Town council agrees to buy land to create 160-acre country park
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A Norfolk town council will try to purchase the “final piece” in a “jigsaw” of land, enabling the creation of a 160-acre country park - amid a wave of enthusiasm from residents.
Provided their bid is successful, Dereham Town Council will acquire a crucial 22 hectares of arable land, which lies just north of the town’s Etling View housing development.
The land will complete a project more than a decade in the making, bridging Neatherd Moor in the west with Etling Green in the east.
“Our descendants in years to come will hopefully thank us for buying that piece of land,” said Conservative councillor Phillip Duigan.
“This will give us an additional green lung for Dereham,” Labour councillor Harry Clarke agreed.
Green councillor Philip Morton said: “If we take this piece of land… we’ll then have the ability to have an organic area across a whole acreage, which won’t get spray-drift, which won’t get fertiliser.
“We should be able to improve the habitat far beyond what it can be at the moment. It gives us a lot more freedom to add value to our existing land.”
In a letter of support for the plan, former Dereham mayor Ann Bowyer said the land would help address the town’s deficit of open space and that “too many people do not appreciate how much we are on a knife edge when it comes to looking after our world.”
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An online survey about the plan received more than 600 responses from people living in Dereham and its nearby villages, the vast majority of whom were in favour.
97pc of respondents living in Dereham itself said the Neatherd contributes to their quality of life and wellbeing, with 46pc saying it does so “a great deal”.
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Likewise, 97pc of Dereham respondents said the land should be purchased, with just 2pc saying no and 1pc unsure.
The project’s financing made little difference for most people. Asked whether they would be prepared to pay an additional £3 per year in council tax in order for the council to pay back a loan for the land, 89pc of Dereham respondents said yes, with just 7pc saying no and the rest unsure.
“I’m really pleased with the results of the survey - I’m quite surprised in a way it’s as high as that,” Mr Morton remarked.
The council then discussed how best to finance the project.
The first option on the table was to take out a loan over 50 years, adding £3 a year to a band D council tax bill - a 2% increase in Dereham’s council tax portion in 2022.
The second option discussed was to pool funds allocated to other projects – meaning other projects would not be delivered.
Finally, a third suggested option was a combination of the first two approaches.
All councillors agreed the second option was the least desirable, and resolved to exclude it from their later discussion.
Conservative councillor Linda Monument pointed out: “It’s possible that even if we took out the full loan, we would have to resort to some of our own funds because there is an upper limit on what we’re allowed to borrow in one year.”
She added: “I would be quite happy with option three, because it would mean that we don’t take everything we can and push the council tax up by a full £3, this year.”
Mr Morton conversely spoke in favour of option one: “I think it’s the cleanest way of identifying what we’re doing and it also gives us options in the future.
“If we take some reserves away, who knows what’s coming exactly with Covid, in terms of financial restraints, so I would favour taking as much of a loan as we need.”
The council agreed to seek approval from the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to apply for a 50-year loan from the Public Works Loan Board.
The press and public were then excluded from the meeting, as reporting on specific figures at this stage was deemed prejudicial to the public interest - particularly as the council could be outbid by someone in the informal tender process for acquiring the land.