Tories defend record on council owned This Land

This Land has started rebuilding work on three plots at its new Cityglades development in Cambridge.

This Land has started rebuilding work on three steel structured homes at its Cityglades development in Cambridge. The company chosen to build the homes has been sacked, a new builder is being sought, and This Land is embroiled in a legal battle. - Credit: Terry Harris

Councillors clashed over how seriously issues identified at county-council owned This Land should be taken. 

An independent review into company found areas of concern including how risks have been assessed. 

The report was commissioned by the current joint administration, and Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors highlighted what they argued were “shocking findings of recklessness”. 

However, Conservative councillors disagreed with this viewpoint.  

They said they recognised there needed to be some “tweaking”, but one councillor suggested that they “seem to have read a different report”. 

This Land was incorporated in 2016, to sell and develop land it had purchased from the county council. 

The county council is the company’s only lender, and it has £114million on loan to This Land, in addition to the around £6m invested as equity. 

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This Land pays interest on the loans, providing income to the county council, but also means the county council needs to rely on the company’s commercial success. 

The independent review into This Land raised areas of concern, including that there is a dependency on “as yet unsecured sites”, with it being behind on identifying new sites. 

The report also said it was concerning the difficulty that had been faced in trying to extract information from the company, which the review said would normally have been expected to be readily available. 

It added that a number of sites from the original portfolio that had been transferred from the county council had been sold for a loss, and it was recognised that the company had also faced setbacks in the planning application process. 

The review also said that errors had been identified looking at the company’s assumptions, which the report said indicated that the risk management processes are “not fully robust”. 

It added that not enough detail in the business plan means the county council cannot “fully understand its exposure to risk”. 

These issues were highlighted by councillors at a strategy and resources meeting on January 27. 

Cllr Edna Murphy (Lib Dem) said the report showed that the creation of the company was a “reckless venture” and that it is now “critical” to get it right. 

Cllr Richard Howitt (Lab) said the report was “shocking” saying the financial model is “not fit for purpose” and that the business assumptions are “based on falsehoods”. 

Cllr Lorna Dupré (Lib Dem) said the report raised concerns for her and that more than just “tweaking” would be required, highlighting where the report said that several shortcomings had been identified needing immediate attention. 

She added: “I have to say that one of the things that jumped out at me were two words in the same sentence that really ought never to be in the same sentence, and one of those is ‘accounting’ and the other one is ‘unusual’. 

“I don’t like to hear about unusual accounting, that worries me enormously.” 

However, Conservative councillors refuted the report was as damning as was being suggested. 

Opposition leader Cllr Steve Count (Con) acknowledged that there are issues that have been picked up in the report and said he welcomed the fact that the various issues had been identified. 

However, he argued the description of the report’s contents as being “shocking” was “a little bit overboard”. 

Cllr Count said the company was set up was to provide funds to support the county council’s frontline services, which he said it had so far done. 

Cllr Josh Schumann (Con) argued that to portray This Land as being in “complete disarray” was a “huge disservice” to the previous administration officers, and officers at This Land. 

He said: “To suggest it’s in complete disarray to the rest of the world is inappropriate and irresponsible, because if you can guarantee one thing, the way to make this company fail is to tell the world it is failing.” 

Council leader Lucy Nethsingha said it was “difficult to overestimate the risk This Land poses”, with the “enormous” amount of money the council has invested. 

An update report on This Land will be published in March.