Councillors clash over use of new settlement funds for Cranbrook community building

Cranbrook

Cranbrook - Credit: Daniel Clark

Councillors have clashed over a decision to help fund a new community building at Cranbrook using money received from another new settlement near Exeter. 

South West Exeter is a new development near Marsh Barton on the edge of the city, with 2,500 new homes planned plus 22 hectares of land for new employment. 

Roughly that number of homes have already been constructed over the past 10 years at Cranbrook. However, the new town still lacks what many residents feel is basic infrastructure, including a proper town centre, a library and a children’s centre. 

Last month, Devon County Council’s ruling cabinet voted to use £2million of recovered money from developers at South West Exeter towards a long-awaited community building at Cranbrook, which will provide space for children’s services as well as a library. 

Most – if not all – of the cash will be used to plug an expected shortfall in the estimated £4.5 million cost of the building. 

It comes after a report to the same meeting revealed there is not currently enough funding available for a fully equipped community building at South West Exeter as previously planned. 

This is partly blamed on an ‘increase in the cost of construction and challenges relating to the land identified for the building’. 

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The recommendation is now to deliver the building in ‘phases’ with a GP surgery, community meeting rooms and managed office space coming first. Additional phases could then be ‘delivered at a later date to meet community needs’ and when funding becomes available, the report added. 

Opposition groups criticised the decision to send the £2million from South West Exeter to Cranbrook and requested a rare call-in of the decision, where it was debated at a special council scrutiny committee on Tuesday (May 10). 

Councillors argued that, whilst accepting Cranbrook needed new facilities, it should not be to the detriment of the money available for community buildings at the development being built between the A38 west towards Exminster. 

The council’s justification is that because of complex rules around the government’s Housing Infrastructure Fund (HIF), which makes money available from newbuild sites, it cannot be then used again on the same development. 

However, the Liberal Democrats claimed the move amounts to “robbing Peter to pay Paul” and would “undermine the confidence of communities in planning processes.” 

The Labour group said it created a “concerning, unacceptable, divisive approach….to delivering community facilities and infrastructure in Devon, that conflicts one new emerging community against another.” 

Labour’s motion said it would mean “the South West Exeter development will not receive adequate community infrastructure investment commensurate with its scale, density and scope.” 

Officers and Conservative councillors defended and clarified the move, saying that HIF rules meant the recovered or ‘recycled’ money could only then be used somewhere else in Devon – such as Cranbrook. 

Opposition leader Councillor Alan Connett (Lib Dem, Exminster & Haldon) disputed this, pointing to £5.5million of recycled money from South West Exeter that will be used for a new electricity sub-station in the area. 

He was told this was allowed after discussions with Homes England because, while it will benefit any future developments at South West Exeter, it will also support Exeter City Council’s separate plans for new homes nearby. 

“Well, if that’s the case,” Cllr Connett replied, “why can’t we talk to Homes England about the need for community facilities? Because every one of these houses will need community facilities.” 

A number of councillors expressed concern about the lack of clear funding for community facilities at South West Exeter, while others focussed on the need for the new building at Cranbrook after years of waiting. 

Chair of the committee, Cllr Alistair Dewhirst (Lib Dem, Ipplepen & The Kerswells) clarified that “as far as I’m aware no one wants to leave Cranbrook in a worse position,” but added it was about learning from previous lessons of “development without community facilities.” 

However, county council leader John Hart (Conservative, Bickleigh and Wembury) thought it was “madness” when the decision was first called-in by the opposition parties, referring them back to the rules of the fund. 

“The issue here today is whether £2million that comes back into the county council on recycled money, which we know cannot be used in the [South West Exeter development], could be used for another purpose. I think it should be used for the other purpose,” he said. 

A motion to ask Homes England if any of the recycled money from developers at South West Exeter could be used again on the project, as well as to ask the council to consider other sources of funding for the community building, was defeated. 

The committee voted to accept the original cabinet decision by eight votes to three.