Hush hush deal done over Chester House costs
The deal will see the West unitary council dip out of future financial liabilities for the controversial 'vanity' project
By Sarah Ward
The cost of the newly opened Chester House Estate will fall to North Northamptonshire Council (NNC), in a u-turn from the long held arrangement.
The controversial heritage project, which is set to cost more than £16m to get up and running, will now be the financial responsibility of NNC, with the authority having to subsidise the estate to the sum of more than £200,000 for the next couple of years.
It is not until Year 6 that the long maligned project is predicted to be able to standalone and possibly make a small £35,000 profit.
Details of the pull out of West Northamptonshire Council were included in a late report to the council’s executive last week and were not mentioned by the finance portfolio holder Cllr Lloyd Bunday at the meeting.
Leader of the council Cllr Jason Smithers confirmed to NN Journal the North unitary would pick up the ongoing tab for the venue.
“At the end of the day it is a North asset. The West had decided they did not want to have a stake in this particular asset and they wanted to get out of that. Which I understand - from the North’s perspective it is our asset. We have no choice but to pick it up.”
He said he was confident the venue would ‘wash its face’ and that it would become a successful tourist destination.
The long held arrangement, dating back to 2019 was that both councils would cover the cost of the estate, which the year before the financially bankrupt county council had said it was progressing ‘through gritted teeth’.
The most recent business plan in July had included both councils which were due to collectively contribute £298,244 this year and the same amount the next to prop the business up. This was a big increase from the £174,000 collective contribution estimated in 2019.
However now it looks like West unitary will not pick up any of those financial contributions - although Cllr Smithers said the authority would pay the loan arrangements - at least £8.4m of the £16m project has been financed by borrowing.
NN Journal asked West Northamptonshire Council how much it would contribute this financial year toward Chester House Estate but the authority did not give a figure.
The decision for the North to take over the financial responsibility for the estate has been agreed away from the public gaze and has not been put before the scrutiny commission. The plan will be ratified in mid December by the joint committee of the two councils, a body made of portfolio holders from each authority.
Leader of the Labour opposition, Cllr Jean Addison, says she has never been a fan of the ‘vanity project’ and said the new deal had been kept very quiet. The first her party knew about the deal was when they noticed a mention of it in the finance scrutiny papers for next week, having missed it in the late addition to the 239 page agenda at the executive meeting.
She said they have now asked for it to be called in.
“We thought it was strange that nobody from the West attended the opening day,” she said. ‘I didn’t go there on principle.
“I like history and see the value, but you can’t pour money into a hole in the ground when your children’s services are floundering.”
She said that as a member of the shadow council (the authority that made the arrangements for the new unitaries) ‘We kept saying ‘this is a waste of money put a cap on it’.’
Long standing councillor Jim Hakewill, who is now part of the Kettering Green Alliance, has been concerned about the costs and liabilities of Chester House since the new unitaries began.
“It was always going to be a countywide project,” he said. “It is an absolutely classic white elephant.”
West Northamptonshire Council told us: "Chester Farm is geographically based in the North of the county and the North hold the budget for the capital works associated with it. Prior to vesting day it was a County Council project.
"It follows that the running costs for the centre should also sit with the North, as that is where the asset is based. The matter will be considered by the Joint Shared Services Committee in December."
And North Northamptonshire Council said: “The Chester House Estate is an asset owned and operated solely by North Northamptonshire Council. It was developed by NCC prior to 1/4/21 and the arrangement at the time was that it would be jointly supported by both Councils. The project was completed jointly by NNC & West Northamptonshire Council up to opening day in October.
“However, in the lead up to opening day in October, West Northamptonshire Council reviewed their projects and assets and have withdrawn from the project. They continue to support the joint archives service.
“The formal decision has not yet been made and will be presented to NBC's Joint Shared Services Committee next month for approval. The report will set out the position including the financial impact for NNC. The Council recognises that this is a significant project and continues to work with the team to make it a success for all residents and visitors.”
The re-development of the former 17th century farmhouse off the A45 near Irchester which sits on the site of a Roman settlement has been controversial since its very early days. It was brought by the authority in the early 2000s and in 2014 £3.9m of funding was secured by the county council’s Conservative leadership from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The authority then agreed to match fund the project and work began in 2016 but the costs spiralled and it became a running sore for the Conservative administration, especially when the county council run out of money in 2018. Despite this it was agreed to continue with the project - with the reason given that if it was mothballed, the lottery funding would have to go back.
The appointed Construction firm Shaylor went into administration in 2019 before a new contractor was brought on in 2020 and the venue, rebranded from Chester Farm to Chester House Estate, finally opened last month.
It houses the historic farm building plus the county’s archaeological archiving centre, a museum, an education centre, wedding venue and artisan shopping courtyard.
However, as yet many elements are not in full operation, the archaeological centre is set to open to the public next month and weddings are expected in the summer. On site car parking currently has to be pre booked and the off site car park is a ten minute walk away.
The final costs of the venue are not included in any of the recent council papers on the project, but working back through the finance trail, NN Journal has calculated the final bill stands at around £16.4m.
The authority is forecasting that 133,000 people will visit each year, an estimation which dates back to 2015 projections, and which the current business plan says ‘are conservative to ensure they can be fully achieved within the first financial year.’
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