Planning in the Cotswolds: Deal or no deal?
- Credit: Archant
So here’s the pitch to struggling farmers from Gladman Developments: ‘Let us try to make you a few million pounds by getting planning permission on your land and you pay nothing unless we succeed - which we do nine times out of ten.’ So who’s going to say no to that? And it’s a loophole in our barmy planning laws that allow this to happen
Struggling farmers have used their land in many ways to survive in the tough times of recent years. But rather than diversifying, is the value of the land itself the answer to all their problems?
The chaos that continues to surround the UK’s planning laws has opened up opportunities for farmers which land agents are all to happy to exploit - and the Cotswolds is a prime target. Cotwold Life investigates an issue that has implications not only for our farmers but for the countryside we all hold so dear.
Imagine being able to gamble your future on a deal that could net you hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pounds.
And what if there was no risk involved? If, when the dice you roll don’t land the right way up, you don’t lose a penny.
That is just the sort of proposal being put in front of West Country farmers right now. It centres on the land that they own - and its potential value for meeting the country’s insatiable demand for land on which to build thousands of new homes. Landowners are being approached by land agents offering “no-win, no fee” deals. The agents apply for planning permission on open fields and farmland and the farmers only pay their share of the cost if the permission is granted.
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One agent - Gladman Developments - estimates that the value of the land can multiply by 50 or 60 times if it is given the go-ahead for development.
Loopholes in the Government’s planning laws have enabled companies like Gladman to cash in. With the cost of obtaining planning permission (including the inevitable appeal by the local council) potentially exceeding £300,000, many farmers are starting to ask: just what do I have to lose? Those planning laws centre on the much-criticised National Planning Policy Framework (the NPPF). It means that unless councils have house-building policies in place for at least the next five years, there is a “presumption” in favour of granting planning permission.
Some of Gloucestershire’s borough and district councils are in just that position, leaving the door ajar for the land agents to push it open.
Cheltenham MP Martin Horwood has been a long-standing critic of the current situation as he leads the fight against development in open spaces in his own constituency in areas like Leckhampton.
He said: “The NPPF has been subject to a critical review and it is a positive that the Secretary of State Eric Pickles is now defending the green belt but many important areas are not designated green belt and they remain vulnerable.
“While I wouldn’t want to deny farmers the right to exploit the land that is part of their property, I also don’t want to see communities being deprived of the right to protect open spaces.
“We need houses but we also need to protect our own environment.”
The issue of communities having the right to protect crucial green spaces is at the centre of the debate. Where councils don’t have appropriate housing plans in place, they can be trampled over by farmers looking to cash in - and developers desperate to develop.
Gladman Developments makes no secret of its approach or its success rate.
On its own website www.gladman.co.uk it could not be clearer. It says: “Gladman take a proactive approach to strategic land, focusing on optimising the value of potential residential development land. Our in-depth knowledge of the complex and rapidly evolving planning system makes us the ideal partner for landowners keen to promote their land’s potential.”
Farmers will not be regular visitors to the website. So the firm has recently taken out advertisements in the farming press looking for sites on the edges of towns or villages.
They say: “We aim to never lose and have won 90 per cent of our housing planning applications.
“You pay nothing, win or lose. We only get our percentage after you have sold your land to the highest-bidding house builder.”
If anything, that 90 per cent figure is an underestimate of its success rate. In November, a planning inspector approved plans for 110 homes in the South Derbyshire village of Linton, which had been blocked by the local council. It was the 41st time in 43 applications that Gladman had eventually been successful.
And even where councils have worked to put a detailed plan in place, nothing is certain, with the Government keen for planning inspectors to approve many controversial schemes because of the perceived need for more housing.
Georgina Wood, principal planning policy officer for Cotswold District Council, said that it had worked hard to ensure it had plans in place to meet housing needs for the next five years but that it could never be sure that was enough in itself.
“The council has given planning permission to a lot more housing over the last year so the number of houses is certainly increasing. In December, the council’s Cabinet approved our calculations and we believe we actually have a six-year supply plan measured against our emerging housing requirements.
“We’ve taken the appropriate advice as laid down by the Planning Inspectorate and Planning Advisory Group, but are still aware that when individual applications are turned down, they can go to appeal and our housing supply calculations can be tested separately on each occasion.
“My personal opinion is that it is undoubtedly the case that predicting the outcome of planning appeals is much more difficult than it used to be, and ultimately we have to abide by an Inspector’s decision whether we agree with it or not.”
In one village, local opposition was swept aside and at another landmark site, the battle goes on even after the developer had been defeated not once but twice.
People in Fairford believe that the 120 homes being built on land south of Home Farm will change the face of the village forever.
In a case that typifies the issues highlighted by Cotswold planning chief Georgina Wood, her district council rejected the outline application for the scheme.
It is directly opposite a new development by Bloor Homes and Linden Homes but Gladman appealed the council’s decision and last September a planning inspector gave it approval to build the new homes.
Malcolm Cutler, of community group Fairford Planning Watch, said at the time that the two developments will leave the approach to his historic and quaint Cotswold town looking like any other estate.
“It is very much going to spoil Fairford’s entrance,” he said. “A lot of Fairford’s employment depends on tourism. If tourists like it they will stop here. Up to now it has been a beautiful entrance.”
Head 25 miles west and a planning saga continues at one of Gloucestershire’s best-known beauty spots.
Slad Valley, near Stroud, was immortalised by Laurie Lee in his literary masterpiece Cider With Rosie. It is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty but that doesn’t stop sites being of great interest to developers.
In this case, Gladman bought land known as Baxter’s Field for £900,000 from a farming family. The accepted view is that this is slightly above the agricultural value of the land but well below what it would be worth with planning permission for 112 homes.
The legal battle continues more than two years after Jilly Cooper gave her support to the Slad Valley Action Group, which continues to oppose the plans.
She said then: “I am deeply upset to learn that the glorious, beautiful and world famous Slad Valley, immortalised by my friend and fellow writer, the late Laurie Lee, is under threat.
“Although I accept there is a need for sustainable housing, this development by its very location is definitely not sustainable. Why ruin one of the wonders of the Cotswolds?”
But as we enter 2015, Gladman won’t go away despite, unlike in the Fairford case, planning permission being refused not only by Stroud District Council but also by a planning inspector after an appeal.
Gladman is now demanding a judicial review of the case, essentially taking the Secretary of State to court and saying the decision was inconsistent with previous rulings.
Slad Valley Action Group chairman Andy Dickinson said: “It’s typical behaviour of a developer who puts profit ahead of some of the most beautiful countryside in the country. They simply won’t take no for an answer.”
Part of Gladman’s case is likely to be that it was given permission on appeal to build 150 homes on green land at Mankley Field in Leonard Stanley and that it set a precedent that should have been followed at Baxter’s Field.
In an interesting twist, the district council is calling for a judicial review of the Mankley Field decision - on the basis that the Baxter’s Field plan was dismissed.
The legal wrangling continues. And Gladman Developments shows no sign of turning its attention away from Gloucestershire anytime soon.
This article is from the February 2015 issue of Cotswold Life magazine.