Enfield Council’s Potters Bar property purchase ‘gamble’

Plan to buy a residential property in a Potters Bar street comes under scrutiny, reports Simon Allin, Local Democracy Reporter

Enfield Council owns a piece of Green Belt land in Hertfordshire adjacent to junction 24 of the M25 (credit Google)
Enfield Council owns a piece of Green Belt land in Hertfordshire adjacent to junction 24 of the M25 (credit Google)

Enfield Council chiefs have defended plans to buy a residential property in Potters Bar to help develop Green Belt land after being accused of “gambling” with public money.

Council officials insisted they were “safeguarding the assets of Enfield residents” by purchasing the property in Park Avenue, near junction 24 of the M25, in order to improve access to a plot of land that could be used to build new homes.

Plans to buy the property were revealed in August in a report that claimed it would provide better access to the land in Southgate Road – within the Hertsmere district of Hertfordshire but owned by Enfield Council – “to help unlock its potential for residential development”. According to the report, if planning permission for development is granted, this could raise a “significant” sum of money to invest in Enfield or reduce borrowing.

But members of the opposition Conservative administration accused the council of “using public money for property speculation” after calling in the decision to the council’s overview and scrutiny committee. Branding it a “gamble”, they warned a housing scheme was unlikely to go ahead because building on the Green Belt goes against planning policies. The Tories’ bid to force a rethink of the decision failed, however, when the committee voted to confirm the original decision during a meeting on Tuesday.

Lee Chamberlain, the Conservative councillor who led the call-in, told the committee that support for Green Belt development in Hertsmere was “fading fast”, as Hertsmere Borough Council had revoked its draft Local Plan over the issue. Even assuming the right price was paid for the land, he said, getting the money back was “not given” in the current economic climate.

Cllr Chamberlain also objected to the principle of Green Belt development on moral and environmental grounds, and argued the council should ramp up housing delivery on brownfield sites, including Meridian Water. He said: “We all want to see the delivery of more homes for residents. I don’t believe any of us here are truly happy with the current position. This decision will at worst hinder delivery and at best waste money we can ill afford to squander.”

Tim Leaver, the council’s cabinet member for finance and procurement, denied that the council was engaged in “speculation” and claimed the deal would be “good value”. He said: “Quite clearly, this is about safeguarding the assets of Enfield residents. It is about protecting what we have, and it is about protecting the opportunities in the future.”

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Cllr Leaver said the council was investing “a modest amount of money to ensure that should there be circumstances outside of our plan, our control, and the land is identified [for development], we won’t be held to ransom, we will have some control, and we will also be able to protect the interest of residents”.

The Labour councillor also claimed the decision was “not about building on the Green Belt”, as the council had no say in whether the Hertsmere Local Plan would include the plot – although it had “indications” that it would be.

Conservative committee member James Hockney suggested that if Hertsmere Council had withdrawn the Local Plan over opposition to Green Belt development, that increased the risk of failing to get planning permission for the plot of land.

In response, Peter George, the council’s director of development, said Hertsmere still had to meet government housing targets and, if it failed to produce a Local Plan, it would enable more speculative development to happen in the borough. He said he did not know whether the Local Plan would include the site, but added that officers were “protecting council assets and public money”.

Maria Alexandrou, another Conservative committee member, asked why the administration kept “pushing to build on the Green Belt” instead of “looking at brownfield sites that already exist”. Cllr Leaver again insisted that the council was protecting its interests, adding that the authority was doing all it could to meet its housing targets.

Under questioning from Conservative councillor Hannah Dyson, head of strategic property decisions David Childs said the price being paid for the property was “reasonable” and that if the council needed to release the asset, it would get back “pretty much all we have spent in the first place”.

Controversy broke out when Labour committee member Nawshad Ali was invited to speak and said he did not “see any reason why it should not go ahead”. Cllr Alexandrou called for Cllr Ali to be removed from the meeting, saying he had already given his view on the issue, but chair Margaret Greer allowed him to continue after he claimed he was about to ask a question.

Cllr Ali said he wanted to clarify whether it was Green Belt land or existing residential land that was being sold, and officers told him it was a residential property. The Tories continued to call for Cll Ali to be removed, but he was allowed to remain in the meeting.

When the meeting readjourned following a private session in which councillors discussed detailed financial information, Cllr Chamberlain said he was not satisfied with the call-in response and that it was “misleading” to suggest the issue was not about Green Belt development. But although the three Conservative committee members voted to refer the decision to full council, the four Labour members opted to take no further action.

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