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"Deeply Damaging"

How English Heritage described the development of The Elms in 2012.

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"Important Open Space"

How South Oxfordshire District Coucil classify The Elms

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An Open Letter to John Howell MP

Context: This letter was originally sent by email to howelljm @parliament.uk on 18th July 2014 without response.  Several further attempts were made up until 5th August when contact was finally made on twitter (click here for conversation) where it was made clear emails were not being received correctly.  We received no bounce or error message to our emails.

5th Aug: In the end we decided to publish this as an open letter.  We will report back any reply received in due course.

6th Aug: Received a 'holding' reply stating the Mr Howell has to undertake due dilligence on the matter and is also on about to depart on unspecified annual leave.

 

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Dear Mr Howell,

I write to draw your attention to the substantial (and rapidly growing) body of your constituents who are expressing their opposition to the development of Elms Field in Thame.  I know of several of those individuals who have already written to you to express their concern as to how Elms Field could have been allowed to enter the Thame Town Plan as a development site; all have received unsatisfactory responses from you.

Your overt support in the promotion of the Thame Town Plan, via a slick campaign to promote adoption at Referendum, is quite understandable given your hand in the production of The Localism Act. However, it is contradictory that The Thame Neighbourhood plan has given locals less say in where houses are to be built than previously. 

I hope that you have your finger on the pulse of Thame and that you are already aware of the swell of disapproval at the manner in which The Elms became included in The Town Plan; if not, then a simple drive through Thame will demonstrate to you the number of residents displaying “Save The Elms” posters. 

To clarify, the issues of concern are particularly:

  1. Elms Field was not one of the six critically appraised sites suggested by SODC professional planners for allocation of 775 houses. 
  2. In 2006 SODC extended the Conservation Area to include Elms Field and the adjacent public Elms Park and designated them together as “Important open space”.
  3. Following a site meeting, where the owner of the Elms (a developer with whom you are acquainted) and his planning consultants, attempted to persuade two representatives of English Heritage and the SODC Conservation Officer that development on Elms Field should be allowed, English Heritage wrote a letter to the Thame Town Clerk, with a detailed history of the site and the conclusion that development would be “deeply damaging”.
  4. That letter was not shown to Councillors at a meeting which discussed the allocation of houses to Elms Field in the then Draft Town Plan.  According to Town Council minutes of that meeting Councillors were apparently told:
    1. That following further consideration (by whom it is not stated) an increase on Elms Field, from 35 to 45 houses, was the result of feedback forms from the community. This cannot have been correct because “the community” were unaware of the figure of 35, let alone any proposal to increase the number. Furthermore, of the 38 members of the public (a clear indication of the inefficacy of consultation process) who responded regarding development of The Elms during consultation period on the Elms 31 were opposed to any development.
    2. That this change resulted from “a very late letter being received from English Heritage, 3 weeks after the close of the consultation period”. That letter was not connected to the public consultation and was written within a week of, and resulted from, the site meeting mentioned above. Councillors were thus misled and prevented from reading that letter at that critical stage in determination of future of Elms Field.
    3. The increase was also stated by Tibbalds Planning Consultants to be required to ensure the viability of the development. This is a completely illicit use of viability studies, which, as you must know, apply only to proposed renovations to a listed property needing funds to finance the needed work on the property. Councillors were misled.
    4. Councillors were told to approve or reject the development of Elms Field in total and were not given the chance to discuss or propose amendments.  The one Councillor who said he was against any development on Elms field, was told “this was not a councillor decision”.  So why were the 14 councillors there?
  5. Following the site meeting, there was a meeting in the council offices where the developer and his consultants set out to have Elms field accepted as a site. The Clerk was there for the council. No councillors were present, not even those who were members of the team formulating the plan.
  6. Thame Town Council’s Planning Consultant was previously a direct employee of the developer, now runs his consultancy from a suite in the developer’s head office, has the developer as a major client and concurrently worked on other projects for the developer while employed to advise Thame Town Council. Other RTPI Members have questioned the ethics of this situation.  I personally questioned the judgement of Thame Town Council in employing him through the critical stages of allocating housing to Elms Field and received threats of legal action from the developer!
  7. Claims that Thame Town Council’s Planning Consultant has not been involved with meetings where Elms field was discussed can be evidenced as untrue, both by his active presence at a meeting between the Clerk and one of the members of The Elms Petition Group and by correspondence which the Clerk was forced to supply under the Freedom of information Act.
  8. Thame Town Councillors Dyer and Bretherton stated that allowing development on Elms Field avoided it coming forward as a windfall site; this was illogical and served to mislead the Public. As a windfall site, refusal would have been possible due to the Elms Field's status as important open space.  As it is, inclusion in an adopted plan severely limits the planning authority's ability to determine the site's suitability – normally the first step with any housing application.
  9. Allowing housing on Elms field also violates another clause in the plan, where it is stated that existing open space will be protected.
  10. The final mailing which all residents received from the “Yes for Thame” group (led by Mike Dyer apparently while apparently “removing his Councillor hat” and supported by you, while presumably removing your MP hat?) made absolutely no mention of where the 775 house were proposed to be built.  Many citizens who voted ‘Yes’ for the Town Plan, because they were told that they would have a say in housing site allocations, have now signed the petition against development on Elms Field because they consider that they were duped by a misleading and undeniably well-funded slick campaign.
  11. That mailing stated “If you still think that by rejecting the plan, Thame won't get 775 new homes....you are wrong” The number was never the issue. Location was the issue, so people were misled. Hardly a good example of democracy at work.
  12. The petition against development on The Elms gains more signatures daily, many from persons misled into voting yes in the referendum. The petition covers other reasons why Elms field is an unsuitable and unsustainable site.
  13. The Thame Town Plan is not destroyed by removing Elms field and allocating the 44 house to more appropriate designated site of ample capacity.
  14. Full back-up documentation is available including much on the records at SODC, which Angie Patterson can obtain for you.

In summary, I urge you to scrutinise the situation, which may have resulted from a series of misjudgements, and assist with corrective measures to preserve a significant heritage asset within Thame.  If you would like a meeting to discuss the situation with members of The Elms Petition Group, I will happily arrange one.  As my representative I would appreciate a considered and positive response; this I expect from you as my MP and as a key architect of Neighbourhood Planning under The Localism Act, which, in the case of The Elms, within the Thame Town Plan, is currently failing to achieve that which it was supposed to.

Yours sincerely,

Richard Jeffries

For and on behalf of The Elms Petition Group

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