A303 Garden Town – the real story

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A number of parish councils have received a glossy brochure proposing a new Garden Town should be built to straddling the A303. Both Somerton and Mudford had received copies in the week before Christmas and the timing here is crucial. For the concept to be included in the South Somerset District Council local plan, it needs to be fed into submissions before the closing deadline of 11th January.

You may have seen reports of this on other online news channels but what has been put in the public domain is by and large taken from the glossy brochure put out by Grass Roots, a “specialist planning consultancy”. An investigation by the Leveller, however has revealed a number of interesting details about the application.

The first thing we should say is that the proposal does cover building up to 15,000 houses and there can be no doubt that South Somerset has fallen behind with building housing stock. That after all has been one of the reasons for the Local Plan being set aside. So this could be a good plan. If it includes a substantial build of affordable housing it could be of great interest to the future of South Somerset.

But what does a settlement of 15,000 houses mean? Well to put it bluntly this will be the second largest town in Somerset, almost overnight. If we take a conservative estimate and assume that there will be 3 people per house (nearer to 4 tends to be the average) that represents a town of 45,000 people, larger than Yeovil and Bridgwater and only just smaller than Taunton.

As we noted above, the brochure has been sent out by Grass Roots, a planning consultancy, but the critical question here is who are they working for? These proposals appear to have been put forward by South West Strategic Developments Limited. This is a private company, it is not connected to the District Council. The company does not appear to have a website but we did discover that it is registered in Chichester. This immediately begs a very basic question. Why is a company based in Sussex, in the South East of England, called South West Strategic Developments Limited. I thought Company Act legislation had rules about company names that precluded this sort of thing, but it turns out that it doesn’t.

More importantly, our investigation has revealed that both the company net liabilities. That could be OK if its liabilities were guaranteed by the company that owns it (well 90% of it), another business registered in Chichester. Unfortunately this company, the ultimate holding company in the UK (also registered in Chichester) also has net liabilities. Instead both companies state in their accounts that they rely on the ultimate holding company to guarantee their liabilities. Without that underwriting/guarantee the companies would be considered to be technically insolvent.

We tried to find out more about the ultimate holding company, CRBF Private Equity Limited, the company that is after all guaranteeing all the liabilities of the UK companies, but it turns out that it is registered in Bermuda. Now it may be that the individuals behind the company are Bermudans or even ex pats who like the life in the Caribbean and have chosen to base their HQ there. Or, of course, it may be that the ultimate parent company is based there because the group structure including the use of an offshore parent company is part of what is euphemistically known as tax planning. We are not in a position to know as we have not been able to access the details of the Bermudan company.

The final piece in the jigsaw and one that came as a complete surprise to us was the discovery that one of the directors of South West Strategic Developments Limited is a certain Lord Howard of Lympne. That may not mean much to you at first sight, it didn’t to us until we consulted the erudite members of our advisory panel. But it turns out that Lord Howard is none other than former leader of the Conservative Party (immediately before David Cameron) Michael Howard. The Leveller understands that Lord Howard has been actively lobbying local MPs over recent weeks to favour the scheme.

There will be a full article in the January Leveller but we thought it important to get more details into the public domain before the 11th January deadline for submissions to be made about the Local Plan to the District Council.