Revealed: How EDDC reached £7.5m deal for Sidmouth HQ

Campaigners from Save Our Sidmouth on the steps outside Knowle.

Campaigners from Save Our Sidmouth on the steps outside Knowle. - Credit: Archant

District council chiefs have backed down and agreed to release details of a deal to sell their Knowle HQ to a developer.

Campaigner Jeremy Woodward took the authority to the Information Commissioner after his Freedom of Information requests were refused.

The transparency watchdog ruled in Mr Woodward’s favour and, after initially arguing against two rulings, East Devon District Council (EDDC) this week withdrew its appeals.

EDDC has now revealed details of the bidding process for Knowle and its contract with PegasusLife to create a 113-home retirement community - a £7.5million deal intended to help fund the authority’s relocation to Exmouth and Honiton.

Mr Woodward welcomed the news, accusing the council of appearing to be ‘secretive’. He hopes its leadership will now ‘act on their promise to be truly transparent with both the public and their own councillors’.

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The documents show six developers were interested in Knowle, with initial offers of as little as £2million. Estate agent Savills ranked the options in 2014 and PegasusLife’s £7,505,000 bid came out on top. The offer was subject to planning permission, which was refused in December last year.

The documents also show the developer was arguing its plans should be exempt from a payment towards ‘affordable’ housing. And Mr Woodward said the lack of a significant ‘overage’ clause in the contract meant EDDC would be unable to ‘claw back’ any excess profits PegasusLife might make.

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An EDDC spokeswoman said it is standard practice not to debate the contents of legal documents in public.

In an earlier statement, she said the appeals were lodged in November due to the sensitivity of the information, but this decreased when PegasusLife’s application was refused the following month.

The spokeswoman said the Information Commissioner also told EDDC it was right to question the way the decision was made, adding: “The council has now obtained much-needed clarity on the position relating to the confidentiality of tendering processes.

“There has been no cost to us – or East Devon taxpayers – for undertaking this appeals process. Each of the parties to the appeal agreed to bear their own costs and our costs were all internal.”

Mr Woodward had previously challenged EDDC in 2015 when it refused to comply with Freedom of Information requests, also on its relocation. The eight-month legal battle saw EDDC blasted as ‘discourteous and unhelpful’ and cost taxpayers £11,000 in lawyers’ fees.

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