Councillors respond to Saxonvale decision

Mendip District Council councillors for Frome, contacted The leveller about the Saxonvale decision. Last week we reported on the decision by MDC to accept Acorn’s proposal. That was in the face of extensive local opposition to the plans. Today Frome Cllrs Michael Dunk & John Clarke respond to that decision. Below is their statement:

Mendip District Council and their developers, Acorn, finally got the go-ahead last week from the Council Planning Board for their outline scheme to develop the derelict Saxonvale site in the centre of Frome and can now expect to share a profit of about £15 million with Mendip also expected to get back the £8.3 million it spent buying the land.

The scheme was developed in the utmost secrecy and everyone involved, including us as Ward Councillors, were gagged by non-disclosure agreements. In spite of Mendip’s policy for the area, it will provide only 45,000 ft2 of commercial space to generate jobs and up to 300 residential units, mainly flats, which are more profitable. Sadly, as it stands, only 22.5% of these residential units will be classed as ‘affordable’ and of those only 70% will be social rented units instead of the usual 80%.

At the start of the development process, the viability of different schemes is assessed using a measure called ‘Residual Land Value’ (RLV) and in our briefing on this it was clearly implied that this was not allowed to fall below zero. It was only later that we realised that the RLV included a profit margin of 20% – hence the projected return of £15 million. The number of jobs created and the proportion of ‘affordable’ housing could both be increased if Mendip was prepared to accept a smaller profit than our estimate of £8 million, but this possibility was never mentioned and our request to discuss this option was ignored.

 There remain some other issues about which we would like to know more. Questions were raised at the time about the probity of the way in which Mendip agreed an exclusive ‘Sales & Overage Agreement’ with Acorn and those questions remain. We would also like to know more about the £4 million Home’s England grant that Mendip received to prepare the site on condition that it built using fast modern methods and should have provided at least 25% ‘affordable’ housing,

At planning, the developer can apply a ‘Vacant Building Credit’ to off-set the cost of bringing a derelict site back into use, in this case, allowing a reduction of the expected proportion of ‘affordable’ housing from 30% to 24% – a figure that has now been further reduced to 22.5% but with Acorn negotiating the proportion of social rented down from 80% to 70% of ‘Affordable’ Housing, a reduction of 3 from their original 21% offering!

It has the appearance of a scheme driven by the developer to provide the minimum acceptable value to the town and the maximum profit to Mendip and Acorn. It is very disappointing but at this stage it is only an outline; there remain opportunities to for us to work with the developers to try and ensure the best outcome for Frome at the next Planning ‘Reserved Matters’ stage. We could still see a development which is fit for 21st Century challenges, which addresses Climate Change through the highest energy efficiency and build standards, a development which reflects the heritage of Frome, and above all a development which reflects the needs of Frome.

Councillors Michael Dunk & John Clarke; Mendip District Council, Market Ward, Frome.

You can read a full article on the decision and the meeting that approved it in the February Leveller®. It will be distributed from the end of next week.

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