A one of the most important democratic questions is how the land around us is used. Does it provide housing that we can allow us, public services and green spaces, or is it used by a few to impose projects that are damaging to the rest of us and extract profits at our expense?
In a living democracy, we would be allowed to designing our own communities to meet our own needs. But while we are invited to participate in the planning system, it often meanst little more than approving or opposing plans offered by real estate developers, whose interests rarely align with ours. Instead of democracy, there is a veneer of public consent.
The government David Cameron promised to fix that. The 2011 Localism Act would allow communities to take over the control. It included a Community Right to Build Order , whereby local people would automatically obtain a building permit for a project if they won a referendum.
People in 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 giant milk processing plant.created by Dairy Crest, in 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 truly affordable housing units, 37 retirement homes, workspaces providing work 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 being home to woolly hippies, it is also home to determined and very well-organized people. They put thousands of unpaid hours , soliciting opinions, developing their plans with the community, architects and other professionals, and raising funds.
In 2014, they formed the Totnes Community Development Corporation (TCDS). She secured an agreement 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 project, giving it a building permit. Considering the difficulties of working with such a site, achieving this in just two years has been a remarkable achievement.
In 2019, Dairy Crest was acquired by the company Canadian Saputo Inc. This didn 't seem to affect the sale. TCDS and Saputo had the site independently assessed. After negotiations between their lawyers, Saputo UK has confirmed it will accept £ 460,000 for the site, and agreements“Surplus” rds for developments TCDS would build, bringing the total to almost £ 5million. This allowed TCDS to get £ 2.5m from the National Heritage Lottery Fund.
At the end of 2019, Saputo lawyers told TCDS that the firm is considering another offer for part of the site. Then, Saputo UK terminated two of its agreements with TCDS, citing technical details. However, negotiations continued. Then, in January of last year, when TCDS expected to swap contracts with Saputo, Saputo UK President Tom Atherton called to say the company had decided to sell the product. site to someone else. On the same day, lawyers for Saputo confirmed that it had traded contracts with what appeared to be aEssex-based sealants called FastGlobe Ltd.
Members of the community, who had worked so hard for 13 years, were stunned. They were even more surprised when they later found out that the site had been sold for a total of £ 1.35m , considerably less than the £ 5m they would have paid.
The sale was negotiated by a land agent called Patrick Gillies. In March of this year, local people had a meeting with him, which they recorded with his permission. He told them something extraordinary. FastGlobe Ltd was, for the purposes of the Agreement, "a purchasing vehicle." That's all. It 's like a bank. Gillies explained that he was the site coordinator, project manager and partner. Now the community has discovered something else. PatrickGillies was, until her
There is nothing illegal about this arrangement, although Saputo, which prides itself on its ethical standards and publishes a code of conduct covering such matters, one might wonder whether, in this case, these standards have been met. None of my questions - directly to Gillies and, via Saputo UK to Atherton - have yet been answered, but Saputo Inc, the parent company, told me, “TCDS has informed of these allegations. We take it very seriously and are looking into it. "
TCDS calls on Saputo Inc to buy the land and honor the original agreement. Because Saputo is a reputable company and the charitable foundations of the founding family support community groups , he hopes to be heard .
What this story shows is that the famous community building right is weak and symbolic. It does not offer communities any protection against the sale of land under their orders, and therefore does not give them any real rights. The thousands of hours and £ 800,000 the community spent developing their offering could have been wasted entirely. The rest of UK needs the type of purchase right legislation that Scotland has: strong legal rights that cannot be suddenly overruled by landowners and developers.
They said we can take back control. It's time to honor the promisesse.
- George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist