Bombshell result in village polls leaves 115 homes plan in doubt
- Credit: Laragh Homes
Now that Wilburton villagers have passed a vote of no confidence in them, it will be hard to decide where the handful left on the parish council go from here.
Probably not to the village Facebook group. The day after Wilburton held its parish poll, the group – membership 944 – opted not to allow political debate.
Nothing to see here, move along.
Its ‘friendly and helpful’ ethos was threatened and in the words of one villager, time to “do everything possible to make Wilburton nice again”.
But what happened at Wilburton is important and will be so again as decision day nears for what prompted the poll, a bid to build 115 homes in the village.
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These are not just any old homes – a proportion are community land trust homes and form part of the Big Idea favoured by East Cambridgeshire District Council to provide affordable homes for local people.
But the scheme comes at a price – and not everyone in Wilburton is prepared to pay it.
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The Stretham and Wilburton Community Land Trust was set up in 2011 in response to new legislation to allow for a new approach to housing.
Put simply communities can create legal entities that allow for land (usually outside the development area) to be developed for a mix of market and affordable housing – the former being used to offset costs of the latter.
The affordable element is for local people and profits on these are retained by the trust for future housing.
Stretham got in first, has been deemed successful, but Wilburton has from the outset been the problem ‘child’.
The SWCLT and Laragh Homes has applied to build 80 market houses and 35 affordables on a site known as Camp’s Field. Some commercial units, playing fields and a community centre are included.
Not all have been won over by a housing estate on 40 acres of rural Cambridgeshire.
Laragh’s planning application describes the engagement process as “discursive and iterative” which roughly translated means repetitive and rambling.
But they progress it, even though never once has it enjoyed unanimous or even majority support.
Laragh does point out that the parish council conducted a survey and sent out a questionnaire to 528 households.
“Ninety-nine households responded (19 per cent),” says Laragh. “Of the 179 persons which commented, 135 were opposed or strongly opposed; and 33 supported the proposal.
“It is clear that a relatively small percentage of people chose to respond, but of these 75 per cent were negatively predisposed towards the development.”
Minutes from the parish council show that a sub group was up to “create, distribute, collect and summarise an anonymous survey of each household to determine support for or against the eventual proposal by the SWCLT”.
The council stepped back from a motion to “adopt the result of the majority of said survey”.
However, they did agree “to take account of the result in future discussion and planning”.
But when the survey results were debated, the council decided not to abide by the outcome of the poll, instead writing a letter of support to East Cambs Council backing the scheme.
Local Facebook group Save Wilburton from Over Development members were outraged.
“Community Led Exception Sites” (which can be built across green belts outside our village planning envelope) require that a developer shows evidence of general community support,” it wrote,
“This is how consent works for this kind of project. The developer has to prove the community generally wants it.
“We think Wilburton does not. This is because the parish council survey results showed only 33 people ‘In Support’ of the Camps Field Proposal, 103 'Strongly Opposed' and 35 'Opposed'.
“When Wilburton Parish Council wrote a letter in support for the Camps Field proposal, ignoring its own survey, it knew that this would be used by the developer as evidence of general community support.
“It is reasonable to ask our representatives to be democratically accountable.”
Laragh presses ahead, arguing to East Cambs planners that SWCLT had conducted “a process of community consultation” that enabled “the village to prioritise its future needs in order to define the brief for this proposed development”.
They added: “By initiating this proposal, the CLT has been able to exercise greater control over the development process to create a sustainable village extension which is of the highest possible design standard.
“The scheme has been subject to extensive public engagement.”
Charles Roberts chairs the SWCLT and has no doubt opponents “are wreckers and they are blockers; they target from behind keyboards, via social media”.
He told the Ely Standard last year: “They have no concern for creating a community which offers a place for everyone, regardless of wealth or background.”
Mr Roberts may not enjoy quite the clout he once did in political circles, giving up the leadership of East Cambs Council before a short while later becoming housing adviser to Mayor James Palmer.
He has championed CLT housing from the outset and more recently Mayor Palmer’s £100k homes but the change of political leadership at the combined authority means his role disappeared.
New mayor Dr Johnson has terminated the £100k homes policy but is yet to offer an opinion on CLTs.
Save Wilburton from Over Development believe politics has played a huge role in the ambitions of those behind the CLT movement.
And they noted last year that “some in Wilburton feel powerless in the face of a development proposal being aggressively promoted by well-connected and powerful political figures in our region”.
Dr Johnson is yet the contradict the invitation from earlier this year when the combined authority enthused over the success of the CLT development at Stretham.
Until now, at least, the combined authority has in their own words “helped the SWCLT to obtain funding and seek planning permission on a second project in Wilburton”.
The sticking point remains whether Mr Roberts is right when he asserts his SWCLT is all about “trying to reclaim some control of our community’s future”.
That, of course, is what the fractious debate in Wilburton has been about.
Mayor Palmer felt that “the Stretham and Wilburton Community Land Trust is without doubt a trailblazer and shows the vast potential of this way of delivering housing.
“Community land trusts are a key component of our housing policy and we have a dedicated team helping to facilitate their establishment across the region.
“This model can work anywhere and we’re here to support communities in setting them up.”
Dismantling the arm of SWCLT responsible for Wilburton looks the likely option if the requirement of community support is essential to its success.
The narrow victory of 52 per cent supporting the confidence vote is by no means overwhelming.
But, and purely by coincidence, that is the same percentage of the population that voted to leave Europe.
And we did, of course.