Thursday, 29 November 2012

Land dispute at MacKenzie Road

There have been disputes between neighbours regarding the plantation near to MacKenzie Road for a number of years. Various Councillors have been involved at one stage or another and the issue has seen many twists and turns.

For me, there are two principle issues that should concern Councillors, and in particular members of the Overview & Scrutiny Commission.

These two issues are;

1. Was the approach by officers to addressing the misuse of the land sufficiently robust? And naturally linked to this, is the Breckland policy on enforcement in relation to misuse of public land adequate?

2. Is it correct that where there is disputed land of this nature; is a sale by auction the most appropriate, and fair way to deal with the issue?

To many people, certainly in the minds of residents of MacKenzie Road, this situation will appear as if it is a case of Breckland Council “washing its hands” of its responsibility to protect publicly owned land from misuse. This belief is further compounded by the seeming desire of the Council to pass on the ownership of the land, and therefore transfer the issues, to the highest bidder in an auction.

Should the land be sold, the disputes between the neighbours would not be resolved. Should either one of them be the winning the bidder – the issues would surely escalate?

Is there not a tacit endorsement of the misuse that’s occurred by not only failing to address the misuse, but also potentially formalising that misuse should the land be sold to the person that has been flouting the law thus far. There is seemingly no regard for either party’s ability to pay, and therefore the unfairness of the action that has been proposed.

The most concerning aspect of this whole situation, and approach to dealing with it, would surely be the precedent that it sets. I.e. A member of the public misuses a piece of publicly owned land and the Council tasked with protecting it chooses not to address this. What’s to stop that resident from acquiring that particular section of land, and then repeating the misuse further along, potentially acquiring further portions of land. To what extent would future enforcement action in this area be undermined by the approach that has been adopted?

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Flagship Housing letter re: garage issues

To, Chief Executive, Flagship Housing Group

Increasingly, I am being forced to contact Flagship staff to report concerns relating to Flagship owned garage blocks across Thetford.

Recently I reported concerns regarding a garage in the Fir Road block that was once more full of rubbish – after only recently being set on fire, and also reported the presence of a gas cylinder on the roof of one garage further along – photographs attached of both examples.

Whilst I can commend the response of your officers when dealing with specifically reported matters, this should not need to occur with such frequency. Surely there should be a more pro-active plan in place to ensure that garage blocks that you are responsible for are regularly checked and any concerns addressed?

There is also a much wider issue here however, and that concerns the long term future of these garage blocks as there has been a very evident decline in their condition over the past 12 months.

Whilst I can appreciate that in many cases the garage blocks are destined to become housing developments, (having myself been involved in the Barnham Cross Regeneration Steering Group for the past 6 years), there is little prospect that anything will change in the short-term due to budget cuts, particularly with regard to cuts at the Homes & Communities Agency. Leaving the garages to fester for this length of time is simply not an option.

I would urge Flagship to look very seriously at the issue of garage blocks across Thetford and work with the local community and to think outside the box to establish a solution to help keep them cleaner, tidier, and safer for all local residents.

Yours sincerely,

Councillor Terry Jermy

Monday, 12 November 2012

Redcastle School fence saga - letter to County Hall

To, Director of Education, Norfolk County Council

I wish to write and formally complain regarding the recent actions of Redcastle Family School and its Headmaster – Dr Andrew Sheppard.

For many years a section of the school field that has been unused by the school has been enjoyed by local residents – partly as an area for residents to walk their dogs and partly used by young people from the Redcastle community as recreational land. There is a distinct lack of green space available locally due to the high density of housing around Redcastle so this piece of land has been greatly valued and appreciated.

In addition to this, the land in question surrounds the Thetford Community Ballpark and therefore it is important strategically to gain access to the site for things such as grass cutting equipment, emergency access and a route for other vehicles needing to service the site.

The School recently installed a new fence to block off access to the top half of the field (the side closest to the school). Although there was no consultation with the community, or the Ballpark committee this action seemed somewhat logical and many people just went along with it.

Local people then became aware that the school intended to fence off the lower half of the field as well and prevent access entirely. Myself and several other Councillors raised concerns directly with the school about this having been contacted by numerous local residents expressing concerns.

Councillors asked for a meeting with Dr Sheppard to discuss the proposals and asked for more community consultation to occur. Despite our objections, the school rapidly progressed with these proposals and the fence was erected within days.

This has created considerable upset and anger around the wider community and does little to improve the school’s reputation in the community. The erection of the fence has also caused users of the Ballpark considerable challenges as there is now no way to retrieve footballs that go out of the Ballpark enclosure – the schools suggestion of collecting stray footballs the morning after by visiting the caretaker is completely unworkable.
The three community football coaching sessions delivered by the Thetford Community Association have been totally undermined by this action and their request for a key to the new gate to enable football collection to occur during the sessions has been denied. Further, at times when sessions occur the coaches are able to prevent young people from attempting to climb the fence, but at all other times, young people are left with a choice of attempting to climb the fence or likely to lose their football – many naturally attempt to climb the fence which creates a very real health and safety issue. In addition to this, our volunteers who keep the Ballpark site clear of rubbish etc. are now no longer able to access the field area to pick up any litter that may blow onto the field and the area will inevitably deteriorate visually. We are currently not sure how maintenance machinery, including grass cutters etc will be able to access the site – presumably a key will be granted, or we will be “let-in” when convenient.

From a Ballpark Management Committee point of view, they were not informed that fences that were erected by and paid for by the charity would be removed by the school and replaced with alternatives that they felt were more appropriate.

All of this results in a very bad feeling. There is no burning need for the school for this piece of land and there is ample space for the school, Ballpark and wider community to work alongside each other. The lack of respect and courtesy afforded to the schools’ neighbours – both the Ballpark committee and the wider community has been deplorable. At a time when schools are being encouraged to be more engaged with their community, when the ‘extended schools’ concept is being promoted, and when this aspect of school life is increasingly a part of Ofsted considerations, this action is clearly a retrograde step for the school.

I have invited local residents to view this letter and sign to say if they support its content. Names of those supporting the letter and therefore the complaint have been attached.

Yours sincerely,

Councillor Terry Jermy
Saxon Ward Councillor & Member of Thetford Community Association

Monday, 5 November 2012

Planning Meeting report re: Supermarkets


It was of course inevitable that at some time there would be a major planning application in relation to my ward that I needed to attend the planning committee for. Had I not been at a conference in Manchester I would have attended the earlier October planning meeting to speak on behalf of residents about the proposals for Riverside Walk (bus station moving,new hotel & shops etc). After having registered to speak at the planning meeting on Monday in relation to the Asda development for the old Tulip site it turned out that I needed to attend as a Committee member – I’m the ‘substitute’ for Councillor Sylvia Armes who was unable to be present (there’s 12 members of the Committee which is politically balanced to reflect the same composition of the whole Council, so there are 10 Conservative members of the
Committee, 1 Labour and 1 Independent. Sylvia is the Labour member, and I’m her
substitute if for any reason she is unable to attend).

I prepared in advance what I wished to say as one of the three Saxon Ward representatives on Breckland Council – my speech can be found online for those that wish to read it;
I thought long and hard about whether or not to support the proposal and spent many hours researching and deliberating - I am sure the majority of Councillors up and down the Country do the same when faced with similar issues. Do you support something that would potentially bring jobs and investment to your community and bring back into life a currently unused area or do you hold out for what you believe to be right – sticking to adopted policies, supporting the high street and raising concerns re: road infrastructure, public transport, the environment etc....?

I ultimately spoke against the development, and voted against both supermarket proposals. So why did I come to the conclusion that I did? Firstly, both supermarket applications have been floating around for some time. I believe one of them was submitted around February this year. Large applications contain big piles of
background paperwork and information which is a lot to discuss and weigh up so with two combined – this was even more so the case. As is often the case, the devil is in the detail! Let’s be clear; the role of the Planning Committee is not to decide if Thetford should get another supermarket or not, or, whether that supermarket should be an Asda or a Morrisons or a Lidl or anything else for that matter. Their role is to decide if the application in front of them conforms to adopted Council policies and whether or not the proposal would enhance or deteriorate the area where it is to be built, whether or not there are safety concerns or environmental considerations and to be aware of economic benefits and risks. With both supermarket applications there are, in my opinion, two fundamental issues and a number of other important considerations. With the Asda development for the old Tulip site – the proposal would see the loss of land designated for manufacturing and industry. Thetford has developed as a manufacturing town and we have seen the gradual erosion of such land over the years. Nearby businesses objected to this proposal and one of the documents that I read on the Sunday before the meeting was this one:

(Link doesn’t appear to work every time so go to – click Planning Application search on the right hand side, click ‘search for planning applications’ – use planning reference number - 3PL/2012/0213/O. Open up the documents section. Click next at the bottom – and then click ‘view’ on the local representations link under the Trox UK representation – this will take you to the Indigo report for Two Sisters). The nearby ‘Two Sisters Foodgroup’ objected very strongly to the Asda proposal as they have wanted to acquire the Tulip site to enable their business to expand – their submission details how they applied to purchase the site but were unsuccessful, and they reaffirmed their desire to purchase in their letter although it should perhaps be noted that the Agent for Asda (Location 3 Properties) said at the meeting that the Two Sisters offer for the site was not nearly enough - large supermarket chains can of course afford to pay more and the
owners of any land will inevitably want to get the most amount of money for their land or perhaps Two Sisters were offering too little money deliberately – I am not in a position to judge either way. Now, it is also not the job of the Planning Committee, or indeed the Council to favour one business over another. But, this is a manufacturing business wishing to expand in Thetford – so in a broader sense this should be welcomed. But also, it is a manufacturing business concerned with poultry meat processing which is important to the wider Breckland economy so there are likely to be wider benefits. The Two Sisters submission states that should they be allowed to expand, they would create 250-300 more jobs on the site (they already employ approx 500 people after having invested £30 million in coming to Thetford) So, the number of jobs that they could create is the same as the Asda development, but, considering that should Asda proceed, then Lidl have said that they would not proceed with their plans for a new store just along the road (re-stated at the meeting) and therefore the 60+ jobs that this development would have created would be lost. It should of course be noted that these job totals are estimates, and are not full-time equivalents – many of the jobs will be part-time and of course in both examples the majority would be low paid. However, in short, using the land for manufacturing as intended would have created more jobs than a new supermarket. It is also very important to consider how the proposals could impact on Thetford High Street – the report by NLP that was submitted as part of this application revealed that each supermarket (Asda and Morrisons) would take away approximately 20% of expenditure from Thetford High Street, i.e. millions of pounds. Therefore, it is quite conceivable that the store would result in even more job losses in the High Street and further vacant shop units (Thetford shop vacancy rate is approx 16% currently). The reason that the two new supermarkets would not be permitted is due to the massive impact it would have on Thetford high street – apparently one store (20% loss of revenue) is permissible – but two is not – I am sure there are many that would feel a 20% loss would on its own be disastrous for many retailers. With regard to the Planning Committee meeting itself, and the Councillors concerned – many people have been deeply critical of them – unfairly so in my opinion. I was struck on Monday
by how many Planning Committee members were genuinely interested to know how
Thetford residents felt about the two proposals. Several committee members asked me “how does the town feel about this?” and “what are local peoples thoughts?” and “how does this relate to Thetford growth strategies?” That was very encouraging. One panel member also asked during the debate for the views of Thetford Town Council and expressed surprise that no body from Thetford Town Council (either a Councillor or member of staff) was present to speak on behalf of the town – there were of course 3 members of Thetford Town Council on the Planning Committee as they happen to be also Breckland Council members (myself included), this also included our current Mayor, who also happens to be Chairman of the Town Council Planning Committee, but he did not feel the need presumably to speak separately in this capacity about the proposals, which is somewhat unfortunate. Nevertheless, the fact that local views and the views of the locally elected Town Council were sought is somewhat heartening.
It should also be noted of course that no residents from Thetford attended the meeting to witness proceedings or to speak, either in favour or against the two proposals and only the Thetford Society through Stuart Wilson submitted anything in writing – a couple of local businesses wrote in, as did Thetford Grammar School – but nothing from Thetford residents or retailers – is our town really so apathetic? Clearly not judging by the comments that have flowed in after the meeting, but people really do need to get engaged and get active in things like this in advance, rather than criticising once it’s all a bit late. With regards to the Mundford Road development, which was confirmed at the meeting to be for a Morrisons store – this was recommended for refusal by the officers (they had recommended the Asda one for approval). This is land that is designated as the Thetford Enterprise Park (TEP) – I’m told that it was once planned as a Science Park. The theory has been that this location could take advantage of its excellent location next to the dual carriageway and Thetford’s geographical position close to Cambridge, Snetterton and the Hethel Engineering centre and become a hub for high tech industry creating high tech jobs –
something that we really need to aspire to in Thetford. We must try to advance and create more high paid, high skilled jobs. The site however needs considerable infrastructure investment to become usable – particularly infrastructure in relation to power. Now I am really not an expert in these matters, but I believe that in order for the TEP site to become usable, investment of some £9million is required – basically to ensure that the site has sufficient power as we are reaching the point in Thetford where investment in power really is needed before any further growth can occur – the new houses to the North of Thetford have similar issues. The argument to allow a supermarket to go ahead in this location – again on manufacturing/employment land – was because allowing this to happen would provide the much needed infrastructure to “open up” the remaining site. The supermarket would consume 22% of the enterprise park but the investment would act as a catalyst to promote further usage. There are fundamental flaws with this however; The infrastructure investment
is nowhere near what is required – the proposal included a new access road and roundabout – but did not substantially address the power issue and there would also be no guarantee that the remaining site would be used for the purpose that it was intended. Indeed, if 22% of the site was to be used for retail, then what would stop the remaining 78% of the site being used for such a purpose? Precedent can be a very dangerous thing. Could we see the creation of a further out of town retail centre that could massively undermine the high street. With the final stretch of the A11 to be dualled shortly there now stands a more realistic chance than ever that the dream of the Enterprise Park could finally be realised. But, in a similar situation to that of the manufacturing land, we could find ourselves without any land for these proposals to happen, and be a town of supermarkets on the periphery and charity
shop land in the town centre with the population restricted to primarily low paid, low skilled jobs or commute out of town – or worse, leave the town altogether, So the outcome?: 9 of the 12 strong committee members voted to against both supermarkets – 3 did not vote – including the Chairman, who does not tend to vote unless he needs to use his casting vote. A fairly clear verdict. The reason given? An unacceptable
loss of employment land. Step forward Planning Officers.... reason not robust enough = nervous committee members. One of which proposed to ‘un-do’ that decision – within
minutes of making it, and a majority supported this (I did not, as did a number of others). Step forward a proposal to ‘defer’ post applications, rather than reject – again, a majority supported this (I did not, as did a number of others). So now we have two deferred applications, that will be debated over at a future date. Hopefully by which time some of the other issues will have hopefully been addressed, but surely neither application will be able to address the fundamental issue that they will be building on designated employment land?