February 13, 2024 6.00 pm

South Kesteven District Council’s £1.8m costly blunder: Silence on Stamford land overspend

How did the council end up paying £1.8 million over the market value? What is it going to do now?

By Local Democracy Reporter

In a move shrouded in secrecy and financial missteps, South Kesteven District Council’s ambitious redevelopment project in Stamford has hit a snag, overshooting its land acquisition budget by a staggering £1.8 million more than the market value.

This costly blunder, part of the St Martin’s Park Redevelopment, has left local officials tight-lipped, offering scant details on how they plan to mitigate the “detrimental financial impact” of their overzealous spending.

Amidst a backdrop of commercial sensitivity, the council’s silence speaks volumes, raising questions about the decision-making processes that led to paying £8 million for land valued at just £6.2 million.

Local officials have kept details under wraps regarding their strategy to counter any “detrimental financial impact” stemming from the St Martin’s Park Redevelopment project in Stamford, attributing their discretion to commercial sensitivity.

In March 2019, in response to the shutdown of the former Cumming’s Factory, a decision that jeopardised 500 jobs, the council purchased the 14.7-hectare site on Barnack Road for £8 million. However, it has since been revealed that the property was actually valued at only £6.2 million.

On the site, SKDC planned to develop a mixed-use project with offices, workshops, a food shop and café, 190 homes, and a retirement village.

To date, SKDC has committed a total of £10.5 million to the development, including £1.5 million for demolition, £500,000 dedicated to master planning, and another £500,000 for the maintenance of premises.

It is also paying a monthly standing charge of £14,000 to maintain the power supply to the site, ensuring sufficient electricity for any future development.

The St Martin’s Park redevelopment masterplan | Image: SKDC

Councillor Phil Dilks (Independent), Cabinet Member for Housing and Planning, reflected on assurances from the then-ruling Conservative administration about the acquisition being an “absolute bargain.”

Subsequently, the local authority entered into an agreement with Burghley Estates, the owners of the neighbouring land, who expressed interest in developing high-value housing on that parcel.

Councillor Dilks recalls voicing his scepticism, asking: “What’s in it for us?” In response, he was assured by the former leadership that the deal would “make millions.”

The Independent councillor distinctly remembered the proposal for the 1904 Building to be the only structure preserved on the site, with ambitions to transform it into an employment hub. However, permission has now been granted to knock it down.

“In the end, it wasn’t in such good state at all, and they ended up applying for a demolition order, but before they could pull it down, it fell down on its own accord,” continued Councillor Dilks. He later characterised it as “another Tory promise that literally bit the dust.”

“It was only when the new administration came to office that we started to discover the truth.”

Councillor Phil Dilks | Photo: James Turner

At an Extraordinary Council meeting last week, councillors voted on the next steps for the development, with the goal of minimising any negative financial impact. However, the meeting transitioned to a closed session, citing commercial sensitivity as the reason.

During the proceedings, Councillor Graham Jeal (Conservative), the former Mayor of Grantham, explained that the land was purchased “to ensure that Stamford wasn’t blighted by a failed industrial site.”

Although no official announcements have been made, Cllr Dilks remarked: “The council have made some proposals and they are being considered.”

Expressing his frustration, he added: “I’m annoyed that we are not able to tell the people of Stamford and South Kesteven where we are with it. I look forward to when these things can be revealed.”

Former SKDC Leader Kelham Cooke (Conservative), who held the position of Deputy Leader during the acquisition of the land, was approached for insights into the circumstances surrounding the purchase. Nevertheless, he declined to offer any comments.

After assuming the role of council leader in January, Councillor Ashley Baxter (Independent) identified the project as a key priority.

He referred to it as “one of the many legacy issues” inherited from the previous administration, noting: “It’s been a disappointment for many people involved and we really need to crack that nut.”