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Agenda Item Number:
Executive CLMT Meeting Date: 12th September 2011 Report of: Overview and Scrutiny Board Report author: Councillor Doris Hinkley – Chair, Overview and Scrutiny Board Consultations: Councillors Scrutiny Stakeholders Others (x)
Subject: Old Recreation Centre, Old Bedford Road
(For Executive Only)
Lead Executive Member(s): Councillor Harris Wards Affected: High Town
Recommendations (i) That Executive acknowledge that Hightown residents and Masjid e Ali were not treated in the fair and open way they should have been and are both feeling justifiably aggrieved. (ii) That it be noted that Officers and the Portfolio Holder for Finance implemented correctly the decision made by the Executive in 2008 regarding disposal of the Old Recreation Centre. (iii) That, in relation to the disposal of assets, delegation of powers to officers and portfolio holders should have clearly defined parameters for officers to work within to avoid confusion, and any deviation from those parameters should be reported back for approval to the Executive. (iv) That the Executive notes the concern of the Overview and Scrutiny Board regarding the potential risk/division in respect of community cohesion within the town and in the High Town area in particular which appears to have been caused by a lack of communication between Executive members. (v) The Executive be requested to set up a series of pre-agreed dates for informal meetings of Executive Members in order to receive regular updates from portfolio holders on decisions made within their area of responsibility. (vi) That the Executive be requested to include as part of the process for the disposal of assets an equalities impact assessment and that ward councillors be informed of significant issues affecting their wards as a matter of course. (vii) That the Executive requests Active Luton to fully publicised and promote the High Town Community Centre; and that Active Luton be encouraged to engage in dialogue with the Community Liaison Officer in High Town regarding encouraging greater usage and take up of the activities at the centre by local residents. (viii) That the Executive considers before making their final decision: (i) (ii) (iii) That the understanding for the Old Recreation Centre once closed was for the land to be earmarked for housing, although, no formal agreement existed; That the High Town area is in urgent need for family housing, which is an issue replicated across the town; The effects of their decision on community cohesion in the town.
Background The Overview and Scrutiny Board at their meeting on the 9th June 2011 received a reference from Council to consider two Petitions alongside the Review of the Property Disposals Policy which had been requested by the Executive on 7th March 2011". The Overview and Scrutiny Board agreed that in order to fulfil the requirement from Council, detailed evidence should be taken from key witnesses, including: council officers involved with the disposal and the sale, the Leader of the Council, the Chief Executive, the two petitioning groups and residents of High Town, before making their recommendations to the Executive on 12th September, 2011. The Executive at their meeting on 7th April 2008 approved the disposal of four sites that were surplus to requirements to be disposed of by freehold: o The former Old Recreation Centre, Old Bedford Road o The former open air pool site behind Wardown Swimming and Leisure Centre o The former elderly persons home, Warden Hill o The Oaks/Acorns site 5. In accordance with the scheme of delegation, the Executive delegated responsibility to the Head of Capital and Asset Management in consultation with the Director of Customer and Corporate Services and the Portfolio Holder for Finance to select the successful tenderers for each of the four sites. The marketing campaign in 2008 attracted interest from private housing developers for the sites to be marketed for freehold residential use. A bid from a private developer for the former Old Recreation Centre was accepted, which later was withdrawn due to the economic downturn in the housing market. Other bids were also received from social landlords that were below the market value. The Performance Resources and Assets Scrutiny Committee in September 2008 received a report from the former Chief Executive that set out the process and timescale for the sale of surplus sites and included terms for the disposal of leasehold and freeholds properties. The standard practice was for the Head of Capital and Asset Management to obtain approval from the Executive with delegated authority to decide, in consultation with the Portfolio Holder, the terms for disposals.
Preference from the Executive in 2008 was for the disposal of leaseholds properties to be reported back to the Executive as no formal policy existed or fell within the scheme of delegation. It was then agreed for the four sites to be marketed for freehold disposal to fall within delegated authority to the Head of Capital and Asset Management. 9. Over the last two years the Old Recreation Centre has remained on the property disposals list following the down turn in the housing market and lack of interest from property developers to develop the site for housing. The Executive was asked to revise the decision made in 2008 to market the disposal through open tender, which attracted five bids: 3 of the highest bidders were from religious organisations, 1 from a care home developer and 1 the lowest bid from a residential developer.
The current position 10. A religious organisation for £1.5 million was accepted as the preferred bidder in principal for a community centre for the Masjid – E – Ali Community Group. In line with the Executive decision, approval to proceed with the sale was obtained from the Director of Customer and Corporate Services and the Portfolio Holder for Finance on 21st January 2011.
The decision to proceed with the sale became a controversial issue leading to articles in the media and resistance from residents of High Town that voiced their concerns at ward council meetings held in the area at which the Leader of the Council was in attendance. As the Leader was unaware of the situation, the Council consequently convened a public meeting in High Town attended by both the Leader of the Council and Chief Executive.
Questions were raised at the March 2011 public meeting regarding the change of use for the Site which lead to rowdiness and bad behaviour by a number of people – many of whom were not High Town residents. Evidence received from council officers and the Portfolio Holder for Finance found the delegated authority agreed by Executive had not identified the intention for the use of the site and that Council officers and the Portfolio Holder for Finance were unaware of the public meeting and therefore unaware of residents concerns regarding the proposed change of use. Hence the Leader of the Council and the Chief Executive had not been briefed as this was not a requirement within the delegated authority agreed by the Executive. In light of the events mentioned above the Executive at their meeting on 7th March 2011 received a report by the Head of Capital and Asset Management to consider a ‘review of the property disposals policy’ following guidance from central government. The Executive agreed to: o Instruct officers to commence a review of policy and procedure relating to the disposal of assets and to review options for the disposal of sites yet to be placed on the market. o Instruct officers to return with a further report to Executive seeking approval to recommendations arising from the results of recommendation from the above point. o Instruct the Head of Capital and Asset Management to proceed with the disposal of the former St. Kilda’s Children’s Home and 54-58 Alma Street Tenanted Office Premises o That the disposal of the former High Town Recreation Centre be suspended and officers be instructed, as part of the review referred to in the first point; to examine viable options for the redevelopment of the site including options for housing and an urban school and to report back to the Executive at a later date. Proposals 15. The Overview and Scrutiny Board concluded: (i) The Process The decision by the Executive in 2008 was ambiguous as no clear parameters were defined in terms of the scheme of delegation to officers for the disposal of the site. At that time the intention was to develop the site for housing; however, these intentions were affected by the downturn in housing market, which created other priorities to be considered such as securing the highest bid for the land to off-set against priorities within the capital programme. Although the Executive decision was unclear officers and the Portfolio Holder for Finance followed the decision making processes; and there was no evidence to show these were deviated from in any way. (ii) Communication The evidence suggests no consultation was held to obtain the views of High Town residents, and ward councillors were not made aware of the proposed change of use for the site. The Portfolio Holder for Finance and officers considered that they were working towards meeting the requirements of the Executive. The lack of communication led to potential community cohesion issues within the town and drew negative attention from the media.
(iii) Outcome for the Former High Town Recreation Centre That before considering a required outcome the Overview and Scrutiny Board would receive the Disposals Policy before making their final decision. Consultations All evidence gathering meetings held by the Overview and Scrutiny Board have been held to the public and their views are reflected in the conclusions and recommendations made. Appendices and additional background papers attached: None. IMPLICATIONS Legal Finance Equalities Environment Community Safety Staffing Other Clearance – agreed by:
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