Is the West unitary going to buy Northampton’s St James bus depot?
The authority is refusing to confirm or deny a rumour it is trying to buy a Northampton town centre site.
By Sarah Ward
West Northamptonshire Council has been in talks to buy a Northampton town centre site from a company looking to make a hefty profit after a taxpayer subsidy, NN Journal understands.
The authority is refusing to confirm or deny that it is having talks with Prada, who own heritage shoe firm Church’s.
Back in 2014 the former Northampton Borough Council made a loss of £227,000 when it helped Church’s to acquire the bus depot site at St James in order to aid the company’s planned, but never realised, expansion.
In an unusual back-to-back deal the authority was the purchaser from owners First Bus in April 2014, paying £1.85m for the land and on the same day selling it to Church’s for £1.627m.
An FOI by NN Journal in 2021 exclusively revealed the council had made a substantial loss on the site, with the authority also failing to draw up a clawback clause, which meant if the site was sold on, the authority would not legally be entitled to any of the subsidy cash back.
Church’s has not developed the site since it gained ownership and put the St James Road road site up for sale earlier this summer, with agents advertising it is sold.
Now it appears that the borough council’s successor, the West unitary council, is trying to get the site as two separate sources have said the authority was interested in and has made an offer, with the intention of developing it for social housing. NN Journal understands another firm has also put in a bid for the site.
The possible purchase has not gone before the council for discussion or scrutiny and NN Journal understands leader Jonathan Nunn may have used executive powers to buy the site.
This is an unusual move as big capital projects are usually discussed at council meetings to ensure the rest of the council and the wider public know what is being planned.
We asked the council whether it was intending the buy the site; why the plan had not been discussed in public; what was the scheme for the site and whether the leader had used executive powers and we received the following short response from its media office:
“We remain in dialogue with Church’s over the sale of the site.”
We challenged the response, pointing out such a significant purchase by the authority needed scrutiny and the media office replied:
“We will happily offer further details when we have them.”
Northamptonshire Partnership Homes is the council-owned company which manages the authority’s social housing stock and may be the entity under which the authority acquires the site.
Leader of the Labour opposition, Cllr Wendy Randall says she has not been told by the council’s leadership of any plans regarding St James site.
“It stinks. If we get into power, everyone will know what is going on. This is public money. The Conservatives are in charge and make the decisions, but it is not their money - it is the public’s.
“I’m just sick of the council, full stop.”
Graham Croucher from Northampton Transport Heritage is currently putting together an application to have the former bus depot building which sits on the site listed by Historic England. The site dates back to the early 1900s and was an integral part of the town’s transport system.
If the authority is in fact the buyer, it shows a pattern of the new West unitary returning to the poor deals of the former borough council. The current West unitary leader Jonathan Nunn was the former leader of the borough council, although not at the time the unprofitable deals were made.
The authority famously lost millions of pounds by lending funds to the former owners of Northampton Town Football Club to help develop a new stand. The cash went missing, with auditors KPMG saying there were ‘serious failings’ in governance and pointed to ‘inadequate due diligence’. But the successor authority is currently dealing once again with the football club and is selling it some land for a price which is lower than that made by a rival. A judicial review ruled the authority had not acted unlawfully in taking the lesser offer.