This is a sad story of spin vs reality, and what happened to a little market town, not unlike Bridgnorth: Horsham, in West Sussex. The site promoter who convinced Horsham District Council, and local residents, that this was a good idea, is the same communications agency hired by the landowners at Stanmore.
Camargue are a specialist communications agency. They have been hired by the landowner’s consortium – the people who own the land at Stanmore – and they are behind the ‘Stanmore Village’ website, which promotes building urban density blocks of flats and trading estates on 410 acres of our pristine greenbelt. A plan which Shropshire Council, our Planning Authority, have repeatedly failed to justify.
One of their specialisms is housing, they say on their website:
“Our work encompasses planning support, strategic lobbying and corporate profiling. We have delivered residential marketing campaigns for national and regional housebuilders and helped clients develop a strong voice on housing issues at national, local and community level.”
They were also the communications agency – the site promoters – hired by Liberty Property Trust and they successfully got a huge development in Horsham adopted into the District Council’s Local Plan. We’ve outlined this sorry tale below.
‘Managing the impact of local objections’
Camargue have a case study of their work in Horsham on their website:
They say quite clearly that their role was to help secure the allocation of the land, and they, “managed the impact of local objections”. Let that sink in. That’s a very different kettle of fish to “consultation”, which is what they say they’re doing here in Bridgnorth.
‘The Devil has the best tunes’
A bit like the old saying, ‘the devil has the best tunes’, communications agencies can talk in slogans and soundbites, in possibilities and promises, and say things like ‘2,000 jobs’ or ‘a great place to live and work’, with no obligation to substantiate them. On the other hand, little communities like Horsham, W Sussex, and our own Bridgnorth, have to contend with the realities and details of the planning process.
Let’s be honest, local planning is about as interesting as watching paint dry. However, in order to understand what went on in Horsham (and by extension what’s going on here in Bridgnorth), we need to take a brief detour into this exciting world. Brace yourselves!
What is a Local Plan?
It’s a bit complicated (see CPRE’s brilliant and easy to understand explanation of Local Plans here) but every Local Authority is obliged by central Government to create a Local Plan. They set out the strategic priorities for development of an area. They comprise a series of documents that should set out clear guidance on what development will and won’t be permitted in your area.
The Local Plan documents set out the strategic vision and objectives – how your area will look in 15-20 years’ time, and what the key things are to be achieved. It sets out what the general location of development will be, as well as specific locations needed, such as urban extensions, new settlements, or the locations of major regeneration or redevelopment schemes.
We did warn you it was boring!
In a nutshell, it takes ages and it’s really complicated
As you can imagine, you don’t knock a Local Plan out in a weekend, a Local Authority has to go through lots of steps before they sign it off and officially adopt it. It’s only after this point that landowners and developers can submit an official planning application. And it’s very important that Local Authorities have an up to date Local Plan, because if they don’t, they are exposed to challenges by speculative developers (as happened in Shifnal).
So sorting out a Local Plan is a really long winded process. It starts with a ‘call for sites’ when Councils ask local landowners if they have any land they want to put forward (and in Bridgnorth, Apley Estates, Hickman Estates, and Swancote Farms Ltd all did just that). Then the Council has to work out which are their ‘Preferred Sites’ (so, the Stanmore plans for Bridgnorth, are one of Shropshire Council’s ‘Preferred Sites’).
Councils are obliged to consult local people, which is why we are still part way through Shropshire Council’s ‘Preferred Sites Consultation’. ie) they say to the electorate, ‘these are the sites we prefer, what do you think?’ We had one round of Bridgnorth’s Preferred Sites consultation that ended in February 2019, and the next round of consultation (a statutory process) is due in approximately March 2020.
Obviously, this is all well and good if you have a Council that intends to play fair. It’s not so great if they just go through the motions, and have already made up their mind (we might be looking at YOU Shropshire Council!). Over 70% of respondents to the last round of consultation on the Bridgnorth site already rejected these plans.
Keeping up with us so far?
Once all that is done, the Council fine tunes their plan (supposedly, taking into account local resident’s feedback) and then it goes off to the Government’s Planning Inspector, who then says either yay or nay.
It is only after all that that developers then submit an actual planning application. Up to that point, anything developers and site promoters say is a sales pitch. It’s only at the point that they submit an application that they start to play hardball, when negotiating with the Planning Authority, and we find out exactly how generous they are.
Back to Camargue, the site promoter
So, Camargue are here in Bridgnorth, fully aware that we’ve got one more round of consultation to go. And their objective on behalf of their clients, the landowners, is to promote their clients’ land, and make the case as to why this ‘Preferred Site’ at Stanmore should be officially adopted into the Council’s Local Plan.
Or to quote their own corporate website, they are here to ‘manage the impact of local objections’.
They are trying to influence the next round of official consultation, with residents, and with the town and parish council. They are also ‘gathering feedback’ because they are building their case for Government Planning Inspector.
To do this, they create a ‘masterplan’ (artist impressions, drawings, outline maps), create websites, outline their ‘vision’, and then they host meetings (in public for local residents, and in private with local councils) to put their best foot forward and persuade everyone that putting this site in the Local Plan is a really great idea.
Strip away the magically mature trees, and what you have in the ‘Stanmore Village’ centre are four-storey blocks of flats. Looks a bit better in watercolour, though, doesn’t it?
If you read the small print on the Stanmore Village website, they make their objective quite clear:
The site, which is currently designated as Green Belt, has been identified as part of a potential allocation for residential and employment development in Shropshire Council’s Local Plan Review… To support this allocation, the Stanmore Consortium is seeking
to demonstrate that the site can be delivered and accommodate the number of properties proposed … These exhibitions are therefore … not part of a statutory consultation, as no planning application is being prepared.
So there you go, their objective is to get this ‘Preferred Site’ at Stanmore adopted, it’s currently a ‘potential allocation’ and they are promoting its official allocation.
Where does Horsham fit into all of this?
They did exactly the same thing in Horsham, and they succeeded. They got a huge site on the rolling green fields of the Sussex ountryside officially adopted into Horsham’s Local Plan. Here’s what their vision for Horsham looked like, and you can read all the promises they made on the flashy website ‘Land North of Horsham‘
They promised Horsham:
“a mixed-use, sustainable new community providing up to 2,750 new homes with a broad mix of housing sizes, types and tenures to meet local needs, supported by jobs, schools, amenities and associated infrastructure”.
They promised 4,000 jobs on a 500,000sq ft business park, a ‘neighbourhood centre’, an ‘education campus’, £50 million of funding for essential services, community facilities and improvements to local infrastructure, including a doctors’ surgery, public transport and roads. Cycle routes, green spaces, a sports centre. The list goes on.
Gosh, doesn’t this look pretty!
Camargue are quite open in their corporate case study about this site for Liberty Property Trust that this job was ‘politically sensitive’ (which is corporate speak for, there was whopping local opposition). But, they succeeded, and they got the site adopted, just like they are trying to do here.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) Sussex Branch (as they’ve done here in Shropshire) warned about the looming disaster of this proposed plan for Horsham in an article entitled, Liberty Property Trust: why 800-acre site application is flawed
They said, despite all Camargue’s and Liberty’s promises about ‘affordable homes for local people’,
“CPRE Sussex Trustee Dr Roger Smith has submitted three responses on behalf of CPRE Sussex objecting to inadequacy of the applicant’s Environmental Statement, regarding the impact that the development would have on the ecology and biodiversity of the countryside and its less than satisfactory appraisal of the site’s archaeological potential – and also the applicant’s derisory offer of only 18% affordable homes against an HDPF policy requirement for 35% affordable homes. “
Not ‘profitable’ enough
So, what’s happened since?
Well, having got the site, thanks to Camargue’s tactics, into the Local Plan, Liberty Property Trust have decided that the site isn’t ‘profitable’ enough – developers like virgin greenfield because it’s cheaper than brownfield, but having to deliver on affordable homes, infrastructure and community assets – like education campuses, green spaces, neighbourhood centres – obviously eats into their margins.
So what did they do? Sold it to Legal & General
If you search the local press in Horsham, you’ll see this situation, and the secretive conduct of the Council, and their dealings with developers, is now condemned as a ‘disgrace’. The plans, which have been rumbling on since 2012 are described as ‘hugely controversial’.
Legal & General, the new site owners, obviously want to maximise the profit of their new purchase, and the worry is, as a local councillor points out, that L&G, “needs to cream off profits for themselves”.
The Councillor says in a press article entitled, Horsham must not lose out’ in sale of major development site north of town:
“The risk, I fear will be that L&G will wish look again at the s106 legal agreement and the trigger events contained within it, they may wish to look at the layout of the site including the housing density and the type and mix of housing. The people of Horsham must not lose out and L&G’s feet must now be held to the fire to ensure that there will be no less money to go around for affordable homes, infrastructure and community sums.
“The site is complex requiring large sums of money for road infrastructure to be put in before house building can commence.
“There must be no further delay on this strategic site as this could put at risk our five year land supply and bring with it unwanted speculative development across our district – the irony being that the designation of this strategic site in the HDPF is supposed to guard against.”
Let that sink in. Liberty, by dragging their feet, and then selling the site, has jeopardised the Local Plan. If Local Authorities do not have an up to date five year land supply, they are open to aggressive challenges by developers. What’s more, L&G may now want to renegotiate their Section 106 agreement, this is the legal agreement between councils and developers, outlining the developer’s obligations (affordable housing, infrastructure etc).
Five year land supply under threat – risk of speculative development
CPRE Sussex also had plenty to say about this twist in the tale, with their trustee, Roger Smith, telling the local press:
“Has Liberty sold the site because they consider it to be a too high a risk investment regarding monetary return?
“Could it be that they have calculated that despite Government policies being heavily weighted in favour of developers and house-builders there is now in prospect a significant profit-reducing fall in the demand for new houses and that in consequence their US investors’ money would gain a higher return elsewhere?
“Doubtless, Horsham District Council will be concerned that its five-year housing supply is now at greater risk than previously.
“In which case they will probably be looking to allocate an additional/alternative strategic site to fill the house-building gap – resulting in yet more irreplaceable countryside being concreted over and communities blighted in consequence.”
Let that sink in. Because all this hoo ha and delay has put the five year land supply in doubt, Horsham District Council are going to have to bring other sites forward to fill the gap.
At this juncture, thinking about Bridgnorth, you could wonder why we’ve heard nothing further about the 565 homes already approved at Tasley, and we could further wonder why we’re now bogged down in proposals for the further release of land on our greenbelt. This is doubly worrying given that Bridgnorth does not have a local Housing Needs Assessment justifying the proposed 850 homes for the Stanmore proposals, and a further 650 homes on the safeguarded land. Particularly since, according to Shropshire Council’s own figures, we’ve already built 745 homes in Bridgnorth since 2006.
Are they really committed to making rural developments ‘a great place to live and work’?
Are Liberty, who promised “we are committed to making North of Horsham a great place to live, work and play” actually committed? Or are they committed to saying and doing whatever is required to get a plan approved and selling it off when their profits are squeezed?
What about Camargue, the site promoters? Who are they committed to? The people of Horsham, the people of Bridgnorth, or the clients paying their invoice?
Look again at the fancy ‘Land North of Horsham’ website (like the Stanmore Village website) Camargue produced and what it promises. Look again at what has actually happened to the rolling green fields of the little town of Horsham (not unlike Bridgnorth).
Think about what Camargue are telling you about these proposed plans for Stanmore
Ask yourself, is what Camargue SAID on behalf the landowners, and what residents GOT in Horsham the same thing? Who benefits? What do you consider Camargue’s purpose and role to be in both Horsham and Bridgnorth?
Could it be that their only task is to get their clients’ site adopted into the Local Plan?
Who are they accountable to? Are they accountable to you? Are they part of the statutory Local Plan consultation process?
No they’re not. They answer to who is paying their bill.
This is why we are advising caution, and encouraging residents to continue to raise their concerns with their elected representatives. You can read our full statement on this Site Promotion exercise here: Bridgnorth Greenbelt Group dismiss landowners’ consultation as PR Spin