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Councils' aborted regeneration project 'was feasible'

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A pioneering regeneration project between two councils and a central government agency could have gone ahead had the Department for Work & Pensions not taken more than a year to decide on a £10m clawback demand.

Waveney Campus was scuppered last December by the uncertainty caused by spending cuts, local government reorganisation and the sudden DWP demand in March 2009 for what it claimed was benefit grant overpaid to Waveney in the mid-2000s. It settled the dispute for just £379,000 in September.

The £60m campus would have provided new accommodation on a regeneration site in Lowestoft for Waveney DC, parts of Suffolk CC and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS), a major local employer.

An independent review by Local Government Improvement & Development has now concluded the project was sound but was killed off by external financial issues and the uncertainty created by the aborted proposal for local government reorganisation in Suffolk, during which it was unclear whether either Suffolk or Waveney would survive in their present forms.

Waveney commissioned the review after local criticism that the project had been too risky for a small district to take the lead.

Strategic director Stephen Archer said: “The project was blown off course by financial factors. The DWP challenge was the biggie, and also the pre-budget speech which indicated changes were coming involving massive savings.

“If we’d known the DWP claim would turn out as it did we could have proceeded but we did not know that and it was not clear what would be demanded.”

The LGID report said the campus project was “from the start, ambitious, but one that was financially feasible and would provide a key stimulus for the area, retaining skilled employment and providing regeneration opportunities for Lowestoft”.

It noted that it successfully passed gateway reviews by the Office of Government Commerce but “a key risk throughout the programme was that of affordability for individual partners”.

Mr Archer said Waveney’s town hall was unfit for purpose and the council was now talking to Suffolk and to neighbouring Suffolk Coastal DC about alternative accommodation.

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