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Lawyers force council to drop community centre

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Closer inspection of a legal covenant has forced South Cambridgeshire District Council to abandon buying two houses and a sales office to use for community groups at Northstowe.

The council had announced the intended purchase from Taylor Wimpey earlier this year and planned to modify them for use in the medium term as community facilities.

They would have been used to replace those in the Northstowe community wing at the town’s Pathfinder primary school.

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Those facilities closed during the summer as the growing school required the space.

The council says it was already aware of a covenant, or legal agreement, which prevented the land and homes being used for business purposes.

And the council had received assurances from Taylor Wimpey, and Northstowe primary developer L&Q Estates, that this agreement would not be enforced by them if a facility primarily for use by the community was to be provided there.

This was also dependent on a change of use planning permission being secured so the buildings could be used for community purposes.

However, the council says further detailed legal checks during the conveyancing process, like searches conducted when someone goes through a house purchase, were uncovered on Monday.

The council found that homeowners surrounding the proposed community buildings also benefit from this covenant.

A council spokesperson said: “Continuing with the purchase would therefore be a risk which the council has said would not be appropriate as the community facility could be challenged at any time during the three years it was due to be operational.”

South Cambridgeshire District Council lead Cabinet member for communities, Cllr Bill Handley, said: “We appreciate this is disappointing news for the community – we are extremely disappointed too.

“However, just as any prospective house purchaser would do, the council must act on the advice given to it by lawyers during the legal searches.

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“The new detailed legal advice makes it clear that the purchase is not the right thing to do, and it is far better to take this decision now rather than later in the process.

“We remain committed to trying to provide the best facilities for Northstowe residents and will be exploring other avenues urgently. We will keep working with partners, including Northstowe Town Council, to review the alternatives before making a further announcement when we can.

“We want to thank Taylor Wimpey for their co-operation throughout the process, as they have worked with us to fully explore this option.”

The council spokesperson said permanent, long-term community buildings in the early phases of the town – the sports pavilions, community centre, and civic hub – will still come forward and are unaffected.

“In July, the district council confirmed it would be spending more than £14.8 million to secure these high-quality community facilities for Northstowe residents,” said the spokesperson.

“For the phase one sports pavilion, work will start on site in October 2022, and is expected to be completed by the end of May 2023.

“For the phase one community centre, the aim is for the council to submit a planning application in Spring 2023, with an anticipated delivery date of 2025.

“Subject to relevant approvals including planning permission being received, the phase two civic hub could be delivered in 2025.”

The spokesperson added that work has not yet commenced on the phase two sports pavilion “owing to the delivery of this facility coming in a later stage of Northstowe’s development.

It is anticipated that this pavilion will be delivered when around 2,500 homes at Northstowe are occupied”.

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