The fate of a masterplan for Axminster – featuring more than 800 new homes and a long-awaited relief road – is hanging in the balance.
East Devon District Council (EDDC) chiefs heard the bid has been dealt a blow after £10million in Homes England Housing Infrastructure Funding was turned from a grant to a loan.
The authority’s Strategic Planning Committee last week agreed it was therefore not possible to progress with current proposals for the Axminster North East Urban Extension Masterplan.
Money would have been used to forward fund a £16.7million north-south relief road that aims to end congestion, pollution and HGVs having to travel through the town centre.
But a row over land values has led to Homes England ruling that the money can be repaid.
As a result, EDDC officers said there is no credible way of proceeding with the Housing Infrastructure Funding bid.
Councillors agreed that, as things stand, the offer is likely to be withdrawn unless Homes England changes its position.
They also agreed to re-engage the consultants for the Axminster Urban Extension Masterplan to review options to enable the forward delivery of the relief road in its entirety.
Members also decided that a housing delivery action plan should be produced to consider how to bolster the land supply position in the district.
Councillor Andrew Moulding, who represents the Axminster ward, said: “The traffic is getting worse and worse and the relief road is vital for the future of the town.
“For it to come first would be best and, importantly, will support 800 new jobs for the area, and the growth will enable schools to flourish and provision of health and wellbeing needs.
“My position has always been that the development must be accompanied by the upfront delivery of the relief road.”
Fellow ward member Cllr Ian Hall added: “We are where we are.
“If the masterplan isn’t deliverable without the forward funding for the relief road, then it needs to be stuck on the shelf until the funding is available.
“I will not stand idly by and watch this go through without the forward delivery of the road that will unlock Axminster.”
Cllr Sarah Jackson added: “The officer recommendations to push ahead with piecemeal development is not acceptable and neither are the proposals to reduce other benefits such as the provision of employment space and delivery of much-needed affordable homes.
“Forward delivery of the road must remain the primary focus of the entire masterplan.
“This is not the end of the story, but it does take us all towards securing a deal which works for Axminster in its entirety.
“The masterplan consultants will be asked to urgently review how development is delivered in the town in the years to come.
“This should ensure that infrastructure and services develop at a rate which meets both the needs of new residents and the needs of the existing Axminster community.
“I will be working with my fellow councillors and the town council to secure the very best deal for Axminster.
“It was consistently emphasised that our town does need to have a comprehensive and robust Neighbourhood Plan which must take into account the needs, aims, aspirations and concerns of all residents.
“This must be developed in an open and inclusive manner and an adopted Neighbourhood Plan would enable Axminster to take better control of its own destiny.”
Other committee members also registered their concerns about the relief road not being forward funded.
Cllr Philip Skinner said: “The masterplan is critical for Axminster. The town gets log-jammed and needs the relief road and this is blatantly obvious for anyone who drives through Axminster.
“It is sad that Homes England have not stuck to the plate as they need to be putting in infrastructure if we have to do this housing delivery at a local level.”
Cllr Mike Howe added: “Any consultant that we re-engage I imagine has only certain levers that they can pull.
“That means affordable housing may drop, employment will drop, and you get more housing, so would be balancing a few small pots to deliver the road, and that is what we are looking at.
“We need to look at the whole package to deliver in the best way possible the best for Axminster in an unhappy situation.
“I am concerned about forward funding, although understand why we want it to be there, and urgent may be a better way of putting it, but we need to deliver a sensible amount of affordable housing and definitely employment space as, otherwise, it all falls apart.
“We need to be conscious about what we are doing as a whole with the masterplan.”
Officers did raise concerns that consultants may come back and say it was not possible for the masterplan in its current guise to be forward funded.
They had recommended a revised phasing of the delivery of the development to enable as much of the site to come forward as possible now.
The remainder would become a longer-term aspiration to be progressed as and when funding becomes available.
But councillors requested that consultants be re-engaged to review options to enable the forward delivery of the relief road in its entirety as part of the masterplan.
They also agreed that a housing delivery action plan be produced to consider how to bolster the land supply position in the district.