Thursday 18th February 2021 - Frome Times
On the front page of this week’s Frome Times Councillors John Clarke & Micheal Dunk have ‘Blown the Lid Off’ the Non-Disclosure Agreements, political arm-twisting and undemocratic manoeuvrings to get the Acorn scheme consented by Mendip District Council. Councillors have, in their words, been prevented from any ‘meaningful discussion’ about what deal was agreed with Acorn and whether it would be in the interests of Frome.
“THE Saxonvale project has been driven by profit without regard to the best interests of Frome, according to two Mendip district councillors.
It follows the decision by Mendip District Council to approve plans for the high profile town centre site.
Councillors Michael Dunk and John Clarke, who are Mendip District councillors for Frome’s Market Ward say, “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.”
The councilors told Frome Times, “Mendip District Council and their developers, Acorn, finally got the go-ahead recently from the council planning board for their outline scheme to develop the derelict Saxonvale site in the centre of Frome. They can now expect to share a profit of about £15million, with Mendip also expected to get back the £8.3million it spent buying the land.
“Mendip agreed an exclusive Sales & Overage Agreement with developers Acorn to design a scheme fit for the site. Questions about the probity of such an arrangement were raised at the time and a legal challenge by Damon Moore, owner of The Silk Mill, is still ongoing.
Non disclosure agreement
“As members of the newly elected Lib. Dem. controlled council in 2019, those who represented Frome were informed about the project and its progress through a Saxonvale Members Group. Such were Mendip’s concerns over commercial confidentially that all those involved, including us as Ward members, were asked to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA).
“We believe that this has been abused by the Mendip administration to prevent transparency, honesty and any meaningful discussion by elected councillors on what could be delivered at Saxonvale above the deal agreed with Acorn. Now that planning has been approved, we expect them to be far more open about their expected level of profit and whether they can deliver more for Frome.
“A briefing to the members group focussed on Viability and Residual Land Value (RLV) and we were told that the project was just viable with 20% Affordable Housing (AH), 45,000 square ft Commercial area and a RLV above zero. No mention of profit.
“We don’t think any of us fully understood the concept of RLV but we later discovered that even if RLV is at zero, the council would still expect a substantial share of the projected £15million profit, (based on a 20% margin as stated in Acorn’s viability assessment) in addition to recovering its land cost. The council will deny the briefings were misleading, but we believe they never had any intention of informing us on the expected level of profit, and so it has remained.
“So, Mendip could have increased both commercial space and affordable housing in Saxonvale by means of a clause in their contract with Acorn. They would have had to use some of the expected profits (that we estimate to be in the region of £8million), to reimburse Acorn for any losses they might suffer as a result.
“In the light of this information, we felt it was our responsibility to get the best outcome for the Frome residents we represent and requested discussions on the possibilities for Mendip to increase its provision of commercial space and ‘Affordable Housing’ (AH) by using some of their profit. Our intention was to address some of the concerns expressed by Frome Town Council, The Chamber of Commerce and The Civic society, all of whom wanted these increased from what was on offer. We were ignored.
“Just before the Planning Board met, council officers negotiated with Acorn to raise the AH from 21% to 22.5% of the 300 housing units, however officers agreed to reduce the social rented units from the standard 80% to 70%, actually resulting in 3 less social rented, not a good result if you rely on rented housing as so many do.
“With the lost opportunity to provide more than the 45,000 square ft employment space considered inadequate and now that most, if not all, prospective employment land has been sacrificed to housing, (Saxonvale was probably the last site that could provide jobs where they are best suited, within the town) we would like to know from Mendip where Frome is supposed to find any more.”
“It is very disappointing but at this stage it is only an outline; there remains opportunities 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.”
26th November 2020 - Frome Standard/Somerset Live
An alternative plan for a flagship regeneration scheme in Frome has been unveiled.
Mayday Saxonvale claims that the proposed current Saxonvale scheme that has been submitted by developer Acorn Property Group will not deliver the communities priorities the area needs and that a different model is needed.
Members oppose the Acorn application, which Mendip District Council remains committed to, saying it could cause “many problems and grave implications for our town”.
Those behind the project say they want to build a “well-living community”.
What has Mayday Saxonvale proposed?
Mayday Saxonvale have worked with Andrew Kirby architects to create a community brief and layout plan with full viability and feasibility analysis, which is now available on their website.
They then aim to agree the new plan with the local council and then acquire a local investor and community self build offer.
The group wants to challenge the decision of Mendip District Council to appoint residential developers, Acorn Property Group, to redevelop as a housing-led scheme on the Saxonvale site in Frome
Their aims are:
- To persuade Mendip District Council to consider an alternative approach from the local community – to design and build a well-living community on the Saxonvale site that sees businesses and affordable housing co-exist in an environmentally conscious development
- To establish through a corporate vehicle a social enterprise to implement the acquisition of the Saxonvale site, finalise the development plan for the site, inject funds from local investors, manage the development and co-ordinate self-build projects on the site
- Establish a proven alternative model for tackling town centre regeneration across the UK which encourages public bodies to value social profit as highly as financial profit when developing their land assets.
19th November 2020 - Frome Nub News
Those who oppose the current Saxonvale proposals for the redevelopment of the centre of Frome have asked that the Town Council have an open mind about their alternative proposals.
In an open appeal to the council they write:
"The AK.A plan is not-for-profit, viable and will deliver the community, affordable housing and economic imperatives of our local planning policies in full. If the District Council annul the contract with Acorn and agree a conditional option on the site at developed value, the Silk Mill is ready and willing to fund a full planning application based on this draft masterplan proposal. We hope the Town Council will adopt an open mind regarding this very worthwhile initiative and are calling for our District Councillors to disengage with Acorn’s anti-democratic application. "
The group has put across a whole site draft master plan as seen above.
They write : Now that all sectional sketches have been completed, the AK.A Mayday alternative masterplan for Saxonvale may now be assembled. If the District Council annul the contract with Acorn and agree a conditional option on the site at developed value, we are prepared to fund a full planning application based on this draft masterplan proposal.
"Given the failure of national house builders and the wide-spread scepticism that they will ever make good on S106 & community infrastructure obligations, I think that community-led development offers the only ray of hope. There is no reason why communities should not take the lead in these scenarios either in partnership with house builders or by forming their own not-for-profit development companies giving them a competitive advantage. We hope the Mayday alternative masterplan can provide a template for the town in our ability to fend off inappropriate redevelopment whilst meeting new home quotas and planning targets. The master plan for derelict Saxonvale divides the area adjacent to the carpark in the heart of Frome into a series of ‘quarters’ which they say will " retain the industrial identity of the site and re purposing buildings to boost Frome’s independent and entrepreneurial character. "
12th November 2020 - Frome Standard
4th November 2020 Frome Nub News
A flagship regeneration scheme in Frome could lead to a significant financial loss for taxpayers after concerns were raised about its viability. Mendip District Council has partnered with the Acorn Property Group to redevelop the Saxonvale site, delivering a mixture of housing, commercial outlets, community facilities and open green space near the River Frome. Formal plans for the scheme were submitted to the council in May 2019 and have been through various round of public consultation, with large numbers of residents raising objections. Now campaigners have raised concerns about how viable the development is, claiming taxpayers could lose out to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds if the plans are approved.
Here’s everything you need to know about where things stand with the Saxonvale scheme – and what could happen next:
What is the Saxonvale regeneration scheme?
The Saxonvale site is a brownfield site comprising disused industrial buildings and associated infrastructure which lies between the River Frome and the town’s Marks and Spencer store. The site, which was once home to Notts Industries, lay empty and overgrown for a decade before it was purchased for £6.3M by the then-Conservative council in August 2018.
The plans for the site include the delivery of up to 300 homes, with many of the former industrial buildings being retained and renovated as community or commercial space – including the ‘western warehouse’, which is set to become an arts and heritage centre. After the local elections in May 2019, the new Liberal Democrat minority administration pledged to take the development forward, with a formal planning application being submitted by Acorn that month. Council leader Ros Wyke stated during a tour of the site in December 2019 that this would be “an exemplar site”, with the council wanting to “raise the bar in expectations of new development.”
What are the major issues?
Since the planning application was submitted, numerous objections to it have been submitted both from individuals and statutory consultees. Frome Town Council – which sold a parcel of land it owned near the river to the district council – has said the development does not go far enough to address traffic concerns in the town centre. Jane Llewellyn stated in July: “Saxonvale is by far our best opportunity to create more work opportunity in Frome town centre and thus begin to address the problem of commuting out of town (and reduce car use). “The current proposals appear to be providing for greater residential occupancy than commercial/ non-residential use, thus adding to the problem of commuting instead of beginning to address it.”
Frome Chamber of Commerce has described the councils’s approach as “opaque and undemocratic”, arguing the development would not meet local needs for either employment land or low-cost housing. Chamber spokesman Neil Howlett stated in August: “We are in danger of becoming a dormitory town from which people drive elsewhere to work. We have the ridiculous situation of businesses who want to move to Frome but cannot find premises, and businesses which want to expand but cannot do so because there are no premises for them. The Local Plan requires 750 new jobs in the town centre. Saxonvale is employment land. It is the only substantial site upon which those jobs can be delivered.”
Somerset County Council – which is responsible for highway matters – has said the existing junction with Garsdale has “substandard visibility” and has recommended a new 20mph speed limit should be implemented.
What about the scheme’s viability?
Building on brownfield sites is not always straightforward – there are often hidden costs associated with land decontamination, utilities or other matters. In some cases, the cost of dealing with these problems creates a situation where the developer cannot make a sufficient profit in the new homes to make the development viable. Sometimes grants are made available to deal with these problems, with Homes England and the housing infrastructure fund providing funding to ‘unlock’ key sites to allow more homes to be built. In other instances, developers re-negotiate the terms of planning permission with the local authority, usually reducing the number of affordable homes to ensure it can make enough profit for the entire site to be built out.
In the case of Saxonvale, a legal agreement exists between Acorn and the council surrounding the site, known as a sale and overage agreement. These governs the number of homes that will be delivered on-site, stating that the council will see financial benefits if the value of the land increases as a result of the development being carried out. The council also has policies within its Local Plan stating that affordable housing must comprise at least 30 per cent of any new major development – but this can be renegotiated if there are concerns about viability.
A recent viability assessment, carried out for Acorn by JLL, ruled that only 21 per cent of the homes within the planned scheme could be affordable. This would fall to 17.5 per cent if Homes England withdraws its offer of a £3.95M grant to aid the development.
What are campaigners claiming?
Damon Moore runs the Silk Mill Studios near the Saxonvale site, and is the co-founder of the Mayday Saxonvale campaign which opposes the council’s master-plan for the site. Mr Moore has described the Saxonvale redevelopment as “a sunk cost fallacy”, calling for the Homes England grant to be withheld until the full agreement between Acorn and the council had been published. He claimed the council had spent £9.45M on the Saxonvale site to date – of which £6.3M went on the initial purchase and £985,000 on acquiring the land near the river from the town council. Of the remainder, £575,000 was set aside for “enabling works”, with the phoenix sponsorship board (which makes confidential decisions on the council’s commercial investments) approving subsequent requests for a combined total of £350,000. Mr Moore said this amounted to the council’s “paying Acorn’s bills” and the council could end up losing “at least £3.45M” on the site following its official valuation by JLL at just over £6M. He said: “Until full transparency is established and the town knows what the real situation is, losses on the Acorn scheme will continue to mount. Frome will have an undemocratic housing scheme with the affordable
housing quota cut by almost one third, imposed by the district council, blotting out the town’s last viable employment and commercial zone and stifling the town’s real growth and prosperity for years ahead.”
Can we see the legal agreement between the council and Acorn?
Mr Moore is currently engaged in a protracted legal battle over the release of the legal agreement signed between the council and Acorn prior to the council’s purchase of the site and their partnership being announced. Mr Moore attempted to secure the information from the council using the Freedom of Information Act, but this was refused since the material is judged to be commercially sensitive. He subsequently appealed this decision with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which oversees data protection law in the UK. But Mr Moore’s appeal only resulted in a redacted version of the agreement being published – with much of the most pertinent financial information continuing to be withheld. Mr Moore, unsatisfied, has taken the decision to a tribunal, which will rule in the coming weeks over whether the full agreement should be released.
How has the council responded?
Mendip District Council has confirmed it paid £6.3M for the Saxonvale site (not including the town council-owned section), and said it had followed proper procedure with both the public consultation and the continuing discussions regarding viability. A spokeswoman said: “The planning process will continue to be followed, and has involved a lot of public consultation and support. We are unable to comment on the figures Mr Moore claims due to the commercial confidentiality of the information. We have agreed to pay a share of the architect’s costs, but any further detail on this is confidential. We bid for the land in a highly competitive environment, with expert professional advice, in order to deliver significant regeneration outcomes for Frome. We remain confident that the development remains viable, but much will depend on the outcome of the planning application and the preparation of a detailed viability assessment over time. The programme for the scheme cannot be prepared until the outline planning consent is granted.”
What happens next?
Consultation continues on the Saxonvale proposals, with a final decision due to be taken by the council’s planning board at a virtual public meeting. The date for this has not yet been confirmed – but it is likely to be delayed further as a result of the recent Dutch N legal ruling. The Somerset Levels and Moors are protected by the Ramsar Convention, an international law which recognises and protects areas of wetlands for future generations. Following the Dutch N recent court case, Somerset’s local authorities have been urged by Natural England to carry out tests to protect the area from further pollution by phosphates. This means the council is unable to make immediate decisions on significant applications – including developments involving large numbers of homes or new commercial units.
Councillor Garfield Kennedy, portfolio holder for the Local Plan and policy, said: “We are committed to sustainable development and the new advice received from Natural England is of great concern. We know this will have significant impacts in the near future on developments in our area. The quality of the natural environment in the Somerset Levels and Moors must be of paramount importance if we are to deliver the commitments we made in February 2019 to tackle the climate emergency in our district. We must do everything within our power to protect those sites of national and international importance – for all our futures.”
29th October 2020 - Frome Times
22nd July 2020 - Somerset Live/Frome Standard
A raft of changes to the plans for the Saxonvale site in Frome have been met with criticism by the town council, which says it is “not an application we can support”.
A number of changes to the original plans were submitted in June and were considered by members of the authority last week.
It has expressed repeated objections to the plans for Saxonvale since the original proposals were put forward in June 2019.
The changes proposed by the new proposals include:
New plans for neighbouring Garsdale Avenue, the main access route, with a central strip added to slow traffic and widening of bends to allow for larger vehicles
The limitation of vehicle access to the site via Vicarage Street, with a greater emphasis on pedestrian and cycle access
The plans for uses of buildings will in some places be adapted to “flexible use”, to leave the decision in the hands of the property owners
Changes to building heights within the site
The council expressed support for aspects of the new plans, including the changes to the surrounding road network and building heights.
15th November 2019 - Private Eye