Exeter City Council has resisted the temptation to cash in on a valuable plot of land for houses, with a pledge to keep it green for the community.
Officers had recommended selling off the land at Clifton Hill as a way of covering the costs left behind after the failure of its housing development company Exeter City Living (ECL).
The site could have brought in millions of pounds, and there were fears that it could be a target for purpose-built student accommodation for Exeter University, despite a council policy against that.
But the council’s executive committee has decided to sell the land on which the leisure centre sat, while hanging on to the land around it, which has been used as a dry ski slope and a golf driving range.
Cllr Emma Morse (Lab, Mincinglake and Whipton) said: “Even though officers believe it is the right thing to do, we as politicians do not.”
Development will happen within the ‘footprint’ of the old leisure centre only.
Separately, the city centre Mary Arches multi-storey car park will also be sold.
The leisure centre closed in 2018, and demolition began last year. Planning permission was given to ECL for 41 homes, and at the time the council pledged to protect open space at the rear for public use.
But in a report to the executive committee, the council’s finance director and city surveyor suggested the ‘unrestricted’ disposal of some of the land, leading to fears that student accommodation could be built instead of badly-needed homes for local families.
Such a decision would have helped the council recover some of the £9 million it loaned to ECL before it was wound down.
Cllr Matthew Vizard (Lab, Newton and St Leonards) gave a ‘warm welcome’ to the decision to keep the green space. He said while he understood the business case for letting the land go, there was a ‘compelling’ environmental case to keep it.
“This is the right decision,” he said. “It’s a difficult balance, but one we must strike.”
Cllr Morse went on: “We have to be prudent with our money, but we stood up and said we would not build purpose-built student accommodation on our land, and we have stood by this.
“It is not the most prudent decision, but it is the right decision.”
Council leader Phil Bialyk (Lab, Exwick) said disposing of the two sites would not cure all the council’s financial problems.
“We have thought long and hard about all of this,” he said. “We will have residential development on the existing site which already has planning permission.
“It will enable us to do what ECL would have done for us – bringing homes for people in Exeter.
“We are determined to stick to the undertakings that we have given to residents in Newtown and Clifton Hill. We are going to deliver homes for people in Exeter. We are committed to having no purpose-built student accommodation on council-owned land, and we have carried that out.”
He said the cost of the decision to keep the council’s promise to local residents was a ‘sensitive issue.’
The amount of money raised by allowing building on the old leisure centre site, and the amount lost by hanging on to the rest of the land, is being kept secret. Discussions about it were held behind closed doors with press and public excluded.