TOOne of the most important democratic questions is how the land around us is used. Does it provide affordable housing, utilities and green space, or is it being used by a few to impose harmful schemes on the rest of us and extract profit at our expense?
In a living democracy, we would be allowed design our own communities to meet our own needs. But while we are invited to participate in the planning system, this often means little more than approving or opposing plans put forward by real estate developers, whose interests rarely align with our own. Instead of democracy, there is a semblance of public consent.
The David Cameron government promised to fix this. The Localism Act of 2011 would allow communities to regain control. It included a Community Right to Build Order, through which local people would automatically get planning permission for a project if they won a referendum.
The people of the town of Totnes in Devon took him at his word. Since 2007, they had been working to transform a large abandoned site, previously a milk processing factory run by Dairy Crest, into a community project called Atmos. They turned their plans into England’s most advanced and ambitious use of the right to build order. They sought to build 62 genuinely affordable homes, 37 retirement homes, workspaces that would provide employment for at least 160 people, a hotel, community and youth facilities, and an arts center.
It was a huge undertaking. Abandoned factory sites are notoriously difficult to develop. But while Totnes has a reputation for hosting woolly hippies, it is also home to some determined and very well-organized people. They put in thousands of unpaid hours, probing opinion, developing your plans with the community, architects and other professionals, and raising money.
In 2014 they formed the Totnes Community Development Society (TCDS). He struck a deal with Dairy Crest for the sale of the site. This gave it the same protection that any developer would enjoy. In 2016, TCDS held a local referendum on Atmos plans, in which 86% of voters supported the plan and gave it planning permission. Given the difficulties of working with such a site, getting it done in just two years was a remarkable achievement.
In 2019, Dairy Crest was bought by the Canadian company Saputo Inc. This did not appear to affect the sale. TCDS and Saputo assessed the site independently. After negotiations between its lawyers, Saputo UK confirmed that it would accept £ 460,000 for the site, and “surplus” deals for developments to be built by TCDS, bringing the total to almost £ 5 million. This allowed TCDS £ 2.5m insurance of the National Heritage Lottery Fund.
In late 2019, Saputo’s attorneys told TCDS that the firm was considering another offer from the site. Later, Saputo UK terminated two of its deals with TCDS, citing technicalities. However, the negotiations continued. Then in January of last year, just as TCDS was hoping to swap contracts with Saputo, Saputo UK Chairman Tom Atherton phoned to say that the company had decided to sell the site to someone else. On the same day, Saputo’s lawyers confirmed that it had exchanged contracts with what appeared to be an Essex-based putty firm called FastGlobe Ltd.
Community members, who had worked so hard for 13 years, were dumbfounded. They were even more surprised when they found out later that the site had been sold for a £ 1.35m total, considerably less than the 5 million pounds sterling they would have paid.
The sale had been negotiated by a real estate agent named Patrick Gillies. In March this year, the local people had a meeting with him, which they recorded with his permission. He said something extraordinary to them. FastGlobe Ltd was, for the purposes of the agreement, “a purchasing vehicle. That is all. It’s like a bank. “Gillies explained that he was the site’s coordinator, project manager and partner. Now the community has discovered something else. Patrick Gillies was, until his divorce, Tom Atherton’s brother-in-law.
There is nothing illegal in this arrangement, although Saputo, who prides himself on his ethical standards and publishes a Code of conduct Covering these issues, you might wonder if these standards have been met in this case. None of my questions, directly to Gillies and via Saputo UK to Atherton, have been answered yet, but Saputo Inc, the parent company, He told me: “TCDS has informed us of these allegations. We are taking the matter very seriously and are investigating them. “
TCDS calls on Saputo Inc to buy back the land and comply with the original agreement. Because Saputo is a renowned company and the founding family’s charitable foundations support community groups, you hope to be heard.
What this story shows is that the famous community right to build is weak and symbolic. It does not provide communities with protection against the sale of the land below them and therefore does not grant them real rights. The thousands of hours and £ 800,000 that the community has spent developing their offering could have been completely wasted. The rest of the UK needs the kind of legislation on the right to purchase Scotland has: strong legal rights that cannot be suddenly terminated by landowners and developers.
They said we could regain control. It is time to keep the promise.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism