There was an interesting charm offensive over the car parks by SHDC this week. Videos and press releases of them smiling and talking expansively about how we had nothing to worry about, nothing was being planned, nothing to see here. It’s a strange tactic to so deliberately flag up that there is nothing to see here – it almost makes you think, wait, maybe there is something to see here.
We spent a year campaigning to get the central area of Totnes out of the Local Plan. We did this because building houses on our central car parks was and is a terrible idea. We had a huge response, 8,000 people signed our petition, thousands wrote letters, hundreds marched – we had tv and national and local press involved. We finally got to a point that with the sterling efforts of our district councilors and Rose Rowe, SHDC bowed to pressure, admitted that it was a bad idea and pulled it out of the Local Plan. Totnes came together against the building or T3 as it was called, in a way we haven’t seen for a long time. It was a real expression of unity; it spread across all the political parties, the chamber of commerce, the market people, the town council, the district councilors, residents new and old; it was great and eventually, SHDC listened and agreed and you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking, that was that.
Not a bit of it. It’s now barely a year later and back they are again. They have recognized the deep unpopularity of this ridiculous scheme and so have decided to do it by the back door. The have surrounded their plans in secrecy and threatened our district councilors with suspension and financial penalties if they publicly speak of the plan. They have delegated the task of selling off their assets, or our car parks as I like to call them to their new asset manager, in the hope that he won’t be hampered by democratic accountability when using the tactics he would have picked up from the business world to force these developments on us. I personally, was called a liar for mentioning the supermarket that they had primed for Victoria car park. It turns out, of course, that there was a supermarket but they have pulled out. Nothing smacks of desperation like calling people liars without cause in order to cover whatever shenanigans you are trying to pull off.
It’s not just about secrecy though, there are other things afoot. SHDC are desperate for money, the government has cut their funding almost entirely and are effectively pushing them into raising their own revenue. Construction is where they see their money coming from. In recent months SHDC has agreed to borrow £60 million to invest in commercial property. It’s a risky tactic and bear in mind, that we will be liable if it doesn’t work. SHDC is a public body, a body that is supposed to work in our interest and that we pay tax to support. Paying tax to support what is effectively becoming a housing developer is a bit galling, when you thought you were paying your tax to keep your roads mended, your schools efficient and your hospitals running. It’s a bit more than galling when you see that the money they have borrowed might well be used to smooth the path for developers to build in places that communities don’t want built on.
So we have the carrot and stick from S.Hams. The carrot is the usual trick from developers of promising you what they think you want, in order to get what they want’. This time they are promising us affordable housing. The Duke’s agents used this effectively in Great Court Farm for example, Bloor Homes used this in Baltic Wharf, actually they went further – they put on a great show; it was all about community consultation and co-housing and allotments, green travel plans, beautiful gardens etc. Of course it all ended up the same way – the gardens, allotments, co-housing etc disappeared and a multi-million pound development went up in their stead. I completely understand why developers do this. They are businesses. They have waited a long time for a government to gut planning control and they are in the middle of a kind of feeding frenzy of building. In this age of austerity, where children go hungry and hospitals are closing, its disgusting and deeply frustrating to watch and I don’t want our own district council to follow their example. One of the asset men tasked with squeezing council assets has form in this area. He wrote on Linkedin of his last job as, ‘making NHS assets sweat’. Whatever you feel about that, I think it’s clear that SHDC has new tactics when it comes to making an awful lot of money out of our car parks. They have unethically delegated the job to an asset stripper, they have kept their plans secret, they have kept the public out of the loop and whenever they actually have to talk to other elected bodies like our town council, they have downplayed what they are actually up to and played the ‘give the people what they want’ game.
So we should be under no illusions as to what they are up to. They are also up to it in Salcombe, Kingsbridge, Ivybridge and South Brent, so we are not alone. Sacrificing these towns in order to balance their own books is shameful. They say we should be able to come up with plans of our own and work with them. We already have, in fact we have at the request of SHDC and with their cooperation, developed an almost completed Neighbourhood Plan, which is almost entirely about what type of development we want here and the allocation of sites in conjunction with the Local Plan. Five years of solid volunteer work, which has gone through a consultation and will go through others before it is voted on in a referendum. It states very, very clearly that the last place we want any building is in the car parks. Instead it offers lots of other alternatives – social housing on Follaton car park, tracks green pathways, has suggestions for improving the road system, leisure facilities, community engagement, lots of good ideas and lots of hours have been spent on it. By creating another T3 commercial plan, SHDC has basically told us that the Neighbourhood Plan is pointless, that despite all the work people have put in, they are going to completely ignore it. They are also saying that our campaign was pointless, that the decision by full council last year to remove T3 from the Local Plan is irrelevant, that consultations are pointless, that any semblance of democratic accountability is pointless.
it’s insulting to think that we will accept this, but if it means we once again have to stand up and say a very loud no, then we will. The future health and wellbeing of our town is too important.