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Comment: South Oxhey Initiative must not descend into farce
There have been mixed messages emanating from Three Rivers District Council since the second housing association in a year pulled out of its ambitious South Oxhey Initiative.
After Catalyst Housing bailed out of the regeneration project last month the leader of the council, Ann Shaw, initially played down the set back describing it as “an irritation”.
Days after her comments, the council announced it would be reviewing the scheme, which suggested Catalyst’s withdrawal was cause to re-examine the entire basis of the initiative.
But at the same time as this review, Three Rivers said it would be pressing ahead with the project and applying for outline planning permission in early 2014. So one was left asking what, if anything, this review was supposed to achieve?
In a press release, Three Rivers’ head of major projects, Alan Head, said the review “will provide residents, tenants and users of the facilities in the central precinct area, greater certainty of the development timescale and clarity on the actual impact the proposals will have on them.”
At which point the review started to sound more like an exercise in publicising the details of a project that is still progressing than a root and branch examination of whether it is viable.
The only thing that was clear from these pronouncements is that the initiative is foundering.
The council currently finds itself in the politically awkward situation of struggling to make headway on a scheme which was rejected by the people it is suppose to help.
When Three Rivers decided to improve the centre of the South Oxhey estate it presented three options for consultation: Do nothing, refurbish the area or knock it down and regenerate it from scratch. The majority of residents and business owners voted for the refurbishment option only to be told the exercise was only a consultation, not a plebiscite.
Councillor Shaw said the council would be opting for redevelopment as refurbishment was not a “financially sound” option. The current plan is for around 100 homes to be torn down and replaced with 450 new ones and a new supermarket.
On top of the setbacks hampering the project, the ruling Liberal Democrats are also facing an emerging threat on its political flank.
Last week, opposition councillors started to link the stumbling South Oxhey Initiative with the fiasco over William Penn, which saw the leisure centre’s redevelopment beset with long delays and deep overspends. The sensitivity at Three Rivers House over that debacle can be gauged by the fact the Information Commissioner this week ruled the council was wrong to refuse Freedom of Information requests from the Conservative opposition leader, Ralph Sangster, for documents relating to the project.
If another large project is botched on the Liberal Democrats’ watch it will present a gift to their opponents who will be able use it to raise questions about the administration’s competence.
Yet the stakes are much higher with the South Oxhey Initiative than they were with William Penn. The drawn-out closure of the leisure centre was an inconvenience for residents. But while the initiative remains stalled, hundreds of families in South Oxhey are effectively incarcerated in the estate. Any attempt to move has been made near impossible as their homes are blighted by being earmarked for demolition.
The William Penn redevelopment turned into a farce. But if the South Oxhey Initiative were to suffer a similar fate, it will be a tragedy.
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