housing.

"Construction of the road was nearly complete with £3.637m of the loan having been drawn down when Bela Partnership went into receivership.

"Following extensive negotiation with the Administrator it was agreed that a final settlement of £0.5m be repaid to the Growing Places Fund in 2018. This fund is held by our accountable body Luton Borough Council. There are no current plans to invest in the completion of this project."

But the story doesn't end there.

In March 2020 Northamptonshire County Council committed £300,000 to assess the chances of resurrecting the project.

In a report to the council's cabinet, officers said: "The road has been left incomplete due to the bankruptcy of the developer who was constructing it. The funding will be used to assess the work and costs that would be required to complete the road, in order to inform future funding bids."

Frustrated councill officers have been unable to make much progress on their work because of uncertainties over the road's ownership.

Now, Councillor Mark Pengelly, who in his 25 years as a member of Corby Council saw the rise and fall of the entire scheme, is calling for things once again to get moving.

He told this newspaper: "I have really welcomed the investment from the Government of public money into this road over the years.

"It's a key part of opening up all the disused parts of the steelworks land. Regenerating brownfield sites is always preferable to building on greenfield sites.

"I can't get my head around why nobody really seems to know who owns the road and why everything stalled. I am shocked to be told that North Northants Council officers do not seem to know who owns the land where we have spent all this public money.

"There was a report to Northamptonshire County Council pledging £300,000 to look at the the viability study for the road.

"I am now asking for them to look at it again so we can get the next part of Corby's regeneration on its way.

A spokesman for North Northamptonshire Council said: “Some preliminary scoping work was undertaken in respect of reviewing the Corby Northern Orbital scheme.

“However, following discussions with the owners of the road, Rockingham Hub, regarding their development proposals for car storage and distribution, work on reviewing the scheme was put on hold.

“Since then, ownership of the Rockingham Hub has changed and the new owner’s intention about the development proposals and the future of the road has yet to be established.”

A spokesman for the Constellation Group did not reply to a request for comment.

About a mile of the project, from roundabout three to Phoenix Parkway, remains unfinished.
Optimistically, the road builders even managed to put in place directional markings