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How land promoters erode local democracy

Residents of Hatfield Peverel standing up for Stonepath Meadow Residents of Hatfield Peverel standing up for Stonepath Meadow Stonepath Meadow Residents Group

Stonepath Meadow is home to 10 threatened species and is a treasured landscape for the villagers of Hatfield Peverel in Essex. Yet developers want to build 140 homes on the site, despite alternatives being available.

Last November, I visited Hatfield Peverel to hear residents’ experiences of defending a treasured patch of land from unwanted housing development. The site had been subject to two planning applications, one appeal, and now a public inquiry. Local people had been fighting a long battle with Braintree District Council and the applicants, and need this inquiry to go in their favour if the land was to remain protected.

Of course, houses have to go somewhere, and sometimes sites we appreciate may have to be sacrificed to meet the needs of the population. But I soon realised that this particular sacrifice was totally needless. I only had to climb the stairs out of the station car park to gaze upon the vast expanse that was the former Arla dairy factory - a brownfield site proposed as an alternative to Stonepath Meadow in both the neighbourhood and local plans. What was stopping the council from using this site instead, which could host more houses (142) - enough to meet stated local needs - and was right next to the train station?

The answer to that was the entity behind the Stonepath Meadow application: Gladman Developments, one of an increasingly influential group of ‘land promoters’. These companies encourage landowners to allow them to pursue planning permission on their behalf – on land outside the areas allocated for housing through the democratic local planning process. Such speculation can be a lucrative business, with the value of agricultural land rocketing from £21,000 per hectare to between £2 and 6 million (depending on location) with planning permission for housing. No wonder land promoters usually target the green fields on the edge of towns and villages.

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The accessibility of Stonepath Meadow means it is highly valued by local people

Flaws in national planning policy mean that the chances of success are very good; so much so, that companies like Gladman offer up their services on a no-win, no-fee basis, and take 25% of the cut from the rise in land value when permission is granted. Cash-strapped councils are retreating from the appeals process as the odds of winning diminish and the costs of saying "no" turn into an unjustifiable expense.

Gladman’s determination to build on Stonepath Meadow undermined three years’ work from a group of residents who created a neighbourhood plan for Hatfield Peverel – one which carefully took account of the views of all villagers. While having their ideas for alternative (brownfield) sites initially ignored was frustrating, the biggest injustice for the group was that Gladman took no account of the type of housing local people wanted – homes for first-time-buyers and older downsizers.

“Look at their plans for the site,” said one resident. “It is not affordable housing, this is development for the rich. They may throw in a few affordable houses, but the ultimate decider of this will be the developer and it depends very much on his profit margin.”

It was also clear how much the site meant to those showing me round. One young mother talked of wanting her children to grow up in the countryside and have easy access via the rural footpath network, while another explained that the area had been “designated by our district council as special landscape value land. The developers [successfully] applied for the designation to be lifted but the quality of the land remains the same.”

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Birds swooping between hedgerows on the threatened farmland

A local ecologist told me about the range of endangered species living in the surrounding landscape, such as otters, badgers and the song thrush. “I can see that this development is going to push all of our wildlife out. It will be lost for our residents to see, and the children to enjoy.” After the speculator's ecological survey for the development found little biodiversity, residents enlisted a qualified independent ornithologist who identified 10 red-listed species.

According to the ward's county councillor, the public inquiry represented “a fight for the heart and soul of local democracy, and what it means for village life”. As we await the outcome, we must reflect that the planning system is not currently working for the people it seeks to serve, and is in urgent need of reform. As long as loopholes can be exploited in the pursuit of profit, we will fail to provide the affordable homes we need or make the most of our brownfield sites.

Let’s hope that the decision over Hatfield Peverel provides a precedent that can help protect other villages from, as one resident put it, “the wrong development in the wrong places.”

The public inquiry represents a fight for the heart and soul of local democracy, and what it means for village life.

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