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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 January 2007, 10:19 GMT
Councils' millions 'lying idle'
By Richard McIlroy
BBC Five Live

Houses under construction
Developers often have to give money to community projects

For over 10 years, Salford resident Sally Dolphin has been pleading with her city council to provide a play area for her three young children near to where she lives.

There is a small open area called Shackleton Park near her house but it has been condemned and its gates are bolted.

Money should be available to refurbish her local park. A developer who built some nearby flats has agreed to pay 180,000 as part of the planning agreement.

But this weekend the park still remains empty, desolate and unused.

An investigation by BBC's Five Live Report has found the same picture emerging across England.

Latest estimates suggest that 800m paid by developers towards community projects is instead lying idle in council coffers.

The money has been accumulated thanks to a little known planning regulation requiring a developer to give money to the council to complete projects whose aims are to improve the local area where they are building.

The legislation in question is tucked away in the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act, and is known as a Section 106 agreement.

Sally has met councillors and officials and even attended council meetings but she has still been unable to find out why the money hasn't been spent or what she could do to make the council use it.

"It's so frustrating. All I want is somewhere for my kids to play and every time I look to get an answer from the council, I come away empty-handed," she said.

Lack of transparency

Laurie Burton was frustrated at a similar problem in his home town, Macclesfield and in particular the difficulty of getting answers from the council.

So he resorted to the Freedom of Information Act. The council eventually revealed that 2.5m of Section 106 money had gone unspent in his borough.

The only purpose it was serving, he discovered, was that interest payments were being used to keep the cost of council tax down.

"The thing that really concerns me is that this is a specific law that says this information should be freely available to members of the public," says Laurie.

"But the problem for people like you and me is that we can go to the ombudsman and all they say is that they can work only on problems that affect just individuals.

"What I would like to see is the policing of councils working outside of the rules and if they're not complying with the law, punish them."

All I want is somewhere for my kids to play and every time I look to get an answer from the council, I come away empty-handed
Sally Dolphin, Salford resident

Section 106 agreements apply to developments of more than 15 houses.

Laurie's own investigations have uncovered that the average sum agreed is 170,000 in the north of England and a staggering 700,000 in the south east.

Despite the hundreds of millions pounds unspent, the Local Government Association says local authorities are the best agency to manage section 106 agreements.

"Councils are elected to put local people first.

"They are determined to revitalize our town centres and create new homes and neighbourhoods that are attractive, safe and vibrant.

"To do this, all the money raised locally must be kept local to plough back into schools, roads and other facilities for local people."

But the government is currently looking to take some of the responsibility away from local authorities and Five Live Report understands that some developers are keen to bypass the councils as well, due to their own frustrations over how the agreements are managed.

Five Live Report will be broadcast at 1100GMT on Sunday 21 January. The report by Five Live listener Sally Dolphin and All Out Productions is part of Your Five Live week.

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