In the middle of the cost of living crisis, a multi-million pound tax giveaway to one of the richest property developers in the country is not a good look for Norwich City Council.

Yet that is exactly what the city council’s leaders have just done.

The developer in question is Weston Homes, who plan to demolish Anglia Square and build over 1,000 homes on the site.

The tax break is an exemption to the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), which developers have to pay for any major development and which goes directly to the local council to pay for schools, parks, transport and other necessary infrastructure. 

For a development of the scale of Anglia Square, the CIL owed by the developer could total over £8million.

(For the first phase of the development, which is what the council’s cabinet recently approved, CIL would have been over £2million, with an extra £6million expected from later phases).

To be clear, Weston Homes’ permission to build on the site is not in question.

As a local councillor for the area around Anglia Square, I argued that Weston Homes’ proposal to make just ten per cent of their homes “affordable” would mean that people living in the area could be priced out.

But my objections were overruled by the non-partisan planning committee when the planning application was heard in April, and they voted to approve the development.

Fair enough – I accept that result.

What I do not accept is the fact that Weston Homes are holding the council over a barrel by claiming that they can only go ahead with the development and build the small number of affordable homes they promised if they get exempted from the CIL tax.

We are talking here about a developer who is expecting to make tens of millions of pounds of profit out of Anglia Square – possibly upwards of £40million.

Meanwhile, Norwich City Council and other councils are having to brutally cut budgets, leaving parks and schools dilapidated and, in the case of a school like Angel Road, unusable.

For a developer to get an exemption from CIL is extremely rare – most councils do not even allow developers to apply for an exemption. Yet documents obtained via Freedom of Information requests show that in 2018, Norwich City Council introduced a CIL exemption policy specifically at the behest of the Anglia Square developers.

To the council’s credit, they acknowledged that any exemption from the tax would be a matter of public interest, so they agreed that the planning applications committee would determine any applications.

The planning committee is made up of councillors who cannot legally be whipped by their party, and allows public input through formal consultation and allowing members of the public to speak at meetings.

So it was a shock when, with just a week’s notice, the council suddenly announced in late November that the planning committee would have no say over the CIL exemption.

Instead the cabinet, made up exclusively of Labour councillors and with no public consultation, would decide whether to grant Weston Homes the tax break.

Within a week, more than 1,000 people signed a petition against the tax break, demonstrating the level of public anger.

Yet the cabinet – with the exception of one member who subsequently resigned and left the Labour Party to become an independent councillor – voted to grant the CIL exemption in a decision that seemed at best rushed and confused, and at worst one-sided and opaque.

During the cabinet meeting, the council leader Mike Stonard repeatedly referred to “information that you [opposition councillors and the public] are not privy to” regarding Weston Homes' finances, and claimed he had had this “from the horse’s mouth”, from the company’s millionaire owner Bob Weston himself.

If Cllr Stonard had been having private discussions with the developer, he should have divulged the contents of those meetings, especially when millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is at stake.

Meanwhile, across Norwich, children are having lessons in portable cabins because school buildings are crumbling, public transport remains abysmal, and community groups are struggling to keep going under financial pressure.

These are all things that the CIL money could have funded, but this was not even considered by the cabinet.

Normally, these opportunities to improve the lives of people across the city would be addressed in an Equalities Impact Assessment (EqIA) – a vitally important process that councils should carry out before any major decision.

Yet when opposition councillors asked to see the EqIA, it turned out there was none, and instead it was hastily written a week after the decision had been made. Cabinet members did not consider any of the benefits that more than £2million initially, and over £8million in total, could bring to the local area – they only considered the needs of the developer, and they did that in a way that defied transparent process.

Opposition councillors challenged the decision through the only route available, by “calling in” the matter to the council’s scrutiny committee.

Frustratingly, before all questions could be asked, the Labour councillors on the committee moved a vote to shut down the meeting. 

The tax break is a huge loss to the city, and the rushed, opaque way the decision was made leaves serious questions to answer about Cllr Stonard’s connections to the developers and whose interests he represents.

Cllr Jamie Osborn represents the Green Party on both Norfolk County Council and Norwich City Council.