Council chiefs have bought what remains of the Lowood Estate at Tweedbank for nearly £10m with a view to having hundreds of houses built there.
The site, south of the River Tweed, has been earmarked to host 300 new homes by council officers but is being eyed up for non-residential uses too, potentially creating almost 180 jobs and the same number of vacancies during its construction phase.
A report on the purchase, part of Scottish Borders Council’s Tweedbank masterplan, will be presented to a full meeting of the authority this Thursday, December 20.
Other elements of the masterplan up for discussion would be expected to generate a further 160 permanent jobs and a similar number while building work is under way.
Mid Berwickshire councillor Mark Rowley, the council’s executive member for business and economic development, said: “There are a series of opportunities for significant development on some key sites in Tweedbank, with many of those well progressed.
“This will be carried out and funded by the council, a range of partners including Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Government and the private sector.
“We look forward to all these coming to fruition and seeing very substantial employment opportunities, both in the construction phase and longer term, which is extremely exciting for the whole of the Borders due to the wider economic benefits they would provide.
“In addition, by acquiring Lowood Estate, the council now controls a vital site which has significant development potential for both the public and private sector, associated employment benefits and the scope for the delivery of a large number of homes.
“The development potential of these sites has been hugely boosted by the presence of the Borders Railway.
“By maximising the economic impact of the railway in its current form, we strengthen the case for its potential future extension to Hawick and beyond.”
The masterplan identifies potential for residential and business space development on the estate, as well as expanding Tweedbank and rebranding the current industrial estate there as the Borders Innovation Park.
The Tweedbank masterplan was developed as part of the Borders Railway blueprint programme to seek to exploit to the full the possibilities afforded by the opening of the £353m line in 2015.
The deal agreed with the estate’s owner, Alexander Hamilton, is for the remaining 110 acres still in private hands to add to the 190 acres bought from then owner Constance Hamilton using compulsory powers by the former Roxburgh County Council in the early 1970s to create Tweedbank.
A report to this week’s meeting by the authority’s executive director, Rob Dickson, reveals that the newly-acquired Lowood land will be owned by Lowood Tweedbank, a new arm’s-length company set up and owned by the council.
The land is home to one large property, Lowood House, tipped for possible future conversion into a hotel, and another eight residential properties occupied by tenants.
Some 40 acres of the estate now acquired are parkland and a further 35 are woodland.
“The council paid £9.6m for the estate, lower than the price cap previously agreed, and is now finalising the expenses due on the purchase which will form part of the overall project cost”, Mr Dickson reports.
“An appropriate marketing and development strategy will be developed for Lowood Estate. This will require careful analysis of both desirable public and private-sector potential uses and will need to ensure an appropriate balance between the two. “
Developing the estate would cost an extra £80m on top of the price of the land, but would potentially generate £150m of gross value added for the region’s economy, estimates Mr Dickson.
“It is that evident from market analysis and the lack of current speculative development in the region that without a comprehensive approach, strong council leadership and public-sector pump-priming, these development opportunities are unlikely to be delivered in the immediate future,” he adds.
“The full development appraisal of the site is now in draft. However, initial modelling indicates that the council’s investment in the site should be recouped through the development phases through the onward sale of the site.”
Not everyone is convinced the deal will be a money-spinner for the council and the region’s economy, though.
Tweeddale East councillor Stuart Bell, leader of the authority’s Scottish National Party opposition group, said: “The Borders public needs to know that all along this has been a controversial and contested decision.
“When the council is having to cut back on essential services, it is wrong to use public money to purchase private land for speculative housing development.
“Fundamentally, we don’t believe that the purchase of the Lowood Estate represents value for money for the Borders public.”
“It is probably an attractive site for housing, but there will be enormous infrastructure costs to facilitate its development, and it is not the council’s business to be bearing these risks.
“The council is overreaching itself buying Lowood land that I think is overvalued.
“There is a danger this will be seen by the public as another central Borders vanity project.”
Tweeddale West councillor Heather Anderson added: “Other Tweedbank sites near the station are already being developed by the council with partner agencies and commercial organisations.
“We believe these developments have a real prospect of bringing jobs to the Borders because they are collaborative ventures where risks are shared, but this is not the case with the purchase of the Lowood Estate, where the council is going ahead on its own.
“The council is financing the cost of borrowing this additional £10m by cutting other services and it is also carrying all of the inherent risks of the development.
“We don’t consider this to be a prudent decision.
“The administration has also agreed pay for the upkeep of the estate until it is eventually sold on. We are told that one of the conditions is to maintain the land to current standards, so we are now in an unacceptable position where we can’t cut the grass adequately in our cemeteries but we will finance the grass-cutting on a new estate we have purchased.”