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Below is the text of an email sent by Committee member Neil Howlett on behalf of the Chamber to the planning board ahead of its January 2021 meeting to decide the Saxonvale application.

Frome & District Chamber of Commerce has always supported the development of Saxonvale in accordance with MDC’s planning aspirations for the site.

We have been consulted by MDC and Acorn. We are grateful for that but objected to it being subject to a Non-Disclosure Agreement. They have listened to some of our comments, for which we thank them. There are good things in this proposal, but we cannot support it. We cannot support it because of MDC’s secrecy about its financial aspirations.

The question for MDC is whether it is a commercial developer maximising profit or a local authority acting in the interests of Frome, its businesses and people. This planning board would expect a commercial developer to demonstrate good reasons for not complying with planning policy. This planning board should insist on MDC demonstrating good reasons for not complying with planning policy. Until MDC does that you should not grant this application.

We will leave comments on design to the Civic Society. There are two elements MDC’s scheme which are not compliant with MDC’s policies; –

  • Affordable Housing
  • Employment Provision

Those are commercial decision – profit versus public benefit. We have repeatedly said that if we saw and could share evidence which justified those we would accept that – we haven’t. There are two partners to this development; Acorn and MDC. Acorn are disclosing their Viability Assessment (VA). MDC are not.

Affordable Housing

It is accepted it does not meet MDC’s requirements for Affordable Housing. There is a VA disclosed by Acorn. There is an executive summary of that by MDC’s consultant. MDC has not disclosed the consultant’s report.

Much is made of the state of the housing market; I can tell you that the housing market in Frome is manic, it is busier than it has been in 30 years and that was before the SLDT giveaway. People want to move to Frome and they especially want to move to the town centre.

Councillors need to be aware of two things:-

  • The Acorn VA is a theoretical calculation based on a notional land value. It is not necessarily the amount they will pay MDC.
  • That affordable housing provision is a maximum. If Acorn consider that it has become unviable, they can apply to change it. If MC think it has become over generous it cannot.

Employment Provision

As a Chamber we are particularly concerned at the loss of employment land – Saxonvale is employment land. Frome is in danger of becoming a commuter town.

The Planning Officer states (p.22) that because of the Planning Inspector’s decision in 2014/1224/OTS that you cannot insist on employment provision on this site. You can, because that statement contained both a logical and a factual error. You as members of the planning board are entitled to use your knowledge to determine the application, and take into account facts on the ground and changes since that decision was made in 2016.

Here are the facts.

  • There is very high demand for employment space of all kinds in Frome, especially in the town centre, and that has not decreased since the coronavirus pandemic because Frome is a place you can live and walk to work, and suits modern ways of working. There is an assessment of this but it isn’t disclosed.
  • Since these targets were set MDC has consented more employment land for housing, including Acorn’s site at Caxton Road, so the net difference between demand and supply has widened. I can’t give you figures. MDC used to keep figures on that; unlike housing supply, it doesn’t. We asked.
  • Those sites that have been lost have been consented expressly on the basis of two things; I’ve sat in the meetings and you can look this up;-
    • Commerce Park – which is not in the town centre, in fact is not even within Frome, and which is now fully consented
    • Because the required employment land will be provided on Saxonvale – that was the basis on which the now Chair of the Planning Board called in, and supported application 2018/1799/OTS (Braeside Works) which was passed against the recommendation of the planning officer.
  • Acorn argue that these jobs don’t have to be provided on Saxonvale. However, if they are to be provided in the town centre the reality is that they do because there is nowhere else – do I need to remind you of the debacle of Boxworks I and Boxworks II?

If this application is granted on the basis that these jobs do not have to be provided on Saxonvale:-

  • they will not happen,

  • every decision made by this planning board on the basis that they would be will have been wrongly made.

The reason is that houses make more profit. For whom? If MDC as the local authority had the opportunity to spend money to facilitate 900 new jobs on a critical location you as Councillors and we as a Chamber would expect it to do that? If that isn’t why MDC acquired this land why did it acquire it?

So what commercial profit is MDC foregoing to facilitate jobs on this site? We don’t know. Acorn have disclosed their VA. MDC have refused. Whether the history of that will turn out to have been a deliberate strategy of obstruction until after this decision, incompetence leading to the threat of prosecution by the ICO or a stand-up comedy routine only time will tell.

Neil Howlett

Appendix – FOI

Here’s a summary of what MDC have said: –

29 September 2019

Having asked at meetings we asked formally for the VA in accordance with NPPF paragraph 57 and case law . MDC promised several times to reply but didn’t.

13 March 2020

We made an FOI request for it

29 April 2020

MDC said it didn’t have one because it was called something else, and the summary we’ve given you is subject to an NDA, and we won’t do one until after Acorn have planning consent. We asked for a review.

16 June 2020

MDC said it definitely doesn’t have one

22 June 2020

MDC said that was a mistake, we have one but we can’t show it to you because of Acorn’s and MDC’s commercial interests

20 August 2020

We complained to the ICO

21 October 20202

MDC told the ICO it didn’t have a VA – the ICO indicated it would consider prosecuting MDC for giving false information as it couldn’t both have a VA and not have a VA.

23 November 2020

We asked the ICO to hold off while we tried to get a coherent decision as we did not want MDC to be prosecuted. We asked the Chair, and Leader of MDC to clarify its position. We heard nothing.

Acorn disclosed their VA as part of this process so only MDC’s commercial interest remain.

15 January 2020 [sic]

MDC responded saying it has a VA but can’t disclose it because of MDC’s commercial interests – but their reasons for refusing it refer to “the sale and overage agreement” not the VA. MDC has cut and pasted a reply to a completely different request by someone else. We explained in September 2019 why this position is unsustainable.