Swindon Borough Council has gained millions in Section 106 planning money but where is it, what’s it been spent on and who make decisions about it. Swindon Link calls for light on the murkiness
In Swindon Council cabinet meeting papers for May 2010 – responding to a report on improvements to Croft Sports Centre in Old Town – Abbey Meads councillor Peter Stoddart wrote: ‘I am strongly opposed to the plundering of Haydon 3 Section 106 contributions for the Croft site. This is another decision that has been badly handled. Why were Abbey Meads councillors not consulted?’
Above, a pan of the North Swindon development in 2003, showing houses built and sites in Priory Vale still to be developed, with the North Swindon District Centre in the middle. Right, North Swindon District Centre
Oakhurst Residents’ Association secretary, Steph Exell, is calling on Swindon Borough Council to reveal how much of North Swindon developers’ money has actually contributed or will contribute to the community where there is still so much work to be done.
Developers who receive planning permission have to make a financial contribution to associated services and facilities like transportation links, education and community provision – what’s known as Section 106 money (S.106). Where development is large, such as the 10,000 homes northern expansion since 1994, the total is huge, but then so is the cost of new schools and road improvements to cater for such areas.
Steph Exell says that whilst this money has to be spent strategically on projects all over Swindon the current system of allocating this precious resource appears to be managed by a star chamber of senior councillors who have taken money from other councillors’ legal agreements without notifying them. Some wards that have already benefitted from their own legal agreements appear to be content with taking more money from other wards.
In December, in association with Swindon Link, she put in a Freedom of Information request to Swindon Borough Council to find out how much money developers had paid to the council. Two instalments were made in 2009 and 2010 totalling £10,220,471 for:
Open Space Maintenance: £466,671
Social Contribution: £898,800
No education contribution is shown.
A third payment of an unspecified amount is due in November 2011.
In February Swindon’s Labour opposition group accused the Conservative controlled council of losing taxpayers money. Originally there was £18.4 million S.106 money for highways and transportation but this was reduced to £14.6 million after negotiation between the council and developers which includes an agreement that the money can now be spent on borough wide projects.
Pictured, right, Haydon End still undeveloped, and Oakhurst to the north of Thamesdown Drive. Below, Redhouse looking south to the North Swindon Centre
Council leader Rod Bluh hit back that the former Labour run administration had tied S.106 too specifically to projects such as Purton Road (Thamesdown Drive) to Iffley Road (Barnfield) extension and completely underestimated the building cost.
But Steph Exell believes the council doesn’t know how much S.106 money it has or where it’s been spent, whilst access to the cash is the preserve of a few senior councillors in the know. “I wonder if backbench councillors have a clue what is going on. We’ve been told £18.4 million, then £14.6 million, and the FoI reply says something completely different. Can the council tell us what the real figure is? How do you know what to spend if you don’t know the total?”
Haydon Wick parish council chair Richard Hailstone has added to calls for clarity by saying the North Swindon S106 saga catalogues a sorry tale of missed opportunities. “Haydon Wick and Blunsdon Parish Councils have been trying to unravel the tangled web of these agreements for nearly ten years to ensure the money is not lost and is used for the benefit of the people of North Swindon.
“In particular, the money for the Thamesdown Drive extension from Purton Road to Iffley Road, a central element of the planning agreement for the Northern Development appears to have been lost due to years of delay and change of route. But it’s needed even more now that further development is proposed for the north and west of Swindon.
"I understand that the remaining transport money is to go into a general fund and could be spent anywhere in the borough.”
The murkiness of the S.106 funding situation is illustrated by the May 2010 cabinet decision note referred to above which shows that Abbey Meads ward councillors were unaware that the council was proposing to spend money allocated to North Swindon facilities on all-weather pitches in Old Town.
Coun Peter Heaton-Jones endorsed coun Stoddart’s view, above, by writing: ‘Why were northern area ward councillors not consulted? I have serious concerns about this decision and the way the process is handled, and I’m sure my residents will share these concerns.’
Steph Exell said it’s time to come clean. “Coun Michael Dickinson, chair of the Council’s Audit Committee, should now look at this whole matter in open session.”