Irchester's Chester farm is a 'big risk' says councillor leading the project

The Chester Farm project is a ‘big risk’, says the councillor now in charge of moving it forward.

By Sarah Ward
Thursday, 19th December 2019, 3:44 pm
Updated Thursday, 19th December 2019, 3:45 pm
The heritage project in Irchester is now well over budget and many councillors think it may not be self sustaining.
The heritage project in Irchester is now well over budget and many councillors think it may not be self sustaining.

Northamptonshire County Council’s deputy leader Lizzie Bowen told the authority’s overview and scrutiny committee during a two-hour grilling that she had anxieties about the scheme but would work with officers to give it ‘the best shot it has ever had’.

Cllr Bowen, who was handed the controversial £13.3m heritage project in July as part of her brief, said: “We are where we are. We are in the seventh attempt at this. We will give it the best shot it has ever had but I do think we need to be realistic about income generation.

“We are not intending to make massive profits on this project.”

Cllr Bowen took over the project in July and says it is now being given its best shot.

The 45-acre farm, which is situated just off the A45 near Irchester, is of significant historical importance and its 17th century farmhouse is built on the site of a former Roman walled town.

The proposal is to open it up as a visitor attraction and to use it as an educational resource for schools. A new business plan has been put together which is projecting a loss of £102,000 in its first year and an £18,000 profit in its second.

This week the authority’s cabinet also gave another £1.37m to the project taking its commitment to just over £10m.

The bulk of the funds put up by the council have been borrowed to pay for the scheme. The business plan does not contain any loan repayment costs.

The councillors on the scrutiny committee were in mostly in agreement that they thought the venue would need to be subsidied by the authority to work.

Liberal Democrat councillor Chris Stanbra said: “This isn’t a commercial proposition and it is not commercially viable because of the ongoing contributions from the county council to underwrite the costs of the project. In my view it is not value for money.”

Conservative councillor Jonathan Ekins said: “I just don’t get the numbers. It does not seem to me that you will ever be profitable on this site.

“It is very clear that Northamptonshire is a heritage rich county. Unfortunately we are cash poor. It is not a viable business. If we took this business plan to Alan Sugar we would be fired.”

Scrutiny committee chair Cllr Mick Scrimshaw said: “I hear what council officers are saying about the project being sustainable. I think we need to be honest about that. It may not be the case.”

But Wellingborough councillor Malcolm Waters said he thought the scheme would work as it was off the busy A45 near to the popular Rushden Lakes.

The scheme has been floundering for a number of years and was stalled this summer when contract Shaylor Group went into administration. Cllr Bowen said the construction firm had said the council owed it £3m for outstanding work.

The council’s assistant director Kerry Purnell told that when she joined the authority in July there was no-one leading the project and said a key to its success would be in its marketing.

The council has now decided to run the venture in-house rather than hand it over to be governed by a trust, as was originally intended. Co-funders the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which has pledged more than £3m to the scheme, had insisted on it remaining under council control in the short term.

The scrutiny committee decided to send a letter to cabinet members outlining their conclusions.

A new contractor will be appointed soon and the site is planned to open this summer.