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Saxonvale approved again

By local democracy reporter Daniel Mumby

A major Somerset regeneration scheme has been narrowly approved for a second time – despite the imminent threat of legal action.

Mendip District Council has been working with the Acorn Property Group to regenerate the Saxonvale brownfield site in Frome town centre, through a mixture of housing, commercial uses and public open space.

The council’s planning board voted to approve outline plans for the scheme in late-January, subject to legal agreements being signed – and work to clear the site using a grant from Homes England began in early-August.

The board has now given its backing to the scheme for a second time in light of new planning policies being approved – and in spite of the alternative Mayday Saxonvale bid team threatening the council with a judicial review.

Here’s everything you need to know:

 What is planned at the Saxonvale site?

The Saxonvale site lies on the River Frome to the east of the town’s Marks and Spencer store, and includes a large number of disused industrial buildings.

Up to 300 homes will be delivered on the site, of which 24 per cent (72 properties) will be affordable following negotiations with Acorn.

Up to 45,000 sq ft of commercial space will be set aside, housing purpose-built retail units, independent cafes and restaurants, and a co-working area.

The ‘western warehouse’ within the current site is expected to become an arts and heritage venue, with the council planning a bid to the government’s levelling up fund to assist with the delivery.

Wasn’t permission for this already granted in January?

 Yes – but it’s a little more complicated than that.

The board did vote in January (by 11 votes to three) to approve the plans – but this was subject to legal agreements between the developer, the district council and the county council being agreed.

Until these agreements (known as a Section 106 agreement) are signed, the board’s decision to grant permission is not legally binding – which restricts how much work can be carried out on-site.

Since the original decision, the council’s Local Plan has been officially approved by the Planning Inspectorate – meaning new policies are now in force to which the new development must comply.

Specifically, the new Local Plan identifies the Saxonvale site for “mixed-use development (i.e. housing and employment, not just the latter), with a minimum of 250 dwellings being delivered there.

Additionally, the council has been served with a letter from the Mayday Saxonvale group warning that it could push for a judicial review against the Acorn scheme.

What would the judicial review concern?

Mayday Saxonvale has served the council with a “pre-action protocol letter” – which essentially lays out the grounds on which a possible judicial review may be requested.

It should be stressed that a formal request for a judicial review cannot be submitted to the High Court until permission has been granted – in other words, once the necessary legal agreements are in place.

While the letter itself has not been made public, director Damon Moore laid out the reasons behind pushing for the review in a press release issued before the planning board met on Wednesday evening (September 15th).

Mr Moore said the council’s officers had “misrepresented” key planning policies at the January meeting, arguing that the Acorn scheme was “clearly in breach” of policies regarding both affordable housing levels and employment land allocation.

He added, “This plan fundamentally fails to deliver the town centre employment space that Frome desperately needs.”

This letter coincides with a planning application for Mayday Saxonvale’s alternative vision for the site – including a lido and a new site for St. John’s School – being submitted for public consultation.

Fellow director Paul Oster said, “We are appealing to members of the planning board to give the Mayday Saxonvale scheme a fair hearing.

“We do not believe that such a critical development should be imposed on Frome, if there is a realistic, viable alternative that safeguards the social and economic priorities of our town.”

What did the board say this time around?

 The council’s planning board met in Shepton Mallet on Wednesday evening (September 15th) to discuss the Saxonvale proposals afresh.

Councillor Michael Dunk – whose Frome Market ward includes the site – said the proposed scheme did not deliver enough employment space to meet the needs of the town.

He said, “We desperately need commercial space in Frome town centre. We’ve built housing on most of the other available sites in Frome.

“What we need is town centre space – not space put on the edge of town because we haven’t put enough in the town centre.

“What Acorn is offering is a high-density residential development with some commercial space tacked on.”

Councillor John Clarke (who represents the same ward) added, “There are massive objections to this proposed development – 200 objectors has to be a factor in our deliberations.

“There are no other brownfield sites for development – this is the last opportunity to provide commercial space in Frome town centre.

“This is about the regeneration of the town in terms of employment, in terms of people living there not having to travel, to reduce car journeys – to live and work where they please.

“This site can offer that opportunity – and I don’t think it will offer that opportunity to the same extent if we go with the Acorn proposal.”

Despite these concerns, the plans were narrowly approved for a second time, by a margin of seven votes to six.

What happens next?

 The existing work to clear the site – such as removing unwanted greenery and disconnecting utilities – can continue, with the £3.95M grant provided by Homes England needing to be spent in its entirety by December 31st.

The district council say the Section 106 agreement would shortly be signed – which would allow for more detailed proposals on the new homes and the demolition of unwanted building within the site to come forward.

A spokesman said, “All parties are close to agreeing the Section 106 terms. Once this is agreed, there is no requirement for the application to go back to the planning board.”

Detailed plans for the demolition of several buildings within the site and the phasing of the construction have been submitted to the council – with decisions on these matters expected to come back before the planning board in the coming months.

Acorn released a statement following the meeting, welcoming the re-approval of the scheme and promising rapid progress on the development site.

A spokesman said, “We will now focus on finalising the first reserved matters application for the mixed-use development, which will be submitted this winter, and we will prepare to re-engage and consult with local residents and the business community.

“It is important that we create a new sense of place as early as possible; therefore the first phase will prioritise the public open space, park facilities, footpaths and footbridge to connect with Rodden Meadow.”

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