Adding insult to injury

posted 11 Jan 2019, 13:34 by Bricket Wood Residents' Association   [ updated 11 Jan 2019, 13:59 ]

Misleading cash claims promise windfall.  Village will bear the brunt of the housing boom – but probably for meagre reward. 

 By Graham Newson, Editor, The Voice 

It’s very visible, very promising and very wrong.  A sign at the entrance to Crest Nicholson’s new 100 home estate at the Building Research Centre unequivocally states the developers are “proudly investing £812,200 in Bricket Wood.” 

But The Voice, and some equally sceptical BWRA members, have discovered that most of the claim fails to stand up to scrutiny.  To put it politely. 

In fact there’s a strong possibility that the village will get only minor sums for cosmetic and modest projects; even though it will be our already traffic-clogged, poorly maintained and overburdened roads and under-pressure services that will bear the impact of two large-scale building programmes that will transform the outskirts of Bricket Wood. 

It’s symptomatic of the curious lottery created by planning deals between developers and local authorities – resulting in places like our village caught up in the shenanigans of broken commitments, ruined expectations, seemingly unfair and bizarre decision-making and a lingering feeling of being hard done by. 

Crest Nicholson and Linden Wates, the company that’s begun work constructing 129 homes at Hanstead Park off Smug Oak Lane have supposedly earmarked £3.3 million pounds between them to the county and district councils to improve “local services” and infrastructure. 

So it’s not unrealistic for residents to ask: “Where’s all that money going? And on what is it being spent?”  

The Voice submitted a Freedom of Information request to Hertfordshire County Council, as our education authority, to confirm that Bricket Wood will receive the £410,000 investment in education and youth services as trumpeted by Crest Nicholson.   The response was an eye-opener.  Of that money:
  • £336,000 will go to expand St Albans Girls School from seven form entry to eight.
  • The House That Jack Built Nursery at the Building Research Centre will receive £67,500 to increase spaces. 
  • The Pioneer Centre in St Albans will get £6,500 to buy music equipment and help young people with learning difficulties. 
  • And north Watford library will be able to extend its popular fiction section with the aid of £26,000. 
All worthy but not one of the handouts will arguably have any positive knock-on effect, or solve, the pressure of more people and more cars seeking finite space, finite resources and in the case of our one educational establishment, a finite primary intake.   Mount Pleasant Lane School will not currently receive a penny.  Even though it is full and demand for more spaces would seem to be a logical conclusion, with 230 new families moving in. 

It appears that MPL has been dealt a double blow by Herts County Council. More of that later. 

Crest Nicholson has additionally pledged to give St Albans District Council £174,000 for leisure services and £140,000 towards “local green infrastructure”, whatever that might mean.  The council will get the money when the 50th property is occupied. 

In reply to another Freedom of Information request from The Voice SADC admitted that – as it has yet to receive its allocation – it hasn’t drawn up a priority list of where, and when, the money will be spent. 

But it has promised to meet with St Stephen ward councillors and the Parish Council “to understand if any project ideas have been considered.” 

Certainly St Stephen Parish Council is doing its homework to construct a watertight bid to improve leisure facilities in Bricket Wood and Park Street, either via BRE money or Hanstead Park’s. 

It would be wonderful to think all the £174,000 will be spent in the villages.  But the uncomfortable fact is there will undoubtedly be competing demands.  And from past experience there is absolutely no guarantee that any sum will boost the parish council’s coffers.  It might be that it has to settle for a derisory or an insultingly trifling amount. 

As for £140,000 for green infrastructure it’s intriguing to think where that could end up.  The village is already blessed with Blackgreen Wood, Jack William Wood, our “jewel in the crown” common, Hanstead Wood and various tracts of open land and hopefully inviolable spaces like the ‘Donkey Field’ and woods behind Old Watford Road.  And more.  Investment in the flourishing Hanstead Wood should be a given.  But we’ll have to wait and see whether the village is deemed a priority – or an optional extra. 

The NHS is also promised £62,000 – enough to pay Bricket Wood’s blood pressure tablets bill for a month! 

When The Voice went to Press Crest Nicholson had still not replied a month after receiving a range of questions the magazine submitted about the sign, the Section 106 payments, their destinations and related issues. 

But one of our local councillors Dave Hayes said: “What The Voice has uncovered is disturbing. Asking developers to contribute to local facilities to offset the impact that their developments will have is entirely reasonable. It is, however, wrong for developers to profess – or naïve of them to believe – that their contributions will actually be spent locally. In this case, Hertfordshire County Council spending those contributions so far from where the developments are taking place is particularly difficult to understand.” 

Growing concern over the efficacy and justification of such payments has led to SADC to urgently set up a small committee tasked with investigating how they are negotiated, who is accountable as to why and where they are disbursed and how local communities benefit, or not. Fortunately Dave Hayes and another of our councillors, Sue Featherstone, are members. A report will be issued next year.

So what is this supposedly benevolent developers’ largesse all about?  It is a prosaic sounding financial settlement called ‘Section 106 funding’ which local authorities, as part of the initial planning process, ask developers to contribute to offset the loss of local amenities or fund projects within the councils’ boundaries.  

The complex agreements effectively make developments acceptable which would probably be seen as unacceptable.  Councils often spend the cash on roads, schools and community projects which would otherwise not be undertaken. 

Often the Section 106 payments include geographical limitations, deadlines for spending the money – “use it or lose it” clauses – a timetable when builders will release that money and strict legal rules about disbursements.   Oddly, developers are sometimes given their money back. 

In 2014 the BBC carried out a national survey which revealed that Hertfordshire County Council held the most “unspent” Section 106 money with £58 million sitting around doing nothing.  It had also returned £691,000 to developers. 

At the time John Stewart, who is still director of economic affairs at the Home Builders Federation - which represents developers - said local authorities "clearly have an obligation to spend these funds to benefit their communities." 

He added: "However, it is also imperative that they transparently account for these contributions to their residents who must see and experience the true benefits that come with the building of new homes in their area. 

"Otherwise residents will simply see new housing placing additional burdens on local facilities and services, unaware of the compensating benefits from S106 agreements, whether these are purely financial contributions or benefits in kind."

So theoretically, in the spirit of Section 106, communities directly and widely affected by building projects like Bricket Wood should expect to get first call on the investment purse.  In a Utopian world it would receive all of it.  But, if we’re being pragmatic, a significant part of it would probably be gleefully accepted.  Getting nothing, or a pittance, would be adding insult to injury. 

But back to Mount Pleasant Lane School where – to quote Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – matters get “curiouser and curiouser.” 

It’s reported that during the initial planning stages for the BRE estate, when Section 106 funding was first discussed, Crest Nicholson was prepared to earmark £245,000 to the primary school to possibly increase its annual intake from 45 to 60 pupils to meet future demands.  

Unfortunately the idea was dropped at an appeal hearing in 2014 in two paragraphs far down a tortuously long report. 

At that time the Government inspector cited an Education Assessment Report which concluded that “within two miles of the appeal site there is a significant surplus of primary school places.” 

It also stated that the 100 homes being built at the BRE: “…..would only generate a demand for 22 such spaces.  The future children of the development would apply for places (at Mount Pleasant Lane)  in the same way as other children but being within the catchment area they would receive some priority over outside catchment area children.” 

Hertfordshire County Council – which would have received the £245,000 – also could not guarantee that the money would be spent locally and declined the offer.  St Albans District Council called that a “lack of control” arguing the cash should be direct compensation because of the estate’s impact on the local community. 

The report added:   “There seems little doubt that the effect of the introduction of new children from the development to Mount Pleasant Lane would be to displace out of catchment area children wishing to come to the school.” 

So hopes that MPL was in for a nice lump sum have been dashed.  Or they were four years ago.  

Another example, if any more were needed, that Section 106 agreements can promise so much and deliver so little. 

Put-upon. Misled. Ignored, Denied. Told to live with the consequences of hundreds more homes, scores of children who’ll need educating, people seeking medical care and worsening traffic blight. 

Whatever word or phrase you use to describe Bricket Wood’s predicament, in the end very little makes sense.   “Very little” being a term we might have to live with.