The first houses at Cranbrook go on sale on Saturday morning (12 May).  Developers Taylor Wimpey, Persimmon, Bovis and Hallam Land Management are optimistic about the hordes of people that will come flocking to buy the properties. 

They are opening their doors at 6am to cope with the expected rush.

The local press has been full of stories about Cranbrook in recent weeks, with groups of grinning councillors full of upbeat quotes about how the proliferation of developments in the west part of East Devon will bring prosperity to the region.

A mind-boggling £40 million of public money has been spent on getting Cranbrook off the ground.  A further £50m of Govt cash has been ploughed into ‘growth point.’

Having been a member of the EDDC Local Plan Panel I read some of these quotes with a wry smile on my face.  I have read carefully every piece of evidence I can find relating to plans for strategic development in East Devon. 

Some of the quotes from EDDC councillors in the local press are not quite what they seem and I think deserve a mention. 

The quote that caused me to furrow my brow most was the following:
– Exmouth Journal – 12 April 2012 (and appearing in most other East Devon press)

Leader of EDDC, Cllr Paul Diviani:  “This (development) will stop us haemorrhaging the young people of East Devon, which has been one of the problems in the past.”

The facts:  Consultants, Roger Tym, who were commissioned by EDDC last year, state on page 42 of their East Devon Housing and Employment Study, referring to the high levels of young people leaving in their late teens and early twenties:  “This, in part, is likely to reflect the lack of higher education facilities within East Devon, so that young people will always need to move away to access higher education.”

They go on to say:  “It is interesting that there are also significant gains in the 30s and 40s cohorts, together with their children.”

So unsurprisingly, many young people move away to attend university!  And then a large group come home again (if not before) in their 30s and 40s, with their children.

In an earlier draft of the Roger Tym report, the authors queried whether it was appropriate for EDDC to try and alter this trend.

Two weeks ago, I went on a tour of Cranbrook, along with around 30 other councillors and officers.

There is an astonishing level of building taking place in this area.

A story in yesterday’s Express & Echo highlighted Clyst Honiton’s residents quite understandable fears that their village would be swamped by all the developments. 

I list the main elements below:

– 40 hectare (approx 100 acre) Skypark (business park and industrial estate)
– vast Science Park
– bypass for Clyst Honiton, including a 100m long tunnel
– three large hotels
– an expansion of Exeter Airport
– heat and power plant
– five hundred thousand square ft Sainsbury’s distribution centre
– a new town, Cranbrook, which is set to grow larger than Honiton
– a further 600 houses at Blackhorse, which is currently a hamlet of about 30 bungalows

First, at Exeter Airport, we were given a presentation by the developers of Cranbrook and ‘growth point’.

The Sainsbury’s distribution centre is near Clyst Honiton and we were told that it is only slightly smaller than the gargantuan Morrisons next to the M5 in Somerset. 

The Sainsbury’s distribution centre was given full planning permission last year amid controversy. 

The original agreement and one enshrined in EDDC’s adopted Local Plan was that the distribution centre would be linked to a railway to ensure that as many goods travelled by train as possible, to avoid a huge amount of lorry movements.

Unfortunately, and despite significant representations to the contrary, planning permission was granted without securing from Sainsbury’s any funding whatsoever for this vital piece of infrastructure.  Nearby residents can now look forward to an enormous number of lorry movements every day, once it opens.

The Clyst Honiton bypass,with its 100m tunnel, has reportedly consumed around £20m of public money, with 12m being paid back by developer contributions.

Cranbrook’s railway station will be built next year.

The hopes for Skypark
The first phase of Skypark (around 100 acres or 50 plus football pitches), next to Exeter Airport alongside the old A30, will start later this year.  The first phase, we are told, will be for industrial use, and will take seven months.  The second phase will be a pedestrianised business park.

I asked how many companies had bought space at Skypark. 

Answer: None. 

And Skypark has been marketed for well over a year.

I remembered the stark warning given by consultants, Roger Tym, who state on page 75 of their Housing and Employment Study 2011, that marketing for a 1.4m sq ft scheme at Langage Business Park in Plymouth has progressed over the last five years without success of obtaining a single occupier. 

It is the challenge of dealing with large strategic allocations, they say.

Hopefully, Skypark will achieve full occupation in time.  But it does rather put the challenge of filling the many and large industrial allocations for the rest of East Devon, into perspective. 

If Skypark, in a hugely convenient location is not proving a goer (so far), what hope is there for almost 50 acres of industrial land allocated for Honiton?

Yet more industrial and commercial space is allocated at Cranbrook.  A further 50 acres or so.  How these people think they will fill all this acreage, I have no idea.

And how likely is it therefore, that this land will end up as housing, given the National Planning Policy Framework’s encouragement on re-allocating employment land as alternatives, including housing, if it remains undeveloped?

We visited Science Park.  Or at least we visited the site that Science Park is to be built on.  Currently, it is simply landscaping and roads.  I noted some attractive stone paviours.  Everything about Science Park is high quality, we were informed.

I asked about timing in the absence of any building work.  The Science Park board are awaiting the results of a public funding bid to the Local Enterprise Partnership for £4m.  This will (as I understand it) kickstart the first building phase of Science Park. 

We walked along the top of Redhayes towards the new pedestrian/cycle bridge over the M5.  Redhayes was a spooky old mansion next to J29 that burnt down about 10 years ago.  I saw that most of the specimen trees appeared to be retained.  Apparently, Natural England had ensured that the high quality, many very old trees were not put at risk by the bulldozers.

Councillors were informed that the Science Park board were not going to take second best.  They were determined that only science-based companies would be allowed to set up their offices here.  This may take many years we were told, but it was vital that the quality of the enterprise was not compromised.

Exeter University’s Innovation Centre was moving to the Science Park, which would ultimately span 700,000 square feet.  The site would have a strong research and development focus.

Science Park is also to get its own 200-bed hotel and conference centre. 

Skypark and Exeter Airport will have their own hotels too.  The Flybe hotel is almost built and will house Flybe staff inbetween flights.

No science-based companies have signed up to occupy the science park so far either.

Officials are confident however, that it will ultimately create around 3,000 jobs.

A further 600 houses will be built at Blackhorse, near the Science Park, with a further 2000 more at Monkerton, near Pinhoe.  At Westclyst another 800 have been allocated under EDDC’s Local Plan. 

Quite simply, unprecedented levels of development.

A bus lane is being created from Cranbrook alongside the old A30 to ensure that people using public transport get priority.

Clyst Honiton Primary School is to move to Cranbrook and will re-open there in the autumn. 

Cranbrook will have its own secondary school, accommodating up to 900 students, with Clyst Vale Community College remaining at Broadclyst and taking Cranbrook’s sixth formers.

Ultimately, we were told, Cranbrook would get four primary schools.  A surprisingly large number I thought.  Ottery St Mary, with a population of around 5,000, has only one primary school.

In the coach driving to Cranbrook, after heavy rainfall, it was easy to see the fields were flood plains.  Many were lakes of water and I hoped that the persistent predictions of flooding from nearby residents would not come to fruition. 

Although, I was not encouraged when we were told by one of the developers that the school field was currently under water …. which was on top of a hill!

Affordable housing for local people?
Yesterday’s Express & Echo quoted Taylor Wimpey’s Colin Taylor as claiming there will be 199 social rented homes and 101 shared ownership properties. 

Mr Taylor says 65 per cent of these homes will be allocated to applicants with a connection to East Devon and 35 per cent will to go applicants with a connection to Exeter.

I wondered whether Mr Taylor had read the latest EDDC Cabinet minutes?

Clearly not.

EDDC’s all Conservative Cabinet has decided to ask the Govt to do away with the restrictions on local connections when buying social housing at Cranbrook. 

The justification is apparently to ensure that all houses are sold.

Weren’t we told (again and again and again) that we needed all this development in East Devon to make sure there was enough affordable housing for LOCAL people?

Cranbrook is hardly off the ground and already the ruling group has scrapped the local buyer restrictions.

Why, I am wondering, was this decision made now.  Before any houses even went up for sale?

Here is the link to the relevant minute.  See page 117.

http://www.eastdevon.gov.uk/cabinet_mins_040412.pdf

Squashed in?
While I was a member of the East Devon Local Plan Panel, a decision was taken to increase Cranbrook from 5,000 houses to 6,000 within the plan period (before 2026). 

But Cranbrook still retains its original boundaries.  That means that houses will be more crammed in, to accommodate the extra 1000 homes.

The personal cost of living next door to Cranbrook
We passed a very beautiful house, probably built in the 1930s.  At one time, not so long ago, it would have had a prime spot in an elevated location, with fantastic views, surrounded by lovely quiet farmland. 

It is now at the heart of the Cranbrook developments and I noted that its garden was full of heavy machinery and contained a number of large muddy trenches. 

How on earth, I wondered, did the occupants come to terms with being in the midst of all this mud, chaos and noise.  Unable to escape because their property was now virtually worthless – at least while the development was ongoing.  I felt very sorry for them. 

Incidentally, reading the correspondence page of this week’s Express & Echo, the owner of this house, Angela Jones, has written an anguished open letter to EDDC leader, Cllr Paul Diviani, asking him to come and visit what she calls ‘the hellhole’ she and her family now live in. 
The ‘complete and utter devastation of the land, she says.’ 

Mrs Jones explains that she and her neighbour’s properties shudder and some have experienced cracks.

“Where are you Cllr Diviani?”, Mrs Jones seems to shriek in fury, with her words starkly outlined in block capitals. 

An insight into the huge personal cost to Cranbrook’s neighbours.

The land in this part of the district is of the highest agricultural quality.  The very best food growing land.  I may sound like a cracked record to some, but every time I think of the highest quality farmland being concreted over, I get a pang inside my chest.  It is so immensely and stupidly short-sighted.

And how much wildlife has been destroyed?  Scores of hedgerows and trees will have been ripped out, to create, what Mrs Jones refers to as a ‘barren landscape.’  A landscape of redness, because the soil here is orangey crimson.  Everywhere you look you see redness, mud, heavy machinery, lorries, skeletons of buildings and …. a sense of the loss of something very precious.

It is quite obvious that some people can’t see the development of Cranbrook or the so-called ‘growth point’ as the loss of anything.  To them it is all about economic growth, money, jobs and that dislikeable word that comes up at planning committee meetings so often… progress. 

I drive past Cranbrook often, partly from a curious fascination of how a new town is created from scratch. 

I try not to get emotional about it because, after all, what is the point about getting emotional about something that is way beyond anything you can control. 

But distate soon overcomes my fascination.  I think about the sheer scale of Cranbrook and the loss of productive farmland, the wildlife it supported, the ancient hedgerows once teeming with life, now ripped out by bulldozers. 

It makes me wonder, as I often do, at man’s insouciant ability to destroy in the name of ‘progress’. 

I left the tour of ‘growth point’ and Cranbrook with Roger Giles and we travelled home through the pretty little country lanes flanked by verdant hedgerows dotted with the little white stitchwork flowers and primroses. 

It was hard to believe we had just been in the midst of a colossal building site, just a mile or so away.

When I got home I couldn’t help wondering whether:

– the Skypark would ever get off the ground, or instead would mirror the non-progress of Langage Business Park in Plymouth

– the Science Park would ever consist of any more than Exeter University’s Innovation Centre

– If the inhabitants of Rockbeare would be swallowed up by Cranbrook, following a highly dubious decision, backed by the majority of the Local Plan Panel (not me) and Development Management  
      Committee, to allocate south of the A30 for future expansion, despite a promise that this would not happen

– the public would ever consider the millions of pounds of public money ploughed into ‘growth point’ and Cranbrook, as money well spent.

– What sort of town Cranbrook would become.  How big would it grow?  Would I enjoy visiting it?

I have no answers to these questions yet.  No one does. Only time will tell. 

I have to say I am already rather tired of the pictures in local papers of grinning councillor and developer faces at turf cuts, of the continual talk of ‘great excitement’  and the oft heard promises of thousands of jobs and creation of wealth… none of which has materialised yet… and may not ever do so. 

That said, I genuinely hope that ‘growth point’ and Cranbrook are huge successes. 

Mainly because any other outcome would be a staggering waste of public funding, not to mention an irreplaceable loss of beautiful countryside.

Photograph:  The first houses at Cranbrook.