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From Anne Snelgrove to Councillor Rod Bluh – 16 November 2006
I was very surprised by the tone of your letter of 15 November and your representation of the facts surrounding this issue.
As you will remember, I offered – in a non- partisan way – to assist with measures to help save Lower Shaw Farm and council funding several weeks ago before this matter became public. My offer was rejected out of hand with your indication that you intended to press ahead with the sale of the land for development. Your Party’s obdurate refusal to discuss this issue in a constructive way left me with no option but to express my views publicly. I would be very pleased if this leads to an honest and constructive debate about the future of Lower Shaw Farm.
I am somewhat surprised by your claim that I am trying to make party political advantage and your indignation, given the repeated, untruthful, claims by you and your colleagues that central government is forcing the council to act in this way. It is to be expected that as my Party’s representative, I wish to establish the inaccuracy of these statements.
I am even more concerned to represent my constituents in West Swindon, who are appalled by the decision and the way in which it has been taken without any consultation. Once again, my constituents feel completely left out of the decision making processes of Swindon Borough Council.
You have stated that “Government laws meant the farm could only be sold to the highest bidder on the open market.” This is not true and the council has previously disposed of land below its market value when it has been allocated for agreed activities. Guidance states that “Disposal must be for the best consideration reasonably obtainable (except in the case of short tenancies) unless the Secretary of State consents to the disposal. However, the Government has issued a ‘general consent’ to allow authorities to dispose of land at less than best consideration where they consider it to be appropriate.”
(DCLG, Circular 06/03:Local Government Act 1972 general disposal consent (England) 2003: disposal of land for less than best consideration that can reasonably be obtained, 4 August 2003:
The recent Local Government White Paper has made it clear that this government is keen to see communities take over the management or ownership of public assets and is currently reviewing existing policies to encourage such initiatives.
You assert that “the council has a statutory duty to achieve best value and review its assets to ensure that they are being used to support the objectives.” I agree and would argue, as many in Swindon would, that Lower Shaw Farm meets many of those (non- financial) objectives. Having met Matt Holland and Andrea Hirsch, I am convinced that they would be willing to discuss ways in which their activities could more closely reflect the priorities of the administration.
I and the residents of Swindon would appreciate further information about the ‘best value’ and the ‘review’ that you have referred to. A Best Value Review is a rigorous process, taking into account all factors, including economic, social and environmental. It is also best conducted in an open, accountable and transparent way so that the public is fully engaged. As Matt Hirsch has been quoted; “A man with a clipboard coming round for 20 minutes is not enough to review what we do.”
Your claim that the ‘subsidy’ to Lower Shaw Farm amounts to 10% of the total grants given by the council is unexplained and I would appreciate some detailed information on the basis and methodology for this calculation. It is in all our interests to know what evidence has informed the decision.
My offer to help with schools funding was in response to repeated linking of this issue with school funding by your colleagues, with particular mention of a shortfall in West Swindon. If this is not the case, this reflects the lack of clarity with which your administration has explained this decision to the public.
Your assertion that it is the “resolute view of the administration that to renew the lease for Lower Shaw farm would not be justifiable” is a sweeping statement and I would be very grateful for an explanation of how and where this view was formed, as I am unaware of any public discussion of this by councillors at Swindon Borough Council.
I would welcome further discussion if a cogent and considered case for the sell off of this land for residential development can be made. However, it is in the wider public interest for this decision to be made in a transparent and accountable way and the time is past for discussions of politicians behind closed doors.
Yours sincerely Anne Snelgrove MP Working hard for South Swindon
From Councillor Bluh, Leader of Swindon Borough Council – 15 November 2006
Further to my letter of 10 November setting out the reason for the decision relating to Lower Shaw Farm, I am extremely disappointed that you have once again tried to make party political advantage over a serious matter of public policy.
The issue about Lower Shaw Farm is not about whether the activities have any value, they clearly do, but whether the level of support given by council through the low return on this asset is justified in terms of competing priorities. The effective income subsidy in the region of ?100,000 per annum, if reflected as a grant would amount to 10% of the total grants given by Swindon Borough Council and represent one of the biggest such grants given.
The council is currently seeking to fund a capital programme consisting of 335 projects amounting to some ?240 million pounds over the next 4 years. This has to be delivered largely by realisation of existing assets to avoid borrowing which would not be affordable due to the effect it would have on Council Tax.
Swindon Borough Council has already achieved a “radical transformation” as recognised by the Audit Commission recently and has moved from being one of the worst councils in the country to one of the fastest improving. The current administration has not been afraid to make difficult decisions in the interests of all Swindon residents and will continue to do so.
The council has a statutory duty, as you are well aware, to achieve best value and review its assets to ensure that they are being used to support the objectives. It is the resolute view of the administration that to renew the lease for Lower Shaw Farm would not be justifiable in this context.
I have met with Matt Holland three times in the last week to discuss the way forward and we are constructively exploring all the available options. He, at least, has some grasp of the reasoning behind this decision even if he is not happy with it.
Your proposal to seek to use schools funding for next year to raise equivalent cash to the value of the farm entirely misses the point. The issue is one of the need for funds on an on-going basis to deliver the council’s capital programme now and into the future. In our judgement, a continued lease on the same terms would always remain an issue.
I believe the long-term interests of Lower Shaw Farm Project, if it has a future, would be better served if it sits outside the council’s ownership where it will not be at the mercy of Local Government funding issues.
If we all remain focused on the real issue then perhaps there may be a better chance of finding a solution.
If you believe a discussion would be helpful in moving this matter forward, I will be pleased to meet with you.
Yours sincerely Cllr Roderick Bluh Leader of Swindon Borough Council
Anne Snelgrove MP says she has come to the conclusion that the Tories at Swindon Borough Council are closing Lower Shaw Farm because they just don?t like it and see it as an easy target.
Anne said, “they don?t seem to know what they are doing or why. The reasons they are giving for closure of the farm don?t stack up and the repeated claims that this has something to do with central government are complete fabrication.
“If the Tories seriously think that government wants Lower Shaw Farm closed, why haven?t they approached me for help? In fact, they have not had the courtesy, or the intelligence to give me a full picture of why exactly they think the sell off is necessary.
“As soon as I heard about the proposed closure ? before it was made public – I spoke informally to an Education Minister, who agreed to help Swindon draw down the money to fund the shortfall on West Swindon Schools (another Tory decision). The offer of help has been turned down by the Tory administration.
Council Leader Rod Bluh has stated that the proposal is “not directly related to the funding of West Swindon Schools” but at least two of his councillors have said that in public meetings and in the press that it is linked to the shortfall.
“I am also concerned that Cllr Bluh asserts that “Lower Shaw Farm does not currently offer best value” when no Best Value review has taken place. Is the administration completely unaware of the Best Value process or are they just ignoring it? Even if a review had taken place, Best Value is definitely not a purely cost based exercise ? that went out of the window when the Tories were thrown out of government in 1997 because the public knows that cost is not the only issue that should be considered.
“The Tories are squirming over this one and trying hard to blame everyone else, including the government for lack of funds. Yet they have never shared any information with me about their bids to government, or asked for my support, despite my repeated offers to work with them on issues such as school funding. I?m here to help but it has become quite clear to me that my help is not wanted by the Tories in Swindon and the public is paying the price.
“Without the full story on why the Tories are so desperate to sell off Lower Shaw farm in the face of local opposition, it is difficult for me to come up with more ways to help prevent the sell off. What I and the public have been told so far is frankly, a derisory attempt to mislead and obscure the issue.
“I have come reluctantly to the conclusion that the Tories want Lower Shaw farm closed because they don?t like it and see it as an easy target. With their majority in the Council, the sad truth is that they can ride roughshod over local people and it seems they are intent on doing so.”