We met up with Councillor Cawood over coffee at The George at Nunney to discuss recent proposals by Barratt Homes to build up to a 100 new homes between Glebelands and the Nunney Catch Transport Café.
Councillor Gloria Cawood (Lib Dem) has a lot of experience, having served on Mendip District Council for more than 30 years. She represents Nunney as well as Cranmore, Doulting, Downhead and Whatley/Chantry.
The interview took place on the Wednesday of Barratt Homes‘ presentation in Nunney Church, but before Gloria had had a chance to see the proposals.
She starts our conversation by praising the role of Nunney Parish Council in trying to build more social housing in the village.
“They really have worked hard to bring more social housing to the village,” she explains. “The parish council does not have the funds to build social housing. Bringing in developers creates an opportunity to bring in other funding for much needed village facilities, such as the new proposed playing field on Glebelands. People have campaigned for this for years.”
Two fields were identified by Nunney Parish Council and Mendip District Council as the viable options for future development. These are between Glebelands, Green Pits Lane and the Nunney Catch Transport Café and on the other side of Catch Road respectively. Both fields are owned by the Church of England and administered by the Diocese of Bath and Wells.
The diocese needs cash to pay for priests, the upkeep of its buildings and general administration,” says Gloria. “But they are also very concerned that we build enough social housing. Historically, the church has played a key role in this area for those who need it.”
“I must also stress that the diocese is very thorough in making sure that whatever happens is in the best interest of the local community. I am confident that any negotiations that have taken place between the diocese and various property developers will have been focused on getting the best deal for social housing for local people more than anything else.”
What guarantees do local residents have that they will be able to secure some of the new social housing – if it goes ahead?
“Ah, there are strict procedures for that under Section 106,” Gloria points out. “The Housing Development Officer for Mendip District Council also confirmed to me this week that priority must be given to people in the village and with a clear link to the village. They will be invited first.”
But how much social and other new housing does a village need?
“Oh, build it and they will come,” Gloria Cawood exclaims. “It’s important that any new development is a mixture of affordable rent, part-buy and commercial as well. Variety is nice. Something for everyone. The social housing mustn’t be concentrated in a single place, but pepper-potted around the site.”
She recounts what happened when a much smaller housing development was built in Cranmore, where she lives. “It was largely filled by locals, with a lot of interest in affordable renting. It’s amazing how many people suddenly decide they want to live nearer their parents or children once the housing is there. Of course, that does often mean they leave an empty house behind elsewhere in the village that people from outside the community are likely to move into.”
“If social housing only goes to the most needy in the District, most people born and bred in the village would be forced out away from friends and family,” she adds. “Older people might be happy to move out of a three-bedroom house suitable for a larger family with young children into a smaller property, but don’t want to have to leave the village altogether.”
“Homeless people are often in a desperate situation, with young families in bed & breakfasts. Adults with medical, physical or mental conditions too might be better suited to living in a quiet village setting within a supportive community. When Mendip allocates social housing to people from outside the local community, they will always look very carefully at what surroundings are appropriate for people. Not everyone is suited for village life.”
New houses with 4 or 5 bedrooms hardly sound like affordable housing though, do they?
“It’s quite wrong to think that social housing is necessarily smaller,” Gloria says. “Very often larger families who are not well off move into 4 or 5-bedroom social housing, whereas young professional couples prefer to rent or buy a 2-bedroom house. You need a mixture and variety is good for a community.”
“And of course many people prefer to rent property even if they can afford to buy, to avoid the hassle of maintaining a house for example,” she adds. Later that day we learned that Barratt Homes no longer plans to build 1 and 5-bedroom houses in Nunney.
Won’t any new development away from the heart of the village create two centres?
“I don’t believe that is inevitable,” she responds. “Yes, you may get new facilities at the top of the village – at Nunney Catch. But I believe it is important that we try to build social cohesion and keep and support the facilities in the rest of the village. At the end of the day whether a shop, post office, café or pub closes or opens is a commercial decision for the owners. Nunney is not that big and more people might help these businesses to survive – and encourage more to come in.”
Right now Nunney has everything a village needs: a school, a shop, a pub, a post office service, a village hall, a café, a church… and a great mix of people. People love to live in Nunney, because it has so much going for it.”
“Hopefully any new development will bring in more young families. The school could really do with the extra pupils and the investment that the development would bring in. A good local school is what people want.”
All these new houses would mean a huge sudden increase in Nunney’s historically very stable population.
Gloria nods. “It would,” she says. “But you’re building for the future, not for the past. You can’t simply stick a very pretty village in aspic. People need somewhere to live.”
Do you expect that we’ll end up with 100 new houses, the figure currently bouncing around?
Councillor Cawood looks pensive. “Probably not. We may end up with 75 houses,” she says, before remembering what happened in Norton St Philip. “The situation there was quite similar. Norton St Philip is a quaint little village with a lot of history. People were up in arms about the idea of someone building lots of houses in the village. In the end, the number of houses was reduced after protests.”
“But there really is a huge need for new and affordable housing in Nunney,” Gloria claims. “Nunney has been identified by Mendip District Council as a sustainable village, like Beckington, because it still has all these facilities and a very active community.”
Mendip District Council is the relevant planning authority for Nunney. Do they look at local need or more across the whole region?
“Oh, it’s a bit of both,” Gloria says. “They try to spread it out, although the focus is really on the towns. If you build in Frome, for example, it has far less impact on the local community than in the villages.”
There are plans for up to 230 new homes in Beckington. If that number changes, will it affect how much is built in Nunney?
“No, it won’t. Each planning application is looked at on its own merits. Having said that, it is often difficult to turn developments down completely.”
The most recent housing development in Nunney was Pookfield Close.
Gloria looks pained. “Pookfield was a particularly difficult project,” she says. “There were problems from the start with flooding. It’s small and not a mixed development. I’m confident that anyone building a bigger development will make sure to fix such issues. Barratt Homes are saying they are not expecting any problems, but we’ll have to wait and see.”
What would your advice be to Nunney residents with concerns?
Her eyes light up. She says, “Now is the time to get your views across. Developers will go for it, because the timing is right. The diocese has a lease for the land with a farmer, but the lease is coming to its end. Mendip District Council’s old Local Plan has yet to be adopted. The new plan is on deposit – which gives it a little bit more weight -, but won’t be adopted until June at the earliest.”
“Until then, the National Plan applies. That says that any new housing development must be approved as soon as possible unless there are huge downsides to the proposals. Planning procedures have also been relaxed to ensure that more affordable homes are built. That’s why developers like Barratt Homes are suddenly falling over themselves to get planning permission – in this case, to get their planning application in to build up to 100 homes, as Mendip itself has suggested in the past.”
How quickly do you expect all this to happen?
“Barratt Homes sound like they really want to get on with it. I expect them to submit a planning application in two stages – and indeed Barratt have said so themselves. First, they’ll go for a very basic planning application as soon as possible. Then they’ll submit another application later in the year with more detail. They won’t even start to think about how many they will actually build until they have their basic approval. It’s all a bit speculative at the moment, in my view.”
“Planning permissions have to go through a strict procedure. This includes a consultation period, during which local residents, the parish council etc., get their say.”
She repeats that people should get their views in now. “Right now, we’re in the pre-planning stage. No planning application has been submitted – yet. Ask questions. Go to meetings and exhibitions like the one in Nunney Church. Looks at the proposals and write in. Tell Barratt Homes and Mendip District Council and Nunney Parish Council how you feel about the idea. You can write one letter – preferably not a standard letter or template, but one you write yourself – and copy the others in on it. When the planning application comes in, it is absolutely vital that the parish council knows how the local community feels about it.”
A housing density of 30 homes per hectare seems a lot. Could we push for fewer houses and more green space?
“We need to be realistic – this development has quite a lot of green space relative to many,” Gloria says. “Affordable housing needs to come first. Unfortunately, since affordable housing is a percentage of the total number of new houses that are built, that means that with fewer houses you end up with fewer affordable and social homes.”
“It would also put the cost of each individual property up, including the social housing. What can happen is that bigger gardens simply encourage more building, for example, over time everyone starts to build extensions, a granny annexe or a garage. It all becomes a bit of a mess and you still have buildings everywhere.”
What are your concerns about the current proposals?
“Well, as a member of Mendip District Council I cannot be on one side of the argument or another at this stage. I have to be neutral for all sorts of reasons,” Gloria points out. “We haven’t even received an actual planning application yet. If I start taking sides now, before we’ve seen any actual application, it would have far less weight when it really matters.”
“Having said that, there are certain things that I would like to see as part of any new housing development in Nunney. I think that the Highways Agency will have something to say about the single access route currently on the plans. I would like to see traffic calming measure too, and not just on the development itself.”
“Parking should be accommodated. Preferably, I’d like to see individual parking spaces allocated to each specific property to avoid disputes. Mendip District Council’s draft new Local Plan is a lot more realistic about people having to have cars in rural communities. Come on, most people have no choice. There are often no or very few buses late at night and at the weekend.”
Who do you expect to take the decision on any new development in Nunney?
“Ultimately I expect Mendip’s Planning Board to make the decision. The Planning Officer will make a recommendation and then ask me as Local Member whether I agree or not with his decision.”
“If I don’t agree, I will ask the Chairman and Vice-Chairman to take it to the Board, which is quite likely to happen anyway given the size of the application. I am not a member of the Board, but will be able to speak on behalf of the local community.”
“When that happens, local residents will have a chance to address the Planning Board directly in the meeting: one member of the public in favour of the plans, one against, one representative of Nunney Parish Council, one for the developer and me as the Local Member of Mendip District Council representing Nunney. And these things are not done for the sake of it; the members of the Planning Board really do listen.”
Surprisingly perhaps for a Lib Dem Councillor Gloria shrugs her shoulders. “Solar panels are not the only answer,” she says.
“Of course, once it’s built you can always ask your landlord if you could have some solar panels. But the housing associations really do set very high standards for energy efficiency.”
“New houses are well-insulated nowadays and much greener. So let’s look at reducing energy used rather than dwelling exclusively on generating more energy.”
What guarantees do Nunney residents have that the village will get ‘sweeteners’?
“There are no guarantees at present,” Gloria says. “Not under the New Homes Bonus anyway. This is money paid by Central Government to Mendip District Council, based on the number of houses that are built. We’re not talking millions here, more like up to £800,000 for 100 homes – if we’ve been informed correctly. But Mendip doesn’t have to pass this on to Nunney at all. They could use it to pay for not increasing council tax, for example.”
“The children’s playground is different. There will be guarantees that are absolutely legally binding under Section 106. But if Nunney does get money out of the New Homes Bonus, I think it would be nice to use some of that to improve the flow from the top end of the village – for example by creating clear and safe footpaths.”
Is there anything you would like to add?
“Yes,” she says after taking a moment. “I think it’s important to stress that there is plenty of time to have your say. Make your voice heard now. But be positive. Embrace change. See it as a plus for the local community, an opportunity that has the potential to help everyone. Get involved and try to make the most of it.”