This is an open letter to the Secretary of State.
Dear Mr Jenrick
This is an open letter to you and I write, not just on behalf of the Forest of Dean Council, but also a Community. It is also being sent to our MP the Rt Hon Mark Harper and I hope Mr Harper will ensure that you see this letter and this plea, with your own eyes. That is, after all, exactly what this is, a plea for you to intervene, a plea for common sense and a plea for fair play.
In 2012 The Homes and Communities agency purchased our local college; the only theatre in our district and an adjoining leisure centre to enable the college to relocate to a site 7 miles away. There was public uproar over the closure of the sports centre and theatre. A Community group, the local parish and ourselves engaged with the then regional head of the Homes and Communities agency in order to get the site back into community ownership. The area is subject to an NDP and the playing fields have already been returned to the local parish council for community use. We at the FODDC want to rebuild a modern, sustainable leisure facility, with enabling features alongside, all in line with community aspirations. After many years of campaigning and discussion the then Homes and Communities Agency agreed, very publicly, to sell the site to the FODDC for £1 in light of community aspiration, land value and what we all wanted to achieve on the site.
Then in January 2018 the HCA became Homes England and we were unexpectedly faced with unworkable caveats to the deal: Buy back clauses, starting date limits, all things that made it impossible for any council to proceed. We asked about having the site without the clauses but after another year we are now being asked to pay nearly 400K (it's actually gone up post covid) for a site that our valuers state has nil value.
I shall find it very difficult for Council to agree to purchase the site at that price when our valuer has a completely different opinion as to its worth. We want to replace and rebuild that now dilapidated ex-leisure centre with something sustainable, vibrant, modern and of which we can be proud. We will need to borrow large sums to invest and complete this task. We cannot do it with caveats or unfair prices being quoted for a site that the community loved, used and were not consulted upon when it was sold.
I am imploring you to intervene and end eight long years of waiting and watching and let downs. The only people profiting are the consultants and lawyers trading letters at vast cost. The only people suffering are the community who want leisure provision on that site. 8 years of achieving nothing because of your department having to fulfill the objective of obtaining the best value return.
I understand that concept, after all, it is public money, but this is simply shuffling money between different parts of government in order to appease accountancy objectives, rather than seeking to release the value of land held in public ownership, generate work in the construction industry post-Covid, and create a genuine community resource. The Forest of Dean scores highly on most indices of deprivation and I find it difficult to believe that the government’s “levelling up agenda” will be achieved by central agencies sitting on public assets , in the hope and I quote “ that a developer may take a punt”.
I would be grateful if you would instruct Homes England to review their caveats on the change of ownership, return to the earlier public commitment of the HCA and support the development of this public asset to the benefit of our community and local economy.