Despoiling of England: The ruthless “no-win no-fee” developers exploiting new planning rules to threaten our historic countryside. [Daily Mail 17th Dec 2014]
Along a private road backing on to fields, multi-millionaire land development boss David Gladman lives in tranquillity in a wealthy area of Cheshire. His sumptuous farmhouse has a large garden, a tennis court nearby, and is the sort of place that reeks of prosperity.
It is the kind of area that 59-year-old Mr Gladman would ordinarily view as perfect for a development of new homes. As he said himself in an interview: ‘For too long, preserving the view of a rich man over the fields behind his house has prevented a nurse from owning a decent place to live.’
The self-made businessman has gained notoriety because of his spectacular success at getting planning permission for housing on greenfield sites adjacent to towns or villages. When the site is sold on to a builder, he splits the profit with the landowner.
His company’s website states it is targeting plots of greenfield land between seven and 50 acres on the edge of ‘settlements’ across the UK.
The same site boasts that Gladman Developments, with a £200 million turnover, is a ‘formidable, skilled and highly professional land promoter, obsessed with winning (planning) consents’.
Its current projects include a site for 107 homes within view of the summit of the Peak District’s hauntingly beautiful Kinder Scout plateau.
There are plans for 1,500 homes near historic Stratford-upon-Avon, and 270 homes on David Cameron’s doorstep in his constituency of Witney in Oxfordshire.
Under Government reforms, councils must show they have enough land to meet housing targets for the next five years. If they do not, they lose key powers to ward off predatory planning applications. This has resulted in a flood of requests to build on greenfield sites.
A damning report by MPs, published yesterday, found that developers are exploiting planning reforms to inflict ‘inappropriate and unwanted’ housing on communities. Gladman Developments normally offers to cover all the costs of obtaining planning permission — including the fees for lawyers and experts in the event of any appeal — which can exceed £300,000.
Naturally, if an area of land gains planning permission for new houses, its value rockets. Some estimates suggest it can multiply by as much as 100 times in more desirable areas. If the attempt to win permission is unsuccessful, the farmer or landowner does not have to pay anything. The firm recently took out adverts in the farming press in a search for sites on the edges of towns or villages. Its adverts boast: ‘We aim to never lose and have won 90 per cent of our housing planning applications.
‘You pay nothing, win or lose. We only get our percentage after you have sold your land to the highest-bidding house-builder.’
In rare cases, the firm buys the land outright from the owner, wins planning permission, and then shares profits with the previous owner when the site is sold on to a house-builder.
Depressingly, the company does indeed have an astonishing success rate, having secured planning permission for rural sites in 41 out of its last 43 cases, despite substantial local opposition. It is currently pursuing 102 planning applications for housing developments all over England, most of them on greenfield land.
Critics say the cynical no-win, no-fee strategy of this outfit — and others like it — is encouraged by the Government’s newly relaxed planning laws designed get more houses built quickly.
At a Parliamentary committee last summer examining the government’s National Planning Policy Framework to provide 200,000 new homes a year, David Gladman said: ‘We have always been planners … there is probably nobody (in the country) who is more involved, by number anyway, in housing applications and housing appeals …’
For him this is evidently a source of pride, but opponents say his company and others of the same ilk are ruining Britain’s villages and market towns.
Two respected rural institutions — the National Trust and Country Life magazine — warn that Britain’s most picturesque areas are being desecrated.
The vocal Mr Gladman says his company is only focused on ‘sensible, sustainable locations’. ‘We are proud to help deliver homes and associated prosperity to these towns and villages. Everyone needs reminding that we live in a home that was built on what was once a green field.’
He has little time for those ‘not in my backyard’ (Nimby) protestors who oppose his planning applications. He calls them a ‘self-interested vociferous minority who for the past 15 years have played a significant role in depriving a generation of the ability to own a home they can afford’.
So what do they have to say to that? Here, the Mail examines three cases where his firm has gone to war on some of the most cherished rural communities in Britain.
Cider With Rosie valley under attack
To writer and poet Laurie Lee, the Slad Valley in Gloucestershire was a landscape of ancient meadows and babbling brooks.
For his millions of readers, it is the setting for the literary classic Cider With Rosie, Lee’s pre-war memoir which captured the essence of England in the age of the horse and cart.
The valley, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty outside Stroud, contains mile after mile of unspoiled countryside, patches of woodland and hedgerows that were first planted almost a thousand years ago.
Until his death in 1997, Lee was a staunch defender of the area, battling to keep urban sprawl and creeping housing estates at bay. When developers threatened a piece of land there in 1995, he successfully fought the plan, saying: ‘If we permit this to go ahead without resistance, it will be a self-inflicted wound that not even time will heal.
‘The word development is just a euphemism for ravagement and exploitation . . . the valley, with its landscape of tangled woods and sprawling fields should be left to rabbits, badgers and old codgers like me.’
Yet the serenity of Slad is under threat again. In June, Gladman Developments finished presenting its case at an inquiry held in Stroud. It wants planning permission for 112 homes on a farmer’s field on the edge of Slad village.
Unusually in this case, it bought the field from a local farming family for £900,000. According to the terms of the sale, revealed in Land Registry documents seen by the Mail, the farmer will get 20 per cent of any proceeds if the land is sold on within 30 years.
The firm has faced huge opposition — with a massive local campaign and letters of objection received from Laurie Lee fans as far afield as Mexico and the Philippines. Stroud District Council refused its application last year, but the company pushed on to an unsuccessful appeal, and the matter is now at the High Court.
Andrew Dickinson, 51, a resident and member of the Slad Valley Action Group, says: ‘Gladman have a huge advantage because they throw money at professional advisers.
‘At our appeal, Gladman used a landscape architect, a bat expert, a transport planning consultancy, a general planning consultancy, an economics consultancy and a heritage expert. In contrast, the district council could afford one landscape expert and otherwise just put up two officers
‘I would be surprised if Gladman spent less than £200,000 while we, the campaigners opposing them, had about £3,000 in the kitty.’
Downton village fighting the bulldozers
The speculators are hovering over the delightful village of Bampton, much to the dismay of the resident Earl and all the other locals who fear that a chunk of their ancient patch of Oxfordshire is about to be bulldozed.
It could be a storyline in Downton Abbey. After all, they film much of ITV’s hit drama in these honey-coloured streets, and the latest series finished with a sub-plot about a housing scheme. But there is nothing make-believe about the Battle of Bampton unfolding here.
The residents have joined forces with the local council to fight Gladman Developments’s plans for 127 new homes. The 16-acre scheme, they say, will not only disfigure the place but also put intolerable pressure on local services.
Planning permission has been refused, but the Gladman team are old hands at this game. They have not only lodged an appeal, but also submitted a further application for the same site (also refused). The whole thing, barristers and all, got under way in front of the planning inspectorate last month and has just been adjourned.
But since Gladman boasts a 90 per cent success rate, the locals know that it’s going to be a long, hard fight. Just eight months ago, to widespread dismay, West Oxfordshire District Council granted permission to another developer to build 160 houses in another part of the village.
Like all councils, it is obliged to find room for new housing somewhere and this project was, at least, adjacent to facilities like the village school. Now there is the prospect of the Gladman scheme too — in a flood-prone area on the far side of the village.
If both projects go ahead, this village of 2,500 souls will expand by up to 30 per cent. Bampton’s school, surgery and sewerage works are all close to capacity as it is.
‘We all understand the need for sensible development,’ says the Earl of Donoughmore, retired parish councillor and founder of the Society for the Protection of Bampton. ‘But they’ve already granted 160 houses which, to my mind, is too many. To allow another 127 would be a complete disaster.’
He has complained to his local MP — who happens to be the Prime Minister — but to no avail. ‘I expect David Cameron is against it,’ says Lord Donoughmore. ‘But he says he can’t get involved in a council matter.’
The main drawback of Gladman’s disputed site would seem to be that it is next to a river and liable to flood, though a spokesman for Gladman declines to comment.
Here in Bampton, there have also been concerns about some of Gladman’s claims. The company literature states it has ‘proactively engaged’ with Bampton Parish Council and the Society for the Protection of Bampton.
‘They never contacted us,’ says parish councillor, Richard McBrien. ‘Haven’t heard a thing,’ says Trevor Milne-Day, chairman of the society. Hilariously, the Gladman bid also refers to the local town of Witney as ‘Whitney’ (perhaps the author is a Whitney Houston fan) and calls the local authority Cheshire East Council.
This fails to amuse Mark Booty, district councillor for Bampton, who says: ‘I’m not entirely happy about the 160 homes already going in to Bampton, but we haven’t got the infrastructure for any more.’
Not that this will stop rapacious no-win, no-fee developers from chasing profit in this very English backwater.
Betjeman’s gem in peril
There are few places in this country more peaceful or glorious than Thaxted, Essex. Composer Gustav Holst fell in love with the town on a walking holiday a century ago, settling there to create his famous orchestral suite, The Planets.
His daughter, Imogen, said of the family’s cottage: ‘It stood high above the surrounding cornfield … it was so quiet that we could hear the bees in the dark red clover beyond the garden hedge. The valley was planted with young willow trees and a high wind would turn them to silver and, in the distance, the spire of Thaxted church stood up against the sky.’
Former Poet Laureate John Betjeman was to later eulogise: ‘There is no town in North Essex — and very few in England — to equal the beauty, compactness and juxtaposition of medieval and Georgian architecture, than the town of Thaxted.’
Yet today it is under siege from the planners. Gladman Developments, acting in partnership with a farmer, is seeking planning permission for 120 houses in a field on the edge of the village. The initial application was turned down but the company is taking it to appeal.
A local resident who wrote to the Mail said: ‘Thaxted is a parish of about 1,200 houses, 200 of which have been built in the past few years. There will be a further 140 when developments already approved are completed.
‘It is just managing to maintain its charm and tight community spirit despite all its public services being close to breaking point. It has poor road and rail access and is said to be the most remote community of its size within 50 miles of London.’
The idea of 120 more houses has been described as the ‘last straw’. Martin Foley, the district councillor for Thaxted said: ‘We feel that one the nicest corners of England may be ruined.’
Sue Reid, Robert Hardman, Additional reporting: Ben Spencer Daily Mail 17th Dec 2014