Section 106 developer contributions across North Northamptonshire still not on a single council system - and might not be merged for another two years
More than two years on from North Northamptonshire Council’s vesting day, section 106 agreements from the area’s five legacy councils have still not been consolidated into a single system.
Multiple complicated arrangements for recording the payments by the former boroughs and county authorities have meant that it has been tricky for council officers to create a new system, despite ‘painstaking work’ since 2021.
S106 agreements are legal documents drawn up as part of the planning process between developers and the council which create a series of obligations, many of them financial. Developers can be compelled to make large contributions to public projects including libraries, schools, roads, and parks in order to acknowledge the strain that their schemes place on the public purse. It’s usually the council’s job to monitor those contributions.
Members of the Audit and Governance Committee had asked officers for an update on when S106 data would be accessible to them, and at Monday’s (August 14) meeting, NNC Assistant Director of Growth and Regeneration Rob Harbour told the committee: “At vesting day what NNC inherited from the former authorities were a variety of different databases, some of which were in more complete form than others.
"A lot of work has been undertaken over the last year and a half to ensure we have robust, up to date and reconciled S106 data and I’m pleased to say we’re confident about the quality of the data we hold. However it isn’t yet in one single place.”
“In terms of access to the data, there are thousands of lines of data in terms of S106 information we hold. Although it’s not (currently) possible to make it available in its entirety, what we can do is to be able to interrogate that data and provide reports on items of interest.
"That’s where we are in terms of sharing S106 data.”
Mr Harbour said that a project was under way to procure a single back-office system for the entire planning system.
But that this would have to incorporate all planning data for each authority going back to 1947 so it was a significant amount of work. He said he hoped the contract would be awarded by April 2024 and then it would take potentially a further 18 months for data migration and implementation.
Cllr Richard Levell (Con, Raunds) asked why it would take so long and expressed concern that it would mean four years without a proper system.
Mr Harbour said: “I’m not a procurement expert but my understanding is that is already quite a challenging timeline.
"We know in high level terms what we want but we still have to produce a detailed scope of what it is we want to do.
"It’s a very large and complex project.”
He said his team has new a protocol to robustly manage S106 from start to finish to ensure they are correctly tracked in the future.
Cllr Valerie Anslow (Lab, Croyland) questioned whether the system was able to spot agreements due to expire. She said: “There are thousands on the spreadsheet so can you be sure you’ve not missed any coming up in the next six, seven, eight months?”
Mr Harbour said: “Those thousands are not live obligations. Some of those will be obligations where nothing’s started. When a S106 agreement is signed and sealed it sits there and it may be a number of years until a developer starts work on the site.
"We have spent a significant amount of time painstakingly going through each of those records, working with colleagues in finance in particular, to ensure we have an accurate audit trail which relates to each of these obligations.”
He said developer contributions have been audited twice since vesting day, adding: “It is incumbent on the developer to pay the money at the right time and you might say in years gone by it was the case where extracting money from developers wasn’t necessarily easy – they’d hang on to it as long as they could.
"What we’re finding at the moment is the opposite of that. Because of inflationary increases, developers want to get the money off their books as soon as possible because if the obligation is to pay for a primary school, they’d rather give us the money early when it costs £7m rather than when we might need it in three years time when they might need to pay £9.5m for the same primary school.
"So, slightly perversely, we’re actually having to stop some developers paying us early.”
Members also asked for specific updates on three projects on which S106 agreements in Rothwell were due to expire in January 2024.
These were; Brachers Field Allotments to which £4,287 contribution for improvements; Well Lane Recreation Ground which is owed £11,433 for drainage; and £7,146 to restore historic ponds in Manor Park.
A report to members said that the first two projects were set to go-ahead within time. However, the third at Manor Park had encountered difficulties because a feasibility study had shown that the ponds were once fed by a river that no longer flowed through the park. It’s hoped that the money can now be used for an alternative project and Rothwell Town Council will be involved in talks with NNC to try to find an alternative use for the cash.
Mr Harbour said: “Within the context of S106 obligations, £7,000 is a fairly modest obligation. Nonetheless, we wouldn’t want to see it go to waste if we can find an alternative use for the money."