Northamptonshire county council has to borrow another million to finish Chester Farm or risks paying back huge sums
The Chester Farm project is now set to cost Northamptonshire County Council in the region of £10m, with the cash-strapped authority having no choice but to put in another £1.3m or risk paying back millions.
The authority says mothballing the behind-schedule heritage project in Irchester, which was the brainchild of former leader Jim Harker, could under the terms of an agreement mean handing back just under £4m to co-funders the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF).
So the cabinet is set to approve another £1.37m towards the project next week, taking the total cost of the scheme to about £13.25m. It was originally proposed to cost the council £8m when first agreed back in 2016.
The cost could rise even further as the appointed constructors Shaylor Group went into administration earlier this year and the authority is in discussions with the administrators about terminating the contract.
The report to the Conservative cabinet also sets out a new business case, which scraps the already agreed of a community interest trust to govern the scheme and instead proposes the asset – which was bought by NCC in 2004 – is managed by the council. The trust had already been set up with Jim Harker and Lord Lieutenant of Northamptonshire David Laing appointed as directors. The council’s latest advice says the sustainability of the site would have been at risk with the trust model.
The report says: “The business case is based on the development of the site on a ‘mixed use’ basis with certain buildings and activities providing core income-generation that will support the site’s operational costs, including the heritage, education and community engagement offer necessary to meet the funding requirements of NLHF.
It adds: “The changes from previous plans include adopting a more flexible use of the spaces than had been proposed previously to ensure that the site can be a heritage, leisure, cultural and arts visitor destination, as well as one where people may come to work. Thus the intention is to widen the range of audiences and range of events and activities offered, giving a broader base from which income can be generated.”
The 45-acre farm, which is situated just off the A45, is of significant historical importance in the county according to historians.
The 17th century farmhouse is built on the site of a former Roman walled town and has evidence of Mesolithic, iron age and medieval periods.
During the midst of its financial collapse last year the authority’s councillor in charge of finance Michael Clark has said the authority was moving forward with the scheme ‘through gritted teeth’.The council is proposing to appoint a new contractor and is aiming to have the scheme open by summer 2020. The exact financials of the scheme have been given on an exempt paper that the public and press cannot see.
The lion’s share of how the council will pay for the scheme is through pre-existing borrowing, with some other funds through a highways grant and some revenue spending. The additional £1.37m will be new borrowing likely to be paid off by the new unitary councils.