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Councillors blow the lid off ‘Saxonvale saga’

THE Saxonvale project has been driven by profit without regard to the best interests of Frome, according to two Mendip district councillors.

It follows the decision by Mendip District Council to approve plans for the high profile town centre site.

Councillors Michael Dunk and John Clarke, who are Mendip District councillors for Frome’s Market Ward say,  “It has the appearance of a scheme driven by the developer to provide the minimum acceptable value to the town and the maximum profit to Mendip and Acorn.” 

The councilors told Frome Times, “Mendip District Council and their developers, Acorn, finally got the go-ahead recently from the council planning board for their outline scheme to develop the derelict Saxonvale site in the centre of Frome.  They can now expect to share a profit of about £15million, with Mendip also expected to get back the £8.3million it spent buying the land. 

“Mendip agreed an exclusive Sales & Overage Agreement with developers Acorn to design a scheme fit for the site. Questions about the probity of such an arrangement were raised at the time and a legal challenge by Damon Moore, owner of The Silk Mill, is still ongoing. 

Non disclosure agreement

“As members of the newly elected Lib. Dem. controlled council in 2019, those who represented Frome were informed about the project and its progress through a Saxonvale Members Group. Such were Mendip’s concerns over commercial confidentially that all those involved, including us as Ward members, were asked to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA).

“We believe that this has been abused by the Mendip administration to prevent transparency, honesty and any meaningful discussion by elected councillors on what could be delivered at Saxonvale above the deal agreed with Acorn.  Now that planning has been approved, we expect them to be far more open about their expected level of profit and whether they can deliver more for Frome.

Substantial profit

“A briefing to the members group focussed on Viability and Residual Land Value (RLV) and we were told that the project was just viable with 20% Affordable Housing (AH), 45,000 square ft Commercial area and a RLV above zero. No mention of profit.

“We don’t think any of us fully understood the concept of RLV but we later discovered that even if RLV is at zero, the council would still expect a substantial share of the projected £15million profit, (based on a 20% margin as stated in Acorn’s viability assessment) in addition to recovering its land cost. The council will deny the briefings were misleading, but we believe they never had any intention of informing us on the expected level of profit, and so it has remained.

“So, Mendip could have increased both commercial space and affordable housing in Saxonvale by means of a clause in their contract with Acorn. They would have had to use some of the expected profits (that we estimate to be in the region of £8million), to reimburse Acorn for any losses they might suffer as a result.

“In the light of this information, we felt it was our responsibility to get the best outcome for the Frome residents we represent and requested discussions on the possibilities for Mendip to increase its provision of commercial space and ‘Affordable Housing’ (AH) by using some of their profit. Our intention was to address some of the concerns expressed by Frome Town Council, The Chamber of Commerce and The Civic society, all of whom wanted these increased from what was on offer. We were ignored.

“Just before the Planning Board met, council officers negotiated with Acorn to raise the AH from 21% to 22.5% of the 300 housing units, however officers agreed to reduce the social rented units from the standard 80% to 70%, actually resulting in 3 less social rented, not a good result if you rely on rented housing as so many do.


“With the lost opportunity to provide more than the 45,000 square ft employment space considered inadequate and now that most, if not all, prospective employment land has been sacrificed to housing, (Saxonvale was probably the last site that could provide jobs where they are best suited, within the town) we would like to know from Mendip where Frome is supposed to find any more.”

“It is very disappointing but at this stage it is only an outline; there remains opportunities for us to work with the developers to try and ensure the best outcome for Frome at the next Planning ‘Reserved Matters’ stage.”

“We could still see a development which is fit for 21st Century challenges, which addresses climate change through the highest energy efficiency and build standards, a development which reflects the heritage of Frome, and above all a development which reflects the needs of Frome.”

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