Will Helston charity finally call time on a controversial project? UPDATE

Photo by Vasile Valcan on Unsplash

*** UPDATE ***

Last month, we reported on the efforts of developers to push through the controversial Hospital Cross development on greenfield land on the outskirts of Helston, in the teeth of strong local opposition and after planning permission for the site had been turned down.

Following a meeting of the Downsland Trust (the charity that owns the land) on 22 May, local residents have waited anxiously for news on whether the charity will give Parsonage Developments more time to obtain planning permission to develop Hospital Cross. At the end of May, news finally emerged.

According to an announcement on the Downsland website, the trustees decided on a majority that they would not be renewing their option on the site. The decision followed a “detailed discussion”, sometimes a polite term in local politics for “heated argument”. However, trustees remain tight-lipped about what took place, and exactly how the vote went. The existing option remains in place until 23 July, so trustees are limited in what they can say. However, since only five of the 12 trustees have joined the charity since 2020, at least a couple of those who agreed to sell the land in 2020 (a unanimous decision) must have changed their position.

Downsland say they will not review their stance with respect to the land until after 23 July. However, local residents may take the opportunity to express their views at the next public meeting on 12 June. Many suggestions for more regenerative use of the land have already been put forward, including establishing a community orchard, community supported agriculture, allotments, or a forest garden.

It’s not clear whether Parsonage have a right under the existing option to go ahead and buy the land before 23 July, regardless of whether they have obtained planning permission. However, a decision to buy now would essentially be gambling £1.5m on a successful appeal of their planning refusal. Parsonage might want to bear in mind that after 23 July trustees will, presumably, be able to speak their minds openly on the project. And as Helston Town Council is likely to be an ‘interested party’ in any appeal, trustees (in their councillor role) could well end up formally opposing a project they were previously bound to be silent on.”

Original article:

A controversial commercial development in Helston is back on the table after many local residents believed the matter had been resolved.

After three years of trying to get their plans approved, developers are asking local charity trustees for more time to appeal Cornwall Council’s refusal to allow the widely opposed project. Parsonage Developments Ltd want to convert a 2.7 hectare plot of agricultural land into an edge-of-town commercial outlet including a McDonald’s drive-through, but their planning application was comprehensively refused in March. Parsonage currently has an option to buy the land, contingent on obtaining planning permission, but this runs out in July, far from enough time for an appeal.

On 22 May, Downsland trustees will meet privately to consider whether to grant Parsonage a further option to buy the plot of land for a reported figure of £1.5m, which some consider to be well below market value.

As we reported in 2021, the situation is complicated by the fact that all of the trustees of the charity that owns the land (Helston Downsland Charity) are also Helston town councillors, and the Council has made numerous climate pledges. Critics have pointed to the paradox of sacrificing agricultural land for commercial development, while simultaneously presenting Helston as an ‘Earth Protector Town’.

During Cornwall Council’s public consultation, the plans drew over 200 written objections, including a submission from every parish council on The Lizard, who felt the impact on local traffic would be intolerable. The project is of great concern to local environmentalists too, who are appalled by the planned removal of large stretches of Cornish hedging and mature trees, interference with bat habitats, increased flood risk and loss of agricultural land.

Since 2020, when the first option was signed, Cornwall Council has adopted a Climate Emergency Development Plan Document, which strengthens planning policies aimed at addressing climate change and biodiversity loss. Cornwall Council has also recently passed a motion calling for the government to implement the Climate and Ecology Bill, a Bill originally introduced by the Green MP Caroline Lucas but now also sponsored by Helston’s Conservative MP Derek Thomas.

In the same period, the Downsland charity itself has made efforts to reform, with a new chair who has been responsive to calls to divest the trust’s investments from fossil fuel companies and arms manufacturers. Likewise, the charity has plans to introduce independent trustees, to help alleviate the manifest conflicts of interest caused by the overlap of trustees and Helston councillors. The charity now has most of its meetings in public; the meeting on 22 May being the first exception for some time. It has established a website with published agendas and minutes, and even a current breakdown of the charity’s investment holdings. With a new chair, Councillor Melissa Benyon, the charity has come a long way from the complete lack of transparency that existed when the deal with Parsonage was first struck.

Unfortunately, Downsland’s reforms will not come in time to disengage trustees from a tangle of their own making. As we previously reported, trustees who voice a view on the plans may become personally liable for any loss to the developer if the deal falls through. This has created such conflict for trustees opposed to the project that some have simply resigned their roles, a move that wasn’t even constitutionally possible until recently.

Astonishingly, new councillors elected since the original deal was struck were automatically made trustees of a charity some had never heard of, provided no training by the charity, told that they are personally bound to a contract they had never seen, further told that speaking out publicly about the project could bring them personal liability, and for some time even prevented from resigning!

This means it’s difficult to predict exactly how the vote will go on 22 May, since trustees with reservations are so nervous about discussing the project. A development that would concrete over agricultural land to provide more opportunities for consumption would seem an even less attractive prospect than it was in 2020, but it is believed that some trustees appear willing, even eager, to embrace it.

Some trustees feel the need to increase the sums that the charity can invest, in order to make larger grants to local organisations. This feeling has been exacerbated by the town repeatedly missing out on funding bids that have helped regenerate other local towns. These failed bids include a £17m Levelling Up Fund bid that would have been used to support improvements to the town centre and fund a community centre. However, local residents have been writing to the charity’s chair, Councillor Benyon, to point out other potential uses of the land that would be more in harmony with the existing landscape yet still provide great value, and even financial income, to the town. These include projects such as allotments, a community orchard, a forest garden and willow coppicing, along with educational facilities to teach people about regenerative land use.

Jules Lewis, chair of a local environmental group, has been encouraging the community (and trustees) to look at the land another way. “There are more economic benefits than endless growth. A charity like Downsland could be using its resources to provide social and environmental benefits to the town and surrounding area, instead of simply handing out money.”

With votes hard to predict, the final decision could ultimately come down to what kind of legacy the town’s new mayor, Councillor Miles Kenchington, wishes to leave after his two years of office, which begin just before the Downsland meeting. In March 2021, Councillor Kenchington proposed that Helston Town Council set up a Carbon Footprint Reduction Working Group, which was subsequently established. Two years later, the council does not yet have a working plan to address its own carbon footprint and shows little sign that it will get its own operations to net zero by 2030, never mind the rest of the town, despite pledging this in 2019.

Whatever the outcome of the private meeting on 22 May, it is likely to have lasting consequences.

If the decision is made to allow Parsonage to go ahead with its plan to destroy this piece of Cornwall’s natural environment to generate profits that leave the Cornish economy, it seems inevitable that Helston Town Council will be reminded of this at every opportunity. Progressive trustees who have tried to reform the charity will hardly feel motivated to continue while shackled to such an objectionable scheme, and could follow the several trustees who have already resigned. Would the charity survive such an exodus, and how would the council weather such a public humiliation?

If the trustees decide to stand up to the developers, then the hard work of actually engaging with the community about how best to use the land to benefit the people of Helston can begin. A charity that was meeting in secret just a few years ago and never consulted the public over the planned sale, will have turned full circle, adding impetus to its reforms. And Helston councillors will finally be able to look their constituents in the face and say they did something right for the planet.