Cracks begin to show in the West
Jonathan Nunn faces first big test of his leadership
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By Natalie Bloomer
In comparison to the North unitary, the West has had a fairly settled first year. Councillors within the Conservative group have been united with most toeing the party line on key issues. That was until the Cobblers land deal returned to the agenda.
Leader Jonathan Nunn is all too aware of the stakes around getting this deal right. He became leader of the former Northampton Borough Council shortly after the authority approved the ill-fated £10m loan to the football club which has never been repaid - an issue still in the forefront of many local taxpayers’ minds.
The land, which the council owns the freehold to and the football club owners lease, is prime for development but significant remedial work needs to be done to it first.
The council currently favours a bid from CDNL (a subsidiary of the football club) to purchase the land for £890,000 with a condition that they will complete work on the East Stand. However the authority has also received an offer of £2m from a company called Cilldara Ltd. The council says complications with the leases mean it makes sense to stick with the CDNL offer and also says the Cilldara bid was received too late to be properly considered.
It was initially thought that both the Conservatives and the opposition were largely supportive of the proposals with most relieved to see some movement on it.
However, tensions began to rise last Friday when the Conservative Group met to discuss it in more detail and a number of councillors raised concerns about whether the authority was getting the best deal possible for taxpayers.
In the first big test of Nunn’s leadership, the number of Tories against the deal increased to around 13 over the weekend with many asking serious questions about the proposed deal and some believing the land should be put on the open market.
“The cabinet seems to be backing it but this just looks like a bad deal. Something doesn’t add up. To take less than a million pounds for land that will ultimately be worth a whole lot more just doesn’t make sense,” one source told NN Journal.
“This was all kept from us until the last minute, I think they thought it was all just going to slide through, I always look at business deals from two sides and whichever way I look at this it makes no business sense,” another said.
NN Journal understands that the leadership were yesterday ramping up the pressure on those intending to speak out on the issue at last night’s full council meeting.
“Some members were told not to ask specific questions and others were warned that the football club could publicly blame them if the deal doesn’t go through,” one source said.
At the meeting, members from all sides asked why the timeframe couldn’t be extended to look at the Cilldara offer in more detail and also to obtain another valuation given that the second bid is so much higher than the valuation Lambert Smith Hampton gave to the council of around £890,000.
Assistant director of assets and environment at WNC Simon Bowers told the meeting the timeframe had been imposed by officers and the leadership.
Tory councillor for Moulton John Shepherd said:
“I do not believe for a moment that at cabinet next week, in the face of apparently a genuine offer of £2m, [they] can say ‘no we’re not considering the offer’… Simon [Bowers] is admitting tonight that he is not allowed to investigate that offer because of a timetable imposed by officers or the leadership. Frankly if we’re saying we’re not entertaining that offer that’s got to be an unreasonable position.”
Speaking after the meeting, one source told NN Journal the feeling among the Conservative group is that the cabinet would be “mad to press ahead now.”
“He [Jonathan Nunn] looked nervous as hell. I can’t see them going ahead with it now, it will have to be delayed.”
Labour said they supported the deal in principle but that they would like to see a further valuation done and also asked for reassurances over the athletics track which forms part of the deal. Leader Gareth Eales said it was a shame the issue had become so polarised.
Chair of the scrutiny committee Danielle Stone told the meeting she was disappointed that they didn’t have the opportunity for the issue to go to pre-scrutiny.
The meeting also heard from people from the club in favour of the deal and from the Supporters Trust who are asking for more conditions to be added to it.
The vote last night was only to note the report, a decision on it will be taken by the cabinet next week.
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