‘Community-Led’ – or Led by the Nose?

Despite numerous attempts by concerned residents to get any sense out of our parish council concerning the proposed Neighbourhood Development Order (NDO) and plans for dozens of houses in Clifton Hampden, little information (or sense) has been forthcoming to date. The elected unopposed (with zero votes) PC continues to run its meetings without any consideration for openness or in a spirit of encouraging participation. At the last PC, for example, no questions were allowed and people who tried to speak were electronically muted. The parish councillors refuse to co-opt additional councillors, despite the fact the PC is under-strength and has received offers to stand from at least two people in Burcot, where there are no parish councillors at all.

Likewise, we find that the Parish Council’s NDO Steering Committee is being run like a private fiefdom by people who seem to regard it as their own property. ‘Ordinary’ residents are neither encouraged or permitted to attend or observe. In fact, the whole steering group has all the hallmarks of a body that is entirely captive to landed and business interests in the parish. And despite a minuted decision taken in December last year to bring in new co-opted members, nothing has been done to date. It’s all very cosy, isn’t it?

So, let’s take a more detailed look at the body that is leading the charge for the NDO, namely the NDO Steering Committee (SC). It’s latest terms of reference – revised earlier this year – tell us that the over-riding principle of the NDO is that it is “community-led”. Its aim is to oversee the whole process on behalf of the PC. In fact, according to the same document we find that the membership is by “invitation only”.

The SC itself is chaired by one Giles Baxter, who also chaired the Village Plan and the Neighbourhood Plan procedures for over a decade. He apparently volunteered for the jobs, although no-one recalls anyone else being considered. Old soldier Giles is also a director of the Burcot and Clifton Hampden Community Land Trust, established in 2018, more of which later. In his declaration of interests to the SC, made only in December 2020, Mr Baxter admits he has an “agreed interest” to purchase the paddock land in Clifton Hampden known as Site G from the Gibbs Estate. He has not made the terms of this agreement public but assures us that there is no identified pecuniary or other benefit to the sale by the delivery of the NDO project. Can he be sure? Is it possible that once the NDO goes through Mr Baxter might choose at a future date to submit a planning proposal for further housing on Site G? Will he still buy the Gibbs land if the NDO does not go through? Does the existence of the agreement between Mr Baxter and the Gibbs Estate affect Mr Baxter’s independence? Are there likely to be restrictive covenants on the proposed land sale? We simply do not know the answers to these questions.

The deputy chair of the SC is Mr Chris Neill, who in addition to chairing the parish council also runs the Clifton Hampden post office and village shop. We already know that he is a tenant of the Gibbs Estate, which owns the buildings that house his business. He says the ownership will change under the NDO proposals. Does that mean the Gibbs Estate is going to sell the freehold to him or vest it with the community? Or something else? To what extent is the outcome of that decision likely to affect Mr Neill’s decision making? We do not know.

Next in order on the SC is the landowner, personified by former merchant banker Mr Christopher Purvis, representing the Gibbs Estate, which owns the land that has been selected – by only three people – for the housing development and which stands to make a fortune for its beneficiaries. In the press Mr Purvis describes himself and his wife as “Londoners”, which is presumably the location of their main house. I guess that makes him an absentee landowner. We heard at the last PC that the Gibbs Estate intends to sell up its interests in the parish, which in addition to the land selected for housing include a patchwork of other landholdings in Clifton Hampden.

Then, of course, we have the landowner’s professional adviser, Charles Campion, who is a director, rural management, for the Botley office of posh estate agents Savills. I don’t know where Mr Campion lives, but he doesn’t really strike me as a community-type person. He is also land agent for the Harcourt estate at Stanton in Oxfordshire. Until 1948, when they sold it to Oxford University, the Harcourts also owned Nuneham House in Nuneham Courtney. In the eighteenth century they famously demolished the village, as it spoiled the views from the grand mansion and rebuilt it alongside the Oxford road, where it is located to this day. Presumably Savills were not involved in that decision!

Next in the pecking order comes Chris Brotherton, a director and part owner of Thomas Homes, the company selected (by whom?) to build the proposed homes under the NDO. Remarkably, Mr Brotherton has attended the SC since its inception in November 2019, although when he became a member is not clear. He is merely “in attendance” until June 2020, but after that he is listed simply as “present”. Not a lot of discussion there about who should be selected as builder, was there? It is not at all clear if he is a member of the SC or not. However, one thing is clear; he certainly acts like one, providing all the details for the proposed development – rich people’s houses on the south of the main road, with their own private access road, with “affordable” houses to buy or rent from a housing association and potential surgery on the north side of the road – bringing in the architects and taking part in discussions with SODC and other bodies. You could be fooled into thinking he was running the show.

Mr Brotherton is keen to emphasise that this is a commercial development, and he has come up with various proposals to increase the number of houses and their type. One wheeze is to hope that a government consultation to raise the threshold for the requirement for developments to include Affordable Housing will be passed. This, he told the steering committee on 22 January this year, could have a major bearing on the NDO because the steering committee itself could then choose how many should be affordable, instead of accepting the SODC figure of 40 per cent. Presumably zero if he had his way.

(Incidentally, another chap called Gerry Moscrop also turns up on the SC, although on what grounds it is hard to say. He is a retired accountant living in Clifton Hampden. It seems if you know the right people you can get a seat. Mr Moscrop is also a director, alongside Giles Baxter, of the Community Land Trust. Who knew?

Two doctors from Clifton Hampden surgery are also on the Steering Group, although, not surprisingly, they had other things on their mind last year and did not attend many meetings. By the end of the year they were being represented by Sarah Ward on a consultancy basis, paid for out of the funds provided for the NDO from the district council.

Finally come the parish councillors, who fluctuate in attendance.

So there you have it. Our ‘community-led’ parish development team. Led by the same ‘community’, it seems, that would have led it in the nineteenth century. The squire and his land agent, the beadle, and the developer making all the running. Others are really window-dressing. And the group has also decided to do away with the parish councillors’ right of veto. “Decisions made by the NDO SC will therefore be by consensus at Steering Group meetings,” according to the latest Terms of Reference.

We will no doubt return to the business of the SC again before long and perhaps shine a light into the darker crannies of its deliberations. In the meantime, like me you may be wondering, ‘Community-led’ – or led by the nose? Hmmmm . . . .

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