The decision to sell Chislehurst Library followed “normal processes” and represents the best value move for the local authority, Conservative councillors have maintained, despite concerns the sale price currently being backed was “several hundred thousand pounds less” than a rival proposal.
Clock House ward member Ian Dunn claimed council’s best practice “hasn’t been followed in this case” and questioned why documents detailing the proposal weren’t released to the public when the decision to sell was backed at a September 2 meeting.
“I haven’t been following it closely but I was under impression the development would involve a supermarket and flats,” he told the digital meeting on Tuesday.
He asked members to “imagine my surprise” when it was instead a scheme involving a medical centre which was backed.
“Where did the idea of medical centre come from? Why did only one bidder include a medical centre?” he said.
He added: “Is it sensible for the council to effectively be subsidising the provision of GP services?”
“This is a risky scheme which does not deliver best value to Bromley Council,” he said.
Fellow Labour councillor Vanessa Allen held her own concerns over a lack of transparency.
“Transparency and scrutiny do matter…suspicions will fester if answers don’t come forward,” she said.
Cabinet member for renewal, recreation and housing Peter Morgan had earlier said the Chislehurst Library would continue to play an important role in the community.
He said the redevelopment would fix issues including its wheelchair accessibility, and improve its “poorly laid-out” design and visual attractiveness.
Similar redevelopments in Orpington, Biggin Hill and Penge had seen library use increase “hugely”, Cllr Morgan said.
“In terms of the process, and I know this is very much what the call-in is about, this is the same for all properties sold by the council,” he said.
“A report submitted to relevant policy development and scrutiny committee, then executive, then if approved the property is then marketed.”
“The officers, their advisers and the relevant portfolio holder analyse the bids and usually after a second-stage round a buyer or developer is selected.”
“It’s a completely normal process, which has been followed in this case.”
While the exact figure of the sale was kept out of the public eyes, it was revealed the medical centre proposal would be “several hundred pounds less” than at least one other bid put forward by prospective developers.
Councillors and officers in favour of the Prime scheme however said their bid was the most deliverable option.
Labour leader Angela Wilkins, who spear-headed Labour’s call-in, questioned again why the council had chosen developer Prime for the sale.
“We are handing a prime piece of public land to a developer who will give us several hundred thousand pounds less (than another developer),”she said.
“I don’t feel or understand why the higher bid was perceived to not be deliverable.”
Council’s assistant director of strategic property Michael Watkins answered the authority had a “duty of care” to make sure bids are deliverable.
This included making “sure funding is there”, which he said was “encapsulated in a development agreement” ensuring funds for the project existed.
He added “if you enter into a development agreement you have to be clear what you’re developing” – saying that rival bids which had pitched a supermarket hadn’t locked in a tenant.
He said Prime’s big would clearly involve a medical centre, while a “third party occupier” in other bids weren’t identified.
He added they had backing from Bromley CCG in the form of a letter of support.
Conservative councillors thus voted in favour of continuing with the project, while Labour against.
Resolved, the live stream of the meeting was subsequently cut as councillors and staff headed behind virtual closed-doors to discuss finance details of the scheme in more depth.
Plans will now rumble forward to offload the library – with a sale still dependent on a successful planning application for the site.