The Sad Fate of Totnes

In 2013 Totnes was riding high. It had successfully seen off Costa Coffee, become one of the world’s first transition towns and a survey done by Prime Location, cited Totnes as one of the most desirable places in the UK to live. It was applauded for its ‘funky’ lifestyle, its alternative inhabitants, the beauty of its location and its buildings, its access to the coastline and its rows of independent shops, all of which made Totnes a rather special place, loved by locals and tourists alike.

Cut to 2015 and its a very different story. Totnes has become a victim of the government’s 2012 relaxation of planning laws. The failure of South Hams District Council to produce a Local Plan has given developers and landowners alike a loophole, through which they have swarmed, eager to build all around and over this popular historic town. Landowners like the Duke of Somerset, or the ‘Dukes a Hazard’ as he’s known here, have made millions selling off their ancestral lands to developers like Linden Homes and Cavanna, who are in the process of building hundreds and hundreds of homes around Totnes, hundreds of identikit boxes. Sites like the misnamed ‘Camomile Lawn,’ where they have managed to water down the provision for affordable homes and have built enormous £850,000 executive villas on the banks of the Dart, 100 mixed houses, only eleven of which are deemed affordable. A year ago sheep peacefully grazed here.

They are cramming houses into any green space they can find between Totnes and the neighbouring villages of Dartington and Berry Pomeroy. There are plans to build on school fields, on wildlife corridors, over the assisted houses of elderly people. The last dairy farm in Totnes, a farm of 400 acres with a 4th generation tenant farmer attached, was sold off by the Duke of Somerset to developers and the farmer pushed off his land. Despite all the protests, all the agonising by local people, the developers continue and they seem unstoppable. There’s talk of enlarging the road to Torbay, of building alongside it. This is all farmland. The only development the council managed to oppose was contested in court by the Linden Homes and the council ended up having to pay both costs. Local people therefore, had to pay to aid the developer in the destruction of their town.

In the 2011 general census Totnes had 8,056 inhabitants. The population has hardly grown since then and yet nearly 1,500 houses between here, Berry Pomeroy and Dartington have been granted or are in the process of being granted, planning permission. That could mean up to 4,000 new people, maybe more as many of these houses are 4 to 5 bed houses; this could result in the near doubling of the population. There has been little to no new infrastructure built alongside this mass development. The developers, Linden, Cavanna and Bloor have paid for a couple of roads to be tarmaced, a couple of new bicycle lanes extended, but no new car parks, no new doctors surgeries, no extension of the sewerage works, the schools are at capacity and traffic here throughout the year is appalling, it takes 40 minutes often to drive the couple of miles between Dartington and Totnes. All of these developments bar two are on greenfield sites.

Its an absolute disaster, the greed of a few to the detriment of the many. And they don’t even deal with the stated reason for it all — affordable housing for those on the housing lists. There was a housing problem before the mass developments started and there still is one. Prices are high in Totnes because of incomers money and the large amount of holiday homes here. Totnes and nearby Dartmouth and Salcombe are expensive because they are still beautiful and were spared the planning fiascoes of the 60’s which decimated towns like Paignton, Torquay, Newton Abbot and Plymouth, which is one of the poorest urban areas in Europe. The unspoilt towns and villages of the South Hams are where incomers and retirees want to live, where people want to visit, house prices are therefore higher. There is also a lack of rental property. It is more profitable for landlords to rent out their houses in the summer than rent them to local people, so many houses are left empty throughout the winter or have seasonal tenants only. This needs to be resolved, but this mass building on our farmland has not helped at all.

A large number of these new houses are being sold to second home owners or as buy to let properties. Investors have been buying the very few cheaper houses on offer and renting them out at the usual exorbitant prices. In nearby Ashburton, 16 of the 18 affordable homes provided by the developer were bought by the same woman. The most expensive of the new builds, the £850,000 villas on the Dart have gone as second homes according to a local estate agent . Unless they manage to get one of the few houses that offer shared ownership, then people in need can no more afford to buy the £250,000 new builds than they can buy the hundreds of houses for that price that are on the market already and which linger in estate agents windows for years. There are a great number of empty homes in Torbay and the South Hams. There isn’t a lack of houses here, it’s a lack of money that’s the problem and still is. In fact the new builds have made the situation much worse because they threaten our livelihoods as well.

Devon’s main asset is its countryside. We are lucky enough to have fertile, productive land, which is also beautiful enough to attract tourists. We have a profitable and growing food industry here, which is being hit hard by the loss of prime farmland. Land is at a premium and is being sold at very high cost; farmers are looking to sell to developers, knowing that if planning permission is sought, it is very likely to be granted by a council unable to cope. Although Mr Cavanna of Cavanna Housing describes the countryside as ‘empty land’, its anything but. This is where people live and work, this is where our food is grown and our wildlife lives. Once it has been built over it has gone for good, there is no reversal, prime farmland and wildlife corridors are being concreted over and are lost forever.

Tourism is also suffering; people come to see the rolling hills and bucolic villages of the Devon countryside, not enormous housing estates and choked roads. Visitors I talked to in the summer spoke of their dismay at the number of houses going up in AONB, that the problems with traffic and building would put them off coming back to Devon. People will lose their jobs — the B&Bs in the ancient villages, which are now being consumed by giant estates, talk of disappearing visitor numbers. Landowners are leaving the county with millions in their pockets for a nice retirement in the sun, while organisations like the National Trust and CPRE talk of a catastrophe. Devon is sinking and its all because of the government’s blind rush to build houses without giving local people a chance to direct and be involved in the development.

Totnes, being a place full of enterprising and creative people has tried to become involved. The old Dairy Crest site, which closed 8 years ago has been the focus of a community led development group. They have secured investment and have plans for truly affordable homes and an arts centre on the site, called Atmos. Its a very interesting, thoughtful project, but is totally overshadowed by the mass developments going on around it. Leading down from Atmos by the train station, there is a row of 3 story buildings planned by a developer and hardly in the spirit of Atmos. ‘It will look,’ says a local campaigner, ‘like you’re coming in to a redbrick London suburb.’

On the northern edge of Totnes, the largest landowner is Dartington Hall Trust. This is a charitable trust which was left their land for the good of the community to advance research in alternative education and agriculture. They have have found it just a little bit more profitable however, to sell to developers, offering a large amount of their green fields to the council for consideration The village attached to the estate polled a no confidence vote in the Trust last year and yet against all the wishes of their local populace and against the legacy of their trust they have refused to remove their land from consideration.

Dartington is interesting because the chairman of their property board, Tim Jones, also sits on the board of Devon’s LEP, an organisation set up by the government to promote business and enterprise in the South West. The board is given millions by the government to encourage development, much of which has gone to promoting house building. There’s talk of the LEP funding 11,000 new homes in Devon. On the board with Tim Jones, also sit CEOs of housing corporations, property managers, Devon county councillors and people with business interests in transport construction. There is concern amongst local people, who want questions answered. They also want questions asked of the council, who have failed to turn down any of the mass developments here. They reject self-builds and extensions because of ‘adverse impact on traffic’; but that doesn’t seem a problem when there are major builds at stake and the council gets paid a new house bonus on each house built. Questions should also be asked also of where this new house bonus goes. The council has it listed as revenue on its books and use expected revenue from house bonuses as a part of their predicted annual budget, even before the development goes before them for planning permission. Therefore it is in their interest, it seems, to pass them, however inappropriate and damaging they are.

Totnes is not alone. There are many, many other villages and towns facing the same problem not just in Devon, but across the country and its hard to see many positives. We are losing greenfield sites like never before, people are disenfranchised and ignored, our jobs and infrastructure are being adversely affected and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. All you hear from the media and from parliament is the need to build, not the need to build well, or only to build where its actually needed. We need protection from this land grab, this profiteering.

The future for the Totnes of 2015 is a lot less rosy than it was just a couple of years ago when the Guardian wrote a piece called, ‘Totnes: Britain’s town of the future’, that all rings a little hollow now.

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