Axminster ‘masterplan’ set to be scuppered by land values

A row over land values is set to scupper a masterplan that would see more than 800 new homes and the long-awaited relief road for Axminster built.

The Axminster North East Urban Extension masterplan for 850 homes was adopted in January, and also includes employment land, open spaces and community facilities.

It also included the £16.7m north-south relief road that aims to end the severe congestion, pollution and HGVs having to travel on the existing road that runs through the centre of the town.

East Devon District Council had successfully bid for a £10m Homes England Housing Infrastructure Funding (HIF) grant that would be used to help fund the delivery of the crucial new relief road, only for the government agency to change their mind and turn the grant into a loan.

Ed Freeman, Service Lead for Planning Strategy and Development Management, in a report to Monday’s Strategic Planning Committee, says that as a result, there is no credible way of proceeding with the HIF bid since the monies cannot be secured as traditional grant funding and the development cannot afford to make the required repayments.

As a result, councillors are recommended to re-engage consultation to produce a revised masterplan for the development as it is not possible to proceed with the current masterplan and the HIF bid.

Assessment not accepted for Axminster

He said: “Homes England are not willing to accept the assessment of values provided and insist that the developers are paying too much and the monies must be recovered.

“Homes England’s assessment that the development could afford to repay the HIF money is considered to be based on a false assessment of the land value of the site. Homes England believe that the developers are paying too much for the site. Indeed Homes England’s assessment of the land value is approximately half of that considered to be reasonable given the site area and its established development potential.

“Although officers see little merit in the arguments being made by Homes England it does not change their stance which means that they remain convinced that the development can afford to repay the HIF monies and will not provide the monies as traditional grant funding.”

As a result, Mr Freeman is recommending that the most appropriate way forward is to try and find a way of progressing this project through a revised phasing of the delivery of the development to enable as much of the site to come forward as possible now, with the remainder becoming a longer term aspiration to be progressed as and when funding becomes available.

This option however would not achieve the community aspiration to see the relief road delivered in its entirety in advance of the rest of the site and would until it is delivered in its entirety, place additional burdens on the road network, the report says.

Outlining the situation in his report, Mr Freeman says that the land owners have been contacted but are unwilling to reduce their expectations.

The Crown Estate who own their land outright advised that the value attributed to their land is fixed by what they actually paid and cannot therefore be renegotiated, he said, adding the land owners whose land is optioned to Persimmon Homes were not willing to entertain this option, stating that if they could not realise their expected values they would simply continue to farm the land and await a more attractive offer in the future.

“The only way to take up the offer of HIF is to agree a repayment programme and associated cash flow with Homes England,” he said.

Mr Freeman said that there were only two realistic options that the council can take to achieve this.

Axminster options

The first would see the early stages of the development include virtually no affordable housing to enable the repayment plan to be met, while the second would see affordable housing level drop from 25 per cent overall to at 15 per cent, if not less.

He said that a compulsory purchase order for the site would almost certainly not leave enough of funding to actually deliver the road, not fit with the required timetable, and take land from the only house builder involved in the process.

Revisiting the masterplan to consider what could be achieved without the HIF money is also technically an option, but Mr Freeman said: “Officers are however concerned that this may not yield any new ideas and trying to free up £10 million would be very difficult without heavily compromising the development.”

A long term phasing option is also outlined as the preferred option, with Mr Freeman saying: “This option would involve enabling some early phases of the development envisaged in the masterplan to proceed and deliver the associated sections of the relief road to permit access but leaving the delivery of the wider site as a longer term aspiration when funding becomes available.

“Essentially the southern most parts of the site are understood to be viable in and of themselves and it would potentially be possible to deliver around 200 homes by delivering only the southern-most section of the relief road. This would leave the remainder of the site to be delivered in the future should funding become available potentially through some future Government funding initiative.”

But he added: “It is acknowledged that this option does not achieve the community aspiration to see the relief road delivered in its entirety in advance of the rest of the site and would place additional burdens on the road network to the south of the site which would need to be tested and discussed with the highway authority.

“It would however enable some housing to be delivered on the site and help to support the Council’s housing delivery and it is considered that this option would be best pursued through revisiting the masterplan.”

He concludes: “There is no credible way of proceeding with the HIF bid since the monies cannot be secured as traditional grant funding and the development cannot afford to make the required repayments.

“It is considered that the most appropriate way forward is therefore to try and find a way of progressing this project through some form of revised phasing of the delivery of the development to enable as much of the site to come forward as possible now with the remainder becoming a longer term aspiration to be progressed as and when funding becomes available.”

East Devon District Council’s Strategic Planning Committee on Monday will decide how to proceed, but unless a contract for the funding is entered into by December 16, the HIF funding is set to be withdrawn.

They are recommended to accept that it is not going to be possible to progress with the Housing Infrastructure Fund bid as things stand and that the offer is likely to be withdrawn unless Homes England change their position on land values.

Re-engaging the consultants for the Axminster Urban Extension Masterplan is also recommended, so that they can review options to enable as much of the development in the masterplan to proceed accepting that this would be ahead of delivery of the relief road in its entirety and to consider the re-phasing of the development in light of the failure of the HIF bid.

Councillors are also asked to agree that a Housing Delivery Action Plan be produced to consider how to bolster the housing land supply position in the district and that this be considered by Strategic Planning Committee alongside a revised Axminster Masterplan.

Spate of rural thefts in Honiton, Axminster and Colyton prompts police warning