Shrouded in Secrecy

A consistent theme running through the plan to build dozens of houses in the centre of Clifton Hampden in a Green Belt Conservation Area has been the secrecy surrounding the whole process. The very existence of the plan to foist a Neighbourhood Development Order onto the parish is shrouded in mystery. Who came up with this daft idea? Who was involved in the initial planning? How was membership of the Steering Group decided? Who besides the Gibbs Estate stands to benefit? Who has secret land deals on the side? Have any of the proposed new houses already been earmarked for preferential purchase? Why are so-called ‘consultation meetings’ only open to certain residents under very strict controls? All these questions and many more remain unanswered.

Parishioners who have asked reasonable questions about the process have been pilloried for their impertinence in questioning what is little more than a get-rich-quick scheme for the local landowners, the Gibbs Estate, which wants to sell up and take what it can from the village it bought lock, stock and barrel 180 years ago. Village allotments? Run them down and then flog ‘em off for housing! A community-led scheme? Not really, is it? It is designed to make some rich people very much richer, while despoiling one of the prettiest villages in South Oxfordshire. The development proposals include fake replica barns and ‘olde worlde’ farmhouses for the wealthy in one enclave and rather more ‘common’ houses for poorer people in another.

One parishioner decided to write to the elected unopposed (with no votes) parish council to seek some information on the various ‘consultations’ that have been organised by Mr Giles Baxter – see my previous articles for details of his only recently declared land deal with the Gibbs Estate – and the NDO Steering Group. Marc Juffkins simply wanted to see the unattributed data sets from the 20/21 consultations, to see if he could get more sense out of them than Mr Baxter, whose efforts to interpret the results, as previously noted, have been a spectacular failure.

Mr Juffkins asked to see all environmental information held by the parish council relating to the Neighbourhood Plan to understand why all but two of the nine possible sites had been discarded without reference to the community. His request was made under the terms of the Environmental Information Regulations, which are covered by the Freedom of Information Act. Such information would include any ecological appraisals made of the proposed development sites. He also sought all the responses to the two consultations conducted by the Steering Group – carefully redacted to remove names and addresses.

In its reply, dated 30 March 2021, the PC said it had not yet carried out any ecological assessments of the proposed sites – itself a strange omission – but would publish results on the PC website when they had been done. On the information concerning the two ‘consultations’ (I use the word advisedly), the PC simply refused, saying that it was not obliged to make it public as this kind of information was exempt from the FOI legislation.

On 9 May Mr Juffkins wrote back to the PC, asking them to reconsider their decision via an internal review, otherwise he would write to the Information Commissioner, who arbitrates in such matters. The parish clerk, Anne Davies, wrote back on 1 June to say that the PC had considered its response and decided to stick with it. “Having checked the legislation the Parish Council does not believe the request falls within the definition of Environmental Information as defined by the regulations. On that basis it has no further comment to make”, she wrote.

Undeterred, Mr Juffkins then wrote as promised to the Information Commissioner’s Office. They replied on 29 June as follows: “While the Commissioner has not seen the requested information, as it is information relating to a consultation regarding a Neighbourhood Plan and development proposal, she believes that it is likely to be information about measures affecting the elements of the environment.”

The ICO official said he had written back to the PC pointing out their legal obligations and giving them a strict deadline to respond to Mr Juffkins’ letter and provide the information he requested.

So the PC’s efforts to hide information about the consultation have come to nothing. Once again, their handling of the whole NDO process is called into question. We have a process that is being run by landed interests, people who stand to make large amounts of money from this scheme – backed by others who have conflicts of interests and who may therefore also seek to gain from the NDO. They have tried all along to hide their dealings from the public. Now they will have to come clean in relation to the consultations. We await the requested information with great interest.

The Burcot and Clifton Hampden Community Land Trust

At some point at the beginning of 2018 a group of people associated with a parish council subcommittee called the Neighbourhood Plan Group first came up with the idea of creating a Neighbourhood Development Order as a way of by-passing planning controls that prevented certain kinds of housing developments in Green Belt and Conservation areas. One of the first things they decided to do was to set up a Community Land Trust, a company that could legally own any assets on behalf of the parish. The idea was that in exchange for obtaining support for its plan to turn its allotment and paddock land in Clifton Hampden into a very profitable housing scheme, the Gibbs Estate would vest other land holdings into the CLT as community assets. This would include the post office and shop, various parking areas, etc.

By November that year they had appointed three directors and a number of trustees. Precisely what they intended to do with the CLT is unclear, as a ‘Vision, Mission and Objectives’ document was not made public, but retained on a secret ‘One Drive’ site only accessible to committee members. Thus Giles Baxter, Gerry Moscrop and Laura Buxton each became shareholders in the newly formed B&CHCLT, each owning one of three £1 shares, although Laura Buxton seems to have resigned early on, to be replaced by Simon Russell, a member of the Steering Group.

All of this took place in private without any public discussion over the idea of the NDO itself or the suitability of any of the persons concerned for the responsibility of being a shareholder or trustee of the CLT, which is technically a community benefit society/charity. These are the people who will control important parish assets if this scheme goes ahead, even though at least one of them – Mr Baxter – has a declared conflict of interest. The latest accounts of the CLT, published in March last year, show that the trust decided not to publish any audit information – presumably because it has done nothing in its short existence. The accounts also show that it intends to both provide and manage housing in the parish.

The latest accounts of the CLT were due for submission several months ago but are yet to be published. We will keep a close eye on how it develops and obviously seek to ensure that it truly represents the community and is not just made up of the “usual suspects”.

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