AND WHY £6 AND 6 MINUTES WOULD HAVE STOPPED THIS HAPPENING
Update March 2019. Karis has dropped its court action. The council will, however have already spent money preparing its defence.
Karis Developments Limited is suing Lewes District Council for £11.6 million for pulling out of a deal to sell it a whole load of land owned by the council. Given that there are about 112,000 of us in the district that is over £113 for every person in the area. If they win we would pay through higher council tax, or cuts to services or both. There are also going to be costs of perhaps £1 million for the council to defend the case and, if the council loses, a larger amount for Karis’s costs.
Investment of £6 and six minutes work might have avoided all this.
Karis says that the Council pulled out for political reasons but the council says that it had to pull out because of limits on two of the sites it was selling.
HOW DID THIS COME ABOUT?
A scheme, which ultimately proposed to sell 49 sites owned by the council, first emerged in 2011. It may have been the brainchild of Jenny Rowlands, the council’s then chief executive, who had been appointed in 2010. The council had a target of more housing in the area, and it was also strapped for money and they would no doubt have asked her to come up with ideas.
So it must have seemed a good idea to identify some sites and dispose of them to a housing developer and a housing association.
The sites were spread across the district and included plots as diverse as a field in East Chiltington, a toilet in Lewes and the Buckle car park on the front at Bishopstone. The idea was that the expensive sites should be sold for expensive housing for sale, while other sites would be used for “affordable” housing to rent.
WHAT A WORKING GROUP FOUND
Even before the scheme was abandoned, there were concerns. A working group of six councillors was set up to investigate. Much of this article is based on what they found.
The council thought it did not have the experience to carry this out on its own, so it set up a consortium involving Karis Developments and a housing association called the Southern Housing Group. This consortium was supposed to deliver “creative and innovative housing designs and planning proposals” But the development consortium had to take on all the sites so that it could not cherry pick.
The innovative ideas generated included planting some fairly tall housing for sale on the Buckle car park and a significant amount of social rented housing in the field in East Chiltington, which is blessed with no bus services to speak of, no shops or any other services, except a pub specialising in high end dining. The cabinet seems to have agreed these ideas.
The council determined to keep the sites identified as suitable for sale secret until the contract to sell them was signed, giving local people no chance to influence the decision until it was done and dusted.
Council members were given details of them on “pink papers” which they were not allowed to reveal to the public. There are considerable sanctions against council members who reveal “pink paper” information, but it is surprising that no elected members seem to have whistle blown to government bodies responsible for this sort of thing. This was a quite spectacular failure to consult and was recognised as such by the working group who say “this represented a blatant disregard for the feelings of residents and denied members the opportunity to discuss those feelings in ….. the council chamber”
By 2015 rumours had been flying round for years, with local people becoming more and more furious at the lack of information. A number of petitions about various sites were submitted, but these appear to have had no effect. The working group reports that “the Chief Executive and Leader (at the time) seemed aggrieved that the list became partly public knowledge.”
Finally, in July 2015, when the contract appears to have been signed, a council staff member was sent out to “consult” with members of the public. Not surprisingly she got a hard time and the working group complained that she had been hung out to dry by cabinet members who had taken the decisions and then kept their heads down.
A LITTLE CABAL?
Not only were the public kept uninformed, but council members and officers could feel that they were out of the loop. All member briefings were “few and infrequent” and leaders of political groups were given information in the hope that they would share it with their members (tough if you were not in a political group).
In 2014 the council delegated powers to Chief Executive Jenny Rowlands which meant that she “was now able to take most project decisions herself”. She was to consult with the Leader of the Council and the leader of the opposition. This appears to have created a cabal of three. The working group says “information about the project appears not to have reached other members (of the council) on any structured or regular basis”.
James Page was the leader of the ruling Conservative Group from February 2012 to February 2014. He subsequently defected to the Liberal Democrats before standing down as a councillor.
He was succeeded by Rob Blackman, who in turn was forced to resign in September 2015 immediately before a vote of no confidence in him by his own party. He was then replaced by the current leader Andy Smith.
In 2011 the Liberal-Democrat Leader was Chris Bowers, but he was deposed as leader by the Lib Dems, who selected the current Lib-Dem Leader Sarah Osborne. By March 2014 the Lib-Dems put Ms Osborne forward as council leader, so she would have been the leader of the opposition from that time. She was and is the council member for East Chiltington, putative site of the social housing in a field. East Chiltington residents appeared to be kept in the dark for a long time.
So it looks as if in 2014 Jenny Rowlands was driving the plan along, with the involvement of Rob Blackman and Sarah Osborne and with everyone else being left out in the cold. However many people say that it was James Page who, of the politicians, had been the driving force behind the scheme. This cannot be verified.
AN ELECTION IN 2015
In May 2015 there was an election. The scheme was a hot topic in the election and a number of councillors were elected who were critical of the scheme. The new leader of the council from September 2015 was also believed to be not a fan.
In 2016, after the expenditure of nearly £600,000 on the scheme it was abandoned. Southern Housing Group decided to cut their losses, but Karis vowed to take court action, which they have now done arguing that the council had ratted on a contract that it had committed itself to because of political changes.
But the council said that, at this late stage, it had found out that there were restrictive covenants on two sites, including the Buckle car park which meant that only very limited development was possible. Since these sites were to be sold at high cost to Karis, but were now worth much less, this made the scheme unviable. This was because the additional money could not be used to subsidise other sites.
Many people found it unbelievable that the council and the development partners had not known about the covenants before.
HOW EASY IS IT TO FIND OUT THE PROBLEMS WITH THE BUCKLE?
So the Eye decided to do a bit of research to find out just how difficult it would be to find out that there were restrictive covenants on the Buckle car park.
Covenants on land are registered at the Land Registry. If you have an account with them you can access a map which gives the title number for the car park. This is free, takes about 2 minutes and reveals that the title to the land is held by the Registry under the reference ESX294861
It will now take you about two minutes, and the payment of £3, to order the registry entry for this piece of land and have it delivered to your computer.
The entry shows that there are a number of covenants, which are not of interest, but also that a conveyance in 1972 included further restrictive covenants.
So it is now necessary to spend a further £3 and a further 2 minutes to order and download this conveyance. The conveyance says very clearly that the buyer and their successors may not build on the site above a certain level, and there is a plan which shows what the level is. It looks as if the caravan site owners behind the land were selling the site and did not want their view obstructed.
Total time spent doing the research- 6 minutes. Total cash expenditure £6.
(if you do not have a Land Registry account it may take a little longer.)
Yet neither the council nor Karis had carried out this simple exercise for the five years of the project’s life up to 2016. We have to ask about the basic competence of both Karis and the Council.
No social housing has come about because of the scheme. Over half a million pounds has been spent by the council, with more to be spent on defending a court case. The case will focus on the nature of the contract between the council and Karis. The Eye has not seen this because it is currently confidential so cannot comment on who might win. If the council loses we will all pay.
The council is unlikely to make EXACTLY the same mistakes again, but nothing has been done about the toxic system whereby power in councils like Lewes District is concentrated in the hands of the Chief Executive and a handful of councillors.
James Page has left politics. Rob Blackman and Chris Bowers are not currently district councillors, although Mr Bowers is apparently standing again next time. Sarah Osborne remains leader of the Lib-Dem group and Andy Smith is still leader of the council.
There is another Lewes District Council election in May. All seats are up for election
Jenny Rowlands left the council at the beginning of 2016 and is now chief executive of Camden Council.
Much of the information in this article comes from papers presented to the Lewes District Council cabinet on 28 September 2016 The cabinet is a small group of council members who take many decisions on behalf of the council, that the full council might otherwise take. They are all Conservatives, even though the majority of council members are not from that party.
A key document is the Report and Recommendations of New Homes Project Working Group – Schedule 1 which details what the working group of six councillors, which was set up to work out what lessons could be learned, found and recommended
There is also the Report and Recommendations of New Homes Project Working Group – Schedule 2 which, despite its name, sets out the recommendations of the Council’s auditors, BDO.