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Budget battle at Cambridgeshire County Council

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A change in the direction of travel for Cambridgeshire County Council’s wholly owned, arms’ length trading company This Land Ltd has been criticised by one of its inaugural supporters.

Cllr Steve Count, who as county council leader pushed for the setting up of This Land, has accused the rainbow alliance that seized control of the council in 2021 of re-shaping its aims and aspirations.

This comes ahead of next Tuesday’s crucial budget setting full council meeting.

Now  Conservative opposition council leader, Cllr Count has publicly criticised the new administration for influencing This Land to step up an affordable homes programme.

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Since its inception, This Land has been targeted with working to normal housing development standards and using its land bank – mostly formerly owned council land – to be competitive and to deliver profits as a normal housing developer.

“It’s very important to us that This Land should prosper,” said Cllr Lucy Nethsingha. A recent This Land development at Over, Cambridgeshire (above)

“It’s very important to us that This Land should prosper,” said Cllr Lucy Nethsingha. A recent This Land development at Over, Cambridgeshire (above)

But Cllr Count says that has changed.

In a recent blog he claims the county council “has gone on a spending spree” since taking over.

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Not only have their widened the budget gap by over £50m, but he also quotes a number of their policies which he claims, “were over and above delivering services”.

And these have included directing This Land “not to focus on providing a financial return, to help deliver services but to deliver affordable housing – estimated £5m+”.

He also suggested introducing the Real Living Wage was costing over £25m “in a failed attempt to gain accreditation.

And they were spending £4.5m in “increasing the most senior management staffing and costs and another £4m increased costs because they caused a fall out with Peterborough and shared working”.

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None of which will bother Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, the rainbow alliance council leader, who explained last year that of the 930 homes This Land are expected to build over the next 10 years, 396 of these will be affordable home. Annual minimum targets have been established.

Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, leader of Cambridgeshire County Council ready to defend 4.99pc rise in council tax

The council’s summary of housing projections include “developing plans for a further pipeline of affordable homes across the county, including analysis of where county council owned land can enable this.”

The council says it will be dispose of “underperforming assets or assets where This Land is not best placed to develop”.

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And she said the council is committed to deliver environment, social and governance policies and to work closely with the housebuilding supply chain to reduce carbon footprint to net zero.

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“It’s very important to us that This Land should prosper,” said Cllr Nethsingha.

In a statement that followed a revaluation of This Land last year, she said that “not only are they now promising improved environmental benefits and increases in affordable homes, but the interest received from This Land this year will enable the council to put £6m into local services – which wouldn’t otherwise be available.

“I am pleased that that a more detailed oversight of the company by the council is now happening – which continues to ensure that there is clear and transparent scrutiny of This Land.”

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The county council has made long term loans to the company over £100m.

Cllr Count remains unimpressed.

His blog also accuses the joint administration of “new procurement where value for money is watered down, due to political beliefs. Estimated over £15m impact.

“Failing to deliver schools and extensions on time, leading to a £1.4m increase in temporary classrooms. Forcing our children to be taught in portacabins rather than classrooms.

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“£10m behind schedule on delivering energy generation schemes. Costing the Council £2.67m due to failure to generate and increased costs”.

Cllr Count added: “If the Conservatives had been in control, they would not have made the same profligate decisions this joint administration has, because we always worked on five-year strategy.

“By now, had Conservatives been in charge with the £50m+ identified above we would have clearly been able to deliver a 0% Council Tax increase.

“However, we are forced to start from their position of an inefficient, understaffed, overspending council, with a budget where most of the reserves have been wasted, and propose a 2% increase in Council Tax.”

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Ahead of next week’s budget setting council meeting, Cllr Nethsingha said: This has been an absolutely extraordinary year in which to try and create a budget proposal which looks forward for five years.

“It’s taken a great deal of hard work, looking at savings, keeping costs down and I’d like to thank everyone responsible for getting us to this place.”

The proposed budget which will now be put to all members to consider at full council on February 7; it  seeks to bridge a potential funding gap for the coming year of £21.4m, even after finding more than £10m of additional savings or income, in the face of levels of inflation not seen for 40 years plus rising costs for energy and essential services.

The proposed budget also outlines how the council plans to spend more than £15m in one-off funds from reserves next year.

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