A major housing developer has been told to honour a deal to build a £5.9 million community centre in Sutton Coldfield but the decision has received a mixed reaction with charity in the town seemingly at loggerheads with local residents.
Keir Ventures Ltd and Rubery Owen Holdings told the council’s planning committee it could no longer afford the community leisure centre and playing pitches, a spin off from its development of 110 homes on the former Hardy Spicer Playing Fields in Walmley, Sutton Coldfield, at a meeting of Birmingham City Council’s planning committee last Thursday (October 12).
As well as ending its collaboration with the YMCA, the developer asked if it could hand over just £3.5 million to the city council towards the cost of a new community centre.
Planning officers told the committee that if the developers proposal was approved, a centre would still be built, but with two key differences. It would be at a lower cost than the one originally planned and not necessarily operated by the YMCA.
They were also told that the site might remain mothballed if the new deal is not agreed.
The YMCA was furious at the attempt to ditch its leisure centre after a decade of planning work. Spokesman Clive Yates said: “The contract was entered into by the landowner at their risk. They accepted that risk.”
He added that the housing development is likely to generate about £11 million profit, more than enough to cover the cost of the YMCA community centre.
But a majority of residents had long opposed the YMCA plan and backed the developer and a lower cost community centre.
Speaking on their behalf Cllr David Barrie (Cons, Sutton New Hall) said: “We have an opportunity to provide something of value to the community with the support of the community.”
He was concerned that if the company is forced to stick to the original deal then the development will be shelved.
The committee heard that YMCA had no legal status in the deal had been made in 2014 and therefore it could be altered without their consent.
But a slim majority of planning committee members, the vote was six to four, decided that the council and the developer had a moral duty to honour the original deal with the YMCA.
Cllr Barry Henley (Lab, Brandwood) said: “This was signed as a contract and should be honoured. Private companies are expected to manage risk. They factored this in and signed the contract.”
He said the plea of hardship was hard to justify from a consortium of developers making hundreds of millions of pounds profit.
“The community gave up public open space, they should get the leisure and community centre in return.”
His colleague Peter Douglas Osborn (Cons, Weoley) added: “We would not have given them planning permission without the community leisure centre.”
But Cllr Fiona Williams (Lab, Hodge Hill) offered an opposing pragmatic view saying that if residents backed the new deal they should take it.
Clive Yates, CEO, YMCA Sutton Coldfield welcomed the planning committee’s decision and said: “We would like to thank the city councillors for their support, in particular the independence and impartiality they showed in arriving at their decision to vote against the deed of variation.
“The result of the vote now gives us the opportunity to re-open discussions with the landowners, working together with them to provide the best facility possible for the Walmley community.
“As an independent charity, the new centre represents a chance for us to extend the vital work that we do with young people in need so that more families can benefit from the services we provide. We will of course continue to involve local residents in the planning of the facilities to make it a genuine community centre for all.”
However, David Cooke, chair of Walmley Residents Association said: “The planning committee’s decision is totally at odds with their officers’ reports and with the wishes of most local residents.
“Council officers have examined the financial viability of the YMCA’s inflated demands and have found no justification for an increase in funding from £2.5 million in 2009 to £6 million now.
“Several hundred signatures were obtained from local residents in support of the previous Village Green applications, which failed in 2015. They were strongly opposed to the YMCA’s scheme having regard to its disproportionate size, potentially to serve many thousand clients throughout north Birmingham, its location, in close proximity to an established residential area, the traffic generation -the YMCA’s own consultant predicted a doubling of traffic on Weaver Avenue and accessed via a single road junction, which is already highly congested at peak times and is the only means of access for 160 existing houses.
“Whilst residents have been unable to influence the YMCA’s planning consent, recent meetings held to discuss the proposed deed of variation clearly showed almost total unanimity in support of those changes. Yet again the wishes of the majority of local residents have been ignored in favour of inappropriate planning decisions.”
Following the decision Cllr Barrie in a letter to Walmley residents association added: “We are sorry to report that despite the support of all three local councillors, overwhelming support from residents, both individually and collectively represented by the Walmley Residents Association, as well as the council officer report recommending acceptance of the deed of variation, the planning committee has rejected the submission.
“As your councillors we are struggling to make sense of this decision which clearly flew in the face of the financial and legal advice given. It would appear that unless all the money is given to the YMCA and their approval is given to any building, nothing will get done. We regard this as holding our residents to ransom.
“We feel that this matter should come back to the planning committee as a matter of urgency for a formal decision on the proper planning reason for refusal and a proper discussion of the potential consequences. Whatever happens we shall battle on for the best result for our residents.”