Helston residents rally to defend the hedgerows of Hospital Cross

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Helston Town Council and the Downsland Charity have failed to allay concerns over the sale of a wildlife corridor to developers.

Last month, West Country Voices reported on a tangle of conflicting interests that has enmeshed Helston Town Council and a charitable trust that is meant to be acting in the interests of residents of the Cornish town.

The Downsland Charity has agreed to sell off a greenfield site comprising ancient fields, woodland and hedgerows that form part of a wildlife corridor on the edge of the town. The developers who have bought an option on the land plan to erect a new Aldi supermarket, a MacDonald’s, a Costa drive-thru coffee outlet and a Range leisure and garden store in their place. In return, the charity hopes to reap a sum in the region of £1.5 million when the deal goes through.

What’s not to like? Well, rather a lot in the view of several town councillors and many of the people they represent. Not least the fact that the destruction of green fields, mature trees and old hedgerows makes a mockery of Helston’s declaration of a climate emergency and of the council’s decision to make Helston an ‘Earth Protector Town’.

Since our last report, we have learned some interesting new details about the deal struck between the Downsland Charity and the developers, Parsonage Developments.

One of these concerns the way the site was valued. Any charity selling off a property it owns is required to have an independent survey and valuation carried out. This is partly so as to make it more difficult for unscrupulous charity trustees to make sales of property either at below market value or at an inflated value to (or by) third parties with whom they might have some relationship.

Minutes of a meeting of the trustees on 23 June 2020 show that the charity received valuation advice from one Alan Treloar of the estate agents Vickery Holman, and decided to sell the land on the basis of this advice before having the site independently valued. Mr Treloar spoke to the meeting to say that he felt the sum of £1.5 million offered by the developers (with whom his firm had a prior relationship) “was appropriate for the site based on the interest generated and the price gained for similar plots in the region”.

It is also clear from these minutes that Vickery Holman had been involved in brokering the potential sale from a much earlier stage. The  firm had “approached many of the developers that they regularly deal with. The land had also been advertised nationally and For Sale signs had been placed on the site. There had been a sealed, best offer tender process, with best offer received as from a developer based in the North East.” This offer had failed after initial legal work, but the agency had subsequently received another offer from Parsonage Developments, based (like Vickery Holman) in Plymouth. The firm, Mr Treloar enthused, “had undertaken several projects with Vickery Holman’s Plymouth Office and were well regarded”.

Mr Treloar advised the meeting of trustees, correctly, that “any sale including an option would require a Charity Act valuation to ensure the  site was sold at an appropriate value for the charity”.

After Mr Treloar left the meeting, the trustees agreed to enter into an option agreement for the sale of the land to Parsonage, “subject to an appropriate Charity Act valuation”. It is clear that this decision was based on the valuation advice offered by Mr Treloar, and on the actual offer already made by Parsonage, rather than on any independent valuation.

The Charity Commission’s detailed guidance on how such property sales should be approached sets out other important questions that a charity needs to ask itself. One is: “Would it [the sale] affect the beneficiaries, or public support for the charity? In some cases, where you are disposing of designated land, you must carry out a consultation. Even where it is not a legal obligation, it is still good practice.”

The Downsland Trust’s beneficiaries are supposed to be the people of Helston. The sale and subsequent ‘development’ of the land is something that will most certainly affect these people, for good or ill. But no attempt to consult them on this sale has been made by the charity.

Moreover, as we described in our last article, attempts have been made to stop the elected representatives of these people from expressing any views on the sale by reference to a decidedly odd feature of the Downsland Charity’s constitution: all councillors automatically become trustees. And the chair of the charity, who also happens to be the chair of the Town Council, has told councillors that any of them who voice a view on this matter may become personally liable for any loss to the developer if the deal falls through.

This situation could never have arisen if the charity had made good on its undertakings to the Charity Commission nearly 20 years ago, after it had fallen victim to a major fraud by a local solicitor who acted as clerk to the charity. But promises made then that it would reform its constitution, end the automatic appointment of town councillors as trustees and appoint independent people to its board were not acted on.

It may be that the Downsland Trust considers its close relationship to the Town Council to be justified by the supposition that its aims and the interests of the people represented by town councillors naturally coincide.

This is not an argument likely to cut much ice with the Charity Commission. One councillor who recently contacted the Commission to try to shed some light on the situation told West Country Voices that the Commission is “hopping mad” at the charity’s failure to follow through on its assurances that it would reform itself.

On its Facebook page, the Town Council has posted an explanation of why “it would be inappropriate for both Helston Town Council’s Planning Committee and individual Town Councillors to make any comment regarding this planning application and the Town Council will not be participating in the planning process on this occasion”.

But if some senior councillors had been hoping that the people of Helston would be happy for their elected representatives to be sidelined in this way, and for the lucrative deal to be simply waved through without comment, they will have been disappointed.

Helston town councillor Gareth Looker responded to the Council’s Facebook post without mincing his words:

“Helston residents may be interested to learn that I and another Councillor resigned as Trustees of the Downsland Trust several days ago. This was hindered by the fact that, until last night when a meeting of Trustees was convened, the rules of the Trust stipulated that Councillors could not resign! I proposed a motion that the Trust amend its rules so that now, subject to Charity Commission approval, Councillors can resign from the Trust. This means that I can do what I fully intended to when I was elected in May 2021 as a Town Councillor, namely serve the interests of the residents of Helston.

Although Cornwall Council will take the final decision on whether the Hospital Cross development goes ahead or not, it is imperative that any concerns residents have are aired in public and given due consideration as part of the democratic process. Helston Town Council are part of that process and act as consultees. I believe it is essential that Councillors listen to hear residents’ views with complete impartiality and that residents should feel confident that Councillors are acting in their best interests. I intend to serve Helston to the best of my abilities.”

And­ if the Downsland Charity had been proceeding on the cosy assumption that the people of Helston would be happy with whatever it might decide to do, this will have been rudely dispelled by comments on the proposed Hospital Cross development on Cornwall Council’s planning portal.

In the couple of weeks since the planning application appeared there, these have been flowing in thick and fast from Helston residents. The overwhelming majority are deeply opposed to the destruction of the greenfield site.

Of 62 public comments to date, 56 of these are from local people raising objections, with just six from people supporting the scheme. Its few supporters – one of these being a certain Ron Edgcumbe, who was one of the trustees and Helston town councillors who approved the sale – express themselves in the most general of terms, welcoming the “investment” and “jobs” from which Helston residents will supposedly benefit. Another supporter advises Cornwall Council to “ignore all the tree huggers and brown bread and sandals brigade. They would have us living in holes in the ground covered in woad.”

By contrast, the objectors’ comments are often highly detailed and well-evidenced. They cover everything from the impact on local wildlife to the pressure that will be put on an already overloaded traffic system around Helston, and the absurdity of the idea that local people would be able to use the supermarket except by car.

As Nigel Coward points out in his comment:

“The traffic from the Lizard across RNAS Culdrose often tails back for up to two miles, esp. during the holiday period .The proposal can only make this worse.”

It is a point echoed by many others objecting to the proposal. And, as  Michael Thorn comments:

“Out-of-town developments such as this encourage the increased use of cars, which is contrary to current government policy, and diminish the use and viability of established town centre businesses which many people access on foot.”

The impact of yet another major out-of-town supermarket and more fast food outlets is decried by many of the commenters on the proposal, who find it hard to understand why the charity’s trustees would wish to damage local businesses at the same time as destroying what makes Helston special.

As Lesley Treloar writes: “Helston is already losing more and more of its local unique shops. By instating The Range (which is already accessible in Penzance) you will be wiping out more local shops and cafés in Helston. The town will become a graveyard, our local shopkeepers are already having an extremely hard time and are leaving because they cannot make a living. We should be building up the ancient town centre of Helston, not destroying it.”

Charlotte Osman-Loxley puts in a passionate plea to save an important resource for local wildlife:

“I live in Navy forces’ accommodation, about 500m from the proposed site where we have been proactively planting trees and encouraging wildlife back to the area. We are part of the National Bee Corridor now – we wouldn’t be if we build this monstrosity. I can hear owls screeching and hooting at night; we would lose the woodland where they live. There are foxes that can be seen by the Community Hospital that would lose their homes. The road would have to accommodate more traffic, which in turn would require more tarmac roads, eliminating verges and green spaces.

Let us as local people ask – WHO is this for?! Is it for us or for the tourists who already dictate our lives each year, clogging the roads in their 4x4s and using our county like a giant holiday resort before dumping their rubbish and leaving again?

If we have to succumb to yet another giant retail area, who will bother going into the quaint town of Helston? We already have a Costa. We already have three supermarkets. We already have over three pasty shops in town for fast food. Let’s stand up for our local community and businesses by saying NO to this superfluous development.”

Will Cornwall Council recognise the strength of opposition to the deal that has been stitched up between the Downsland Charity and the developer? Or will it claim that there is nothing that it can do to stop it, despite the deal having been arranged in a way that has appears to have been designed to prevent Helston’s elected representatives from having their say and reflecting their constituents’ views?

Time will tell, but many may doubt whether the current Conservative administration of Cornwall Council will want to get on the wrong side of property developers, given that this sector provides a very substantial part of the Conservative Party’s donation income.

On the other hand, the destruction of Cornwall’s natural environment in order to facilitate the further proliferation of retail chains that suck money away from local businesses –  and ultimately out of Cornwall – is not a good look.

Members of the public can comment on the planning application on the Council’s planning portal here, under planning reference PA21/07481.

At WCB we have a sense that this sort of situation is by no means unique. If you have a story for us on dubious planning deals, please get in touch. You will, of course, need to be able to substantiate any claims.