Resignations, secret ‘dossier’ and threats of legal action as villagers fight to prove lack of support for new homes
PUBLISHED: 16:28 08 May 2020 | UPDATED: 16:28 08 May 2020
Wilburton is split over a development meant to create affordable homes but has led to division, parish council resignations and a ‘dossier’ being compiled of social media outrage.
“It is a systematic and nasty campaign against these proposals, orchestrated by three people,” says Charles Roberts, chairman of the community land trust that submitted the application. He said opposition had led to “parish councillors resigning because they can’t stand the abuse on social media”.
Stretham and Wilburton Community Land Trust (SWCLT) “has the entire dossier we have built up over time – we will use it to take legal action if we have to. It has got to the stage where people are fearful.”
Mr Roberts, a former leader of East Cambs Council, is now the special housing adviser to Mayor James Palmer whose Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CAPCA) is supporting the Wilburton application.
“We have dozens of examples of abuse,” he said. The dossier had been drawn up to “protect trustees and we will, if necessary, take legal advice to stop it,” said Mr Roberts.
“The village is supportive, yes absolutely; I have been along to events, talked to hundreds of people.”
The proposals have been drawn up by the SWCLT in conjunction with Laragh Homes and endorsed by CAPCA and East Cambs Trading Company, the commercial arm of East Cambs Council.
Eighty homes – including five self build plots – are included with 35 additional homes being described as ‘affordable’.
There is also a proposal for commercial units and up to 27 acres of public open space.
CAPCA sent a statement to planners outlining the community benefits they believe arise.
“Community benefit has been at the heart of this project since conception,” says a supporting statement from CAPCA.
The application was validated by East Cambs Council on the day the UK went into lockdown over Covid-19, a process described by Mr Roberts as “coincidence”.
Council leader Anna Bailey says the law does not allow planners to delay deciding the Wilburton application.
“This is not to dismiss the concerns that you raise, but is in recognition of the fact that this matter relates to a planning application that is being dealt with according to a process set down in law,” she told Save Wilburton from Over Development protest group.
The group says a parish council survey - “conducted to high levels of scientific rigor and released at the beginning of March” - backs their claim that the scheme is unwelcome
Save Wilburton from Over Development protest group wants the community land trust proposals for their village scrapped.
The group says a parish council survey “emphatically endorses overwhelming opposition” with three quarters of those taking part opposed to the development of Camp’s Field by Stretham and Wilburton Community Land Trust (SWCLT).
Only 18 per cent of respondents in Wilburton supported the project. They argue that there is no evidence of community support which underpins the claims of its supporters.
“Whilst everyone in our village was naturally deeply anxious about the future of their families, SWCLT submitted a planning application to East Cambridgeshire District Council to develop Camp’s Field,” they told SWCLT trustees.
“We are confident that you will understand why so many residents feel a deep sense of dismay at this action,”
With a decision due in July or August they argue that “the scope for democratic engagement with the planning process is clearly circumscribed by our current situation” and want the trustees to justify their decision or to resign,
“Given the consistency of its contents, the Wilburton parish council survey provides persuasive grounds to believe that a sizeable majority opposes this development.
“The decision to submit this application, during this extraordinary and challenging time of pandemic disruption, proves how far from ‘community led’ this development proposal is.”
MP Lucy Frazer told protestors: “I am content that this application will be heard by the planning authority in the normal way.”
CAPCA says it was acknowledged that development partners and landowners do need to be incentivised to undertake community-led projects.
“However, neither the landowners nor developer should disproportionately benefit from bringing this community-led project forward,” it says.
“It is vital that additional value derived from any community-led development is captured by the community and retained for local community benefit in
CAPCA says having affordable homes to buy or rent for the community was a key outcome.
And they believe the 75 open market homes to be provided “will make a significant contribution to the limited local housing supply”.
The Save Wilburton from Over Development Group says it is not against the provision of affordable homes.
“But from a community standpoint the statement ignores the fact that other so-called community assets (new pavilion, football pitch etc) are neither needed nor wanted,” said their spokesman.
“Furthermore, given the fact that SWCLT will need to buy the affordable homes in the first place (albeit at a reduced rate) will inevitably lead to considerable levels of debt, potentially mopping up the income stream for years to come”.
CAPCA says the community land trust has 132 local members who support their aims, and 73 eligible local families who have expressed an interest in an affordable home.
“A developer-led approach to the land at Camp’s Field would likely have resulted in a very different proposal, with significantly more homes at a great density, and significantly fewer community benefits, facilities and amenities,” says CAPCA.
SWCLT says in their application that East Cambs Council is satisfied the scheme was initiated by, and is being led by, a “legitimate local community group” and has “general community support, with evidence of meaningful public engagement”.
CAPCA says without market housing, the costs of infrastructure and associated community benefits would not be viable.
Save Wilburton from Over Development group said: “We feel very strongly that the requirement for showing ‘general’ community support has not been evidenced at all in the application,” said their spokesman.
He believed that at every possible opportunity, during every engagement exercise, the community of Wilburton has indicated that it did not generally support the Camp’s Field development. “No attempt was made to show that such a large development is necessary or desired.”
The idea of there being 73 eligible local families interested in affordable housing was “highly improbable” says the protest group.
Dozens of villagers submitted scathing criticism of the Community Land Trust development at Wilburton.
Critics even include members of the Stretham and Wilburton Community Land Trust (SWCLT) that – technically – is the driving force behind the 47-acre project.
“As a member of SWCLT, I have at no time throughout this planned proposal been asked for my opinion,” wrote one resident.
“I am completely against this proposal and the SWCLT has been very underhand in the way they have handled things,
“The community has in no way been included in the decision. Only after much persuasion did the parish council agree to a survey to every household asking for their opinion, the result – a resounding no - was ignored and planning was submitted anyway”.
Another said it “feels like it is too big for our community and being forced upon the village”.
Another felt it “out of character and detrimental to the village”.
One other objector wrote: “I do not feel the SWCLT can say it represents the best interests of the village.”
Another letter to the council felt SWCLT has “clearly not taken any opposition views into account throughout the process; they have refused to answer questions often not responding at all”.
A further SWCLT member told the council: “I do not support this proposal. At no time since becoming a member has the SWCLT contacted me for my opinion or given members any role in its decision making with respect to this proposal.
“In fact, the SWCLT has shown no signs of being a community led organisation at all; it has shown zero interest in the opinions of its members or the opinions of the whole community.
“If a development proposal claims to be community led, it must be able to demonstrate that the community supports it; this does not appear to be the case here”.
In a letter signed by 53 ‘Wilburton residents’ the council was reminded the site was not accepted into the “now defunct” 2018 Local Plan but re-emerged soon after was a “community led development.
“This has met with widespread opposition in our village ever since it was first proposed in September 2018,” says the letter.
“At multiple public meetings this significant community opposition has been clearly in evidence.”
The residents also query why parts of the application had been submitted on headed notepaper from the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.
“We are confident you will understand why so many residents of our village feel a deep sense of dismay at this action,” says the letter.
There was a “total lack of representation given its submission at a time when all the residents of our village are occupied with the health and safety of our loved ones. “The scope for democratic engagement with the planning process is clearly circumscribed by our current situation”.
They also claim the parish council survey provides ‘persuasive grounds’ to believe that a sizeable majority in Wilburton opposes this development,
“No evidence of community support is presented with the SWCLT and Laragh Homes application,” says the residents.
They suggest it fails to support principles of community land trusts since members of SWCLT had never been asked for their opinion or had any active involvement in the project.
East Cambs Council should suspend the application until after the pandemic ends, they argue.
One other resident believes so many new homes for Wilburton would create even greater congestion since there are few jobs locally and most people commute out of the village daily.
The critic says the council must recognise there is no widespread support for such a large-scale housing estate in the village.
“The decision to submit this during a public crisis seems to suggest the applicants know that the community is against it but hope that the public will not submit their opposition at such a challenging time in order to get approval,” he says.
Another critic argued that the first public meeting he went to in the village felt like “a sales pitch and not an actual public meeting”.
At a subsequent meeting “we shared our valid concerns and they were all absolutely met with no answers or seemingly ignored”.
Wilburton was being “railroaded” into something few wanted, he told the council.
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