The developers are circling Ashbourne at the moment. The recent uplift in Planning stories in the newspaper is because there is a chink in the planning armour where the old Local Plan meets the new one. The old Derbyshire Dales Local Plan is sufficiently vague that virtually anything could be argued to comply. The new one will be reinforced by an Ashbourne Neighbourhood Plan to ensure we get precisely what we want. I remember visiting the Algarve in the 1980s when somethings similar happened and there was a frenzy of half-built hotels and apartments from developers who had rushed things through to get under the wire – not an attractive or edifying spectacle. Of course none of these developers have a profit motive and none have ever built an ugly building. They all have Ashbourne’s best interests at heart and some of them once stopped here on their summer holidays. They can prove it through their beautifully prepared models and “illustrative masterplans”. There’ll be scenic walks, flower meadows, sports facilities, a much better road network, children’s play areas, cycle paths, jobs for all and a tourist magnet. Oh and there’ll be one or two buildings for sale too. We’ll all have nicer homes, healthier lifestyles and be the envy of the rest of Derbyshire and neighbouring counties.
Thanks then to Cedar House Investments for reminding us of the perils of being drawn into advertising, PR and beauty pageants in the world of planning.
Let’s start with who Cedar House Investments are. They are one of Sir Peter Gadsby’s property development companies along with Miller Birch (a joint venture with Miller Homes specialising in commercial development ) and Radleigh Group (a housebuilder). Radleigh also have an interest in the Hillside Farm development which is currently earmarked for contributing to the housing requirement in Ashbourne if the Airfield cannot be activated quickly enough.
Way back in December 2005, after a lengthy wrangle, the latest submission by Cedar House Investments for the redevelopment of the old Nestle site received majority approval by the Derbyshire Dales planning committee. In August that year the Ashbourne News Telegraph reported the site would link up with the leisure centre and doctors surgery and that Sir Peter Gadsby was personally driven by his emotional connections to Ashbourne to make it happen. Part of this vision was always creation of jobs. There was an extensive survey of 1000 households in the town to identify that there was a demand for purchase of bulky goods on the retail site. There would be “landscaping corridors” and land offered to both the tennis club and the football club. Finally the Hug sculpture would be build along with accompanying car park and picnic site – illuminated at night.
The approval was recommended by Paul Wilson as the Planning Officer at Derbyshire Dales District Council. He is the Director of Planning and Housing Services there now and the man behind the original recommendation for housing allocation in Ashbourne.
A crucial part of these kind of agreements is Section 106 (of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990). Of course any developer does not want to build new sporting facilities and sculptures and give them away. Section 106 is a way of having a tradeoff between the benefits for the town and the benefits for the developer. As a former resident of Ashbourne Sir Peter Gadsby would know what kind of things to offer as Section 106 commitments which would benefit the town. They are an excellent way of ensuring that any resulting problems are overcome but also to get some other problems fixed which otherwise couldn’t be afforded. As an example the council could stipulate that the developer pays for road improvements which would be needed for access to their site. The crucial thing to remember is that these Section 106 items are just as legally binding as the main development and are crucial for the welfare of the town – without them we wouldn’t have been willing to do the deal. It is also important to remember that, for the developer, this is all cost. In projects which involve committing all the money to building up front before the revenue from tenants and purchasers comes in the Section 106s will naturally go to the bottom of the priority list.
What developers sometimes do is change the rules once the development has started. They know that once things are underway they can carry on negotiating and use the PR machine to improve the position. When something is half-built they can plead poverty, threaten to walk away, claim that the underpinning assumptions have changed…
Getting back to the Nestle development though. In December the plans were approved for the retail and office park with a stipulation of non-food retail units. There was also approval for the development on the other side of the A52 for a hotel, pub, car wash and petrol station. The footpath linking the site to the rest of the town was part of the original approval. Derbyshire Dales emphasised that job creation was a key driver for the site.
A year later in December 2006 this was reinforced to ensure that the commercial office space kept pace with the retail development. There were also stipulations that the buildings should maintain a link between urban and rural with the wooden louvres we see today.
In January 2007 the first flaws in the scheme became apparent. “What we want is a cheap, simple and effective design that will be reasonably resistant to vandals” said the Waterside Project Manager of the Shrovetide sculpture. Lofty ambitions indeed!
Homebase signed up to the retail park in early 2007. Ashbourne Partnership had raised concerns about the impact on local retailers and Cedar House reiterated the importance of making sure the site was of benefit to the whole of Ashbourne.
In June 2007 the design for the Hug sculpture was revealed and the developers confirmed that there would be a leisure, parking and picnic site alongside. Sir Peter Gadsby declared “Eventually, there will be a Shrovetide walk along the public footpath from the monument following the river into Ashbourne centre”.
In August 2007 the first significant changes to the development occurred. Instead of three large outlets the plans were approved to build 4 smaller ones instead. The subtext here is that it suggest the developer has made a mistake. They have realised they can’t let the units originally planned and think they may be able to resolve the situation. In any other business, mistakes cost money and a more prudent approach may have been to attach further conditions to the planning in exchange for agreeing the amendment. The Ashbourne Partnership raised the alarm that this would encourage retailers who would be in direct competition with town centre retailers. Planners decided that the risk was outweighed by the additional visitors who would be attracted. Local retailer John Harrison demonstrated excellent foresight by asking “How long will it be before we have to change the plans again?”
He didn’t have to wait long because a year later M&S were announced as having done a deal for a food outlet with Cedar House subject to planning approval. This lays bare the planning process. Cedar House should not have even been talking to M&S because they knew their planning permission would not allow them on the site. Getting the permission changed would be worth thousands of pounds in rent to Cedar House and raise the value of the site if it were to be sold . At the same time planning permission was sought to split one of the units still further to accommodate another potential retailer. The argument for M&S was that it would prevent “leakage” from the town. Better to have the M&S Food in Ashbourne than let customers go elsewhere. Oddly, despite all the changes, Sir Peter Gadsby claimed they were delivering on all the objectives of the project.
The meeting to overturn the initial rejection of the change of use is interesting. It was approved by a majority vote and the thing which changed Paul Wilson’s mind was the result of an independent telephone survey of residents which said they wanted M&S to come to Ashbourne and that 90% of them would still visit the town centre. Cedar House also agreed to provide a shuttle bus from the town centre to the site. This is crucial – we went from town planning to a beauty pageant in one small invisible step. Despite the obvious value for Cedar House – not only could they rectify their mistake in taking on the project but also collect revenue from M&S – the planning committee didn’t appear to ask for anything else in return.
This week’s Ashbourne News Telegraph story about the long-promised footpath continues in this vein. The footpath connecting the retail site to the town centre was a legal commitment which Derbyshire Dales have rightly pushed Cedar House to honour. It is crucial for the town centre retailers and is part of the Section 106 promises made by Cedar House. The claims that recent flooding has made them rethink is nonsense as far worse flooding happened in the past and no mention was made. They also presumably need to address the concerns of the retailers on the park who have to clean up repeatedly after the rain on their development site. Planning can never have the uncertainty that allows developers to change the rules subsequently. Developers cannot treat the Section 106 commitments as optional. Everyone in the town should look at the Waterside development story and consider – if what we have now was clear in the original planning submission would we have supported it? The retail park is fully developed but the tenants have to suffer from flooding. It now consists of far smaller units than were originally sanctioned and we have opened the door to any retailer to come into the town. We have a terribly overgrown and unkempt Hug sculpture area with no illumination and a terrible car park. There is no footpath and the Council has had to fund the creation of an alternative due to Cedar House’s lethargy. Was this what we wanted?
Section 106 is a great opportunity. All of the gripes about the airfield can be resolved through S106 commitments – if they are made to stick. If they don’t stick why don’t we have a roller-coaster, an enormous softplay area or a £100 dividend to every Ashbourne resident instead – see how easy it is to find something more immediately appealing? Those people who describe the airfield as bleak and complain about the Yeldersley stench should see the potential to create a better environment through these clauses. They can get the blight fixed through this huge investment potential.
Importantly, any Illustrative Masterplan should be treated with the contempt it deserves. Landowners and developers promise the earth and then change the rules and Ashbourne residents who “support” any new development do so at their peril. I don’t blame Sir Peter Gadsby or Cedar House, with the possible exception of playing the “local” card. They are doing what business does. The Planning Committees need to stick to their guns with proper leadership, proper sanctions and a clear vision. We deserve better and hopefully the latest round of challenges will demonstrate that they have learned their lessons.