Delays in building Cranbrook's town centre criticised, as talks continue
PUBLISHED: 15:43 09 August 2019 | UPDATED: 16:02 09 August 2019
Cranbrook's developers are 'actively marketing the town centre to attract investment - including a supermarket and retail shops', but the district council's leader has hit out at what he describes as the 'profound failure' of the project.
Last week the Herald revealed the authority is in talks with developers to extend the deadlines by which they have to start work on building shops to create a town centre.
Current legal agreements stipulate the developers should have submitted a town centre location plan before May 19, 2019 - this has not been done. They also state that the first five high street units on the town centre land, next to Cranberry Farm, should be finished before 2,000 homes are occupied. Between between 1,900 and 2,000 homes are now occupied and the land is still mostly empty fields.
East Devon District Council leader Ben Ingham told the Herald: "There is profound failure in the delivery of Cranbrook, without any doubt.
"All I can say is, we have got to take account of where we are and do everything we possibly can to get it back on track within the limitations that we have.
"It is failing in front of us right now. I can't excuse that strategy, all I am saying is that we need react to it the best we can.
"There is no point in having a town without a town centre and at the moment we have one half, the smaller half, of Cranbrook developed and it has got some shops and facilities.
"I think part of the problem is 'letting the market decide', which was desperately fashionable ten years ago.
"No, we should decide and put it in the best place we can and that is what my cabinet wants to happen.
"I'd park it (the blame) at national government because you have to work to their rules.
"They paid for the infrastructure and said the market has to decide the rest of it."
Asked about the town centre location plan not being submitted, he added: "You would assume I'm getting very impatient with that. It's July now. I think they need to speed up."
Cllr Ingham said as leader he wanted to improve the relationship between the developers and planning officers to such an extent, across Cranbrook and East Devon, that they are working with each other, instead of against each other.
'Desirable place to be'
District and town Councillor Kevin Blakey, who represents Cranbrook, said developers and the town are working hard to get the town centre right.
"The developers understand the value of having a working town centre because it will help sell the place and make it a more desirable place to be. They haven't lost sight of that," said the former town council chairman.
He said the original legal 106 agreement, which included the trigger points for facilities like the youth centre and GP surgery, was based on Cranbrook only having 3,500 homes. When changes were made to the masterplan to allow Cranbrook to have nearly 8,000 homes, what was needed from the town centre changed.
"What we are trying to do it put together a plan to build a town centre that meets the needs of a larger town," he said.
"Originally the library and town council offices were going to be separate buildings and would not have been financially supported, meaning the cost of running and maintaining the building would have fallen back on the taxpayer."
He said the town council had pushed for the previous Section 106 agreements to be changed so the town could have buildings with different elements which could generate income - but that this was complicated to plan.
Cllr Blakey said: "So instead of having a town council office on its own, for example, we would have a building that included the town council, library, coffee shop, offices and some accommodation. This means we can have buildings that can support themselves, and if they make a profit can go into council coffers to keep council tax down."
'Cannot force business to come'
In a statement, Cranbrook Town Council said the consortium of developers is actively marketing the town centre to attract investment - including a supermarket and retail shops. It said discussions with the consortium are under way about how best to deliver the five retail units promised before 2,000 homes are occupied.
It said: "The consortium cannot force businesses to come to Cranbrook.
"An important factor is the fact that the current legal agreement is based on development of the first 3,500 homes. We are aware Cranbrook could grow to around 8,000 homes and hence there is a need to bring forward facilities of a size and stature which can serve a town of that much larger size. We are therefore in discussion across all three tiers of local government, together with the developers, to identify funding to deliver the facilities earlier and better than the current obligations in the Section 106 agreement.
"Equally, we need to deliver a town centre for the 21st century taking account of the shift in how people use a modern town centre and the shift in shopping habits towards online retail. What we must avoid is a high street with empty shops."
Read MP Sir Hugo Swire speaks on Cranbrook here.