Local Government Ombudsman provisionally finds maladministration in investigation of complaints from a Community Garden group against Mendip District Council.
SUBMITTED BY: Fiona Kirton, Pilton Road Community Garden, North Wootton (just outside Shepton)
It should have been a flagship example of ‘The Big Society’ and had the original decision of the Mendip District Council Officer dealing with the matter been kept to it would have been just that. However layers of complications have got in the way, costing the taxpayer thousands of pounds and sabotaging what should have been an excellent Community Project.
Pilton Road is a row of eight affordable homes in the very affluent hamlet of North Wootton, in the Pilton and Croscombe Ward adjacent to the Shepton West Ward. The community in this row were very close, rare in these days, who still popping into each others homes to borrow a cup of sugar or a pound of potatoes, fixing each others cars, share childcare, recycling clothes amongst the children, or shopping for each other during illnesses. Exactly the type of community spirit that David Cameron and the National Tories espouse.
At the end of this row of houses was an area of land owned by Mendip District Council, that had not been sold to Flourish Homes when the housing stock was offloaded to the housing association. Since the 1960s this land has been maintained by the residents to grow vegetables or for recreational purposes after their front gardens had been taken away to put in a slip road and make the lane leading to their homes safer.
When residents then bought their homes from the council they requested that they buy their garden plots along with their houses. Only the resident at No 1 Pilton Road was allowed to do so in 1982. All subsequent requests were turned down.
In 2005 a family of developers bought the pub, the Crossways Hotel, on the other side of the road from these houses and applied for planning permission to build fourteen houses there. Fourteen is one under the number at the time needed to require them to put in affordable housing. Despite strong local opposition but with the support of then District Councillor for Pilton and Cllr Dick Skidmore they obtained this permission. A member of the developer’s family also bought the property at No 1 Pilton Road and put in an application to buy the whole plot of land adjacent to the houses in Pilton Road. The other residents objected strongly.
The residents of Pilton Road put in a complaint and had a meeting with the then head of Assett Management, Peter McKenzie, who sensibly suggested a compromise in which the taxpayer could be satisfied and the community need met. A strip of land adjacent to the garden plot at No 1, would be sold to the developers at development rates and the remainder to be sold at a peppercorn rate to the residents for their continued use.
Two years later the developers had not proceeded with the deal and residents lodged a complaint that there was undue delay. In September 2008, residents were called to a meeting at Mendip DC and told the land was no longer on offer to the developers. If the residents were satisfied that their complaints had been met and would withdraw them, they were invited to put in a proposal for the whole plot of land as a community garden for the use of the residents of Pilton Road.
Mendip offered a repairing lease at £275 p.a with a five year option to buy at £4,500. This is a piece of land some 700 square meters in area. The rental as set by Mendip compares only to a few inner city boroughs and is hardly peppercorn.
Residents formed Pilton Road Garden Community Interest Company (not for profit) and put in a funding application to the Big Lottery Local Food Grant, which they successfully got through to the second stage.
This funding application required that they were financially viable and membership fees were included in the funding proposal. The Community Garden submitted its proposal to Mendip DC in September 2008. They heard nothing back and when they enquired they were informed in November 2008 that theirs was the only proposal under consideration.
In January 2009 they were called to a meeting at Mendip DC and told that ‘a mistake had been made’. In fact the strip of land was still on offer to the developers, even though the residents had been told this was not the case in September. The Community Garden was asked if it was prepared to go ahead with the proposal on the remainder of the land. They agreed to this.
At a meeting of Mendip’s Cabinet in April 2009 it was decided that the strip of land should be sold to the developers. Again no deadline was given. The Community Garden was told they had six months to complete – making the deadline October 6th 2009.
The residents did not receive a draft copy of the lease until 22nd November 2009 and were given a deadline of 31st December 2009 to complete – not long when you consider the interruption of Christmas and New Year Holidays – especially when compared to the three years that the developers had to negotiate.
Mendip District Council then, with the support of North Wootton Parish Council, added conditions that the Garden must be open to the whole village in daylight hours, and that no membership fees could be charged – in effect, making it common ground.
In November 2009 Pilton Road Community Garden took advice and told Mendip DC. that access, highways and parking issues did not make it a suitable site for a project accessible to the whole village. As the lanes have a 60mph speed limit, there is no lighting, or footpaths. Overspill parking already impinges on the verges outside the houses in the narrow lane.
They also advised Mendip that in refusing to let us charge membership fees they could not go through to the second stage of our funding application which was the only funding pot in the country that allows groups to buy land. We received the draft lease in November 2009 and were told if we did not sign the lease with these conditions by 31st December 2009, the land would be sold, and that they already had an offer to buy
The lease was signed since Mendip DCs Planning Department had advised that as the land has gone from being for the use of residents of Pilton Road to the use of the whole village we needed to apply for planning permission. Further, that the Planning Department and Highways would oppose such an application because of the access, highway and parking issues. These issues, Pilton Road Community Garden raised with Mendip DC in November 2009 before the lease was signed.
In effect, Mendip District Council have leased land which is not fit for purpose, have added clauses that in effect make it common land, denied the Community Garden the right to charge membership fees, making the least well-of in the village provide a village amenity out of their own pockets. If this is The Big Society, God help us!
Pilton Road Community Garden hold a file of over 300 pages of correspondence on this matter going back four years. This represents an inordinate amount of the residents’ and Mendip officers’ time that translates to taxpayers’ money that has been wasted on this issue. The only people to have won are the developers who did not, after all their negotiations, pay development rates on the land they bought. They currently have a planning application in for a luxury four-bedroomed house on the site. The District Councillor, Nigel Hewitt Cooper (Tory) has been invited on numerous occasions to meet with the residents of Pilton Road Community Garden. However he has always been too busy to come.
The Ombudsman has made a preliminary finding of maladministration and is negotiating local settlement with Mendip District Council.