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Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority to probe controversial housing scheme

Save Wilburton from Over Development prompt CAPCA inquiry

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An investigation into links between Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CAPCA), East Cambridgeshire District Council and Laragh Homes into an alleged ‘community led’ housing scheme at Wilburton is expected to be put in motion this week. Effectively it will be a resumed investigation since it was authorised by CAPCA in July of 2022 but then mysteriously shunted to the sidelines.

It was to have been led by Cllr Aidan Van de Weyer and a ‘scoping’ document was agreed by the CAPCA overview and scrutiny committee on July 25, 2022.

Now, however, and prompted by a public question to the Combined Authority board on June 5 (Wednesday), Mayor Dr Nik Johnson is expected to press for  the overview and scrutiny committee to set to work on an investigation.

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More than 5 years ago, Charles Roberts showed me around Stretham and Wilburton to expound on his plans for CLTs. Above a visit to Camp’s Field, Wilburton. PHOTO: John Elworthy

More than 5 years ago, Charles Roberts showed me around Stretham and Wilburton to expound on his plans for CLTs. Above a visit to Camp’s Field, Wilburton. PHOTO: John Elworthy

The question that drew Dr Johnson’s attention to the issue has been submitted by the Save Wilburton from Over Development group that campaigned vigorously against the 115 homes planned by Laragh Homes at Camps Field, Wilburton.

Touted as a being ‘community led’ the group provided evidence that most villagers opposed it and after 4 years of wrangling, East Cambridgeshire District Council called time on the application earlier in April.

Laragh Homes finally saw their plans for 115 homes on 47 acres of arable land at Camp’s Field, south of Stretham Road, Wilburton, ditched.

The company had failed to meet extended deadlines set by East Cambridgeshire District Council to deliver key documents, and planning chief Toni Hylton put them on red alert that she will “finally dispose of the application” on April 26, which she subsequently did.

But that is not the end of the matter.

The ‘Save Wilburton’ group has put a question to this week’s meeting that challenges the level of involvement of CAPCA in the scheme.

It will tell the board: “In April 2020, the Mayor’s office submitted a letter in support of a planning application by the SWCLT (Stretham and Wilburton Community Land Trust) and Laragh Homes to develop ‘Camps Field’ in Wilburton, asserting its ‘community benefits’.

Simon Somerville-Large, (left) managing director and founder of Laragh Homes with Charles Roberts, chair of Stretham and Wilburton CLT. Mr Roberts is a former leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council and former housing advisor to Mayor James Palmer

Simon Somerville-Large, (left) managing director and founder of Laragh Homes with Charles Roberts, chair of Stretham and Wilburton CLT. Mr Roberts is a former leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council and former housing advisor to Mayor James Palmer

“Subsequently, in 2022, the Combined Authority determined that this ‘statement of community benefit’ had been improperly submitted and requested that it be withdrawn from the planning application.

“An investigation was initiated by the scrutiny and oversight committee in July 2022 into areas concerning the Combined Authority’s governance with specific regard to their housing programme.

“This investigation has been delayed”.

Their letter/question adds: “On 26th April 2024 the Camps Field planning application was formally ‘disposed of’ by the LPA under Article 40 of the General Development Procedure Order (2015).

“With the application now terminated, we wish to ask a public question of the Combined Authority regarding the progress of the promised 2022 enquiry.

Campaigners argued the site proposed is not a natural extension of Wilburton

“Please could you provide an explanation for its delay, an update with respect to the ‘key lines for the enquiry’ set out in the 25th of July 2022 oversight and scrutiny committee agenda (page 80), and a timeframe for its completion.”

Two years ago, Lewis Herbert – at the time Cambridge City Council leader and CAPCA lead member for housing – signed off on a review that would have included scrutiny of Camps Field.

It had asked for scrutiny of:

1: The process for establishing the partnership with Laragh Homes and the contractual arrangements put in place.

2: The decision to establish a loan fund with part of the housing funding, including communications with central government.

3: The governance of approval of loans to East Cambridgeshire District Council, East Cambridgeshire Trading Company (owned by East Cambs Council) and Laragh Homes.

4: The governance around the CAPCA decision to support community land trusts

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5: The issuing of a statement of community benefit by CAPCA in relation to Stretham and Wilburton Community Land Trust (SWCLT).

Cllr Herbert had requested all correspondence between CAPCA, and its partners be looked at as well as all correspondence between CAPCA and the government, correspondence between officers, and procurement and contract documents.

He suggested such a review would, if successful, “provide the public with greater clarity relating to historic governance issues.

And, he said, it would “draw lessons for governance arrangements that can inform the current wider governance improvement process”.

Little happened after that, but Mayor Dr Johnson has always been keen to see resolution of issues he inherited and will be aware of the Save Wilburton letter and could well expand further on what he expects to happen now.

It is a matter of record that in April 2020 the then Mayor, James Palmer, submitted a letter in support of the planning application by the SWCLT and Laragh Homes to develop Camps Field in Wilburton, asserting its ‘community benefits’.

But in 2022, the Combined Authority determined that the ‘statement of community benefit’ had been improperly submitted and requested that it be withdrawn from the planning application.

The statement concluded that “not only have the local community been able to exert control over how the site comes forward, but they will also take a long-term ownership and stewardship role over all of the affordable homes, community assets, and open spaces that come forward.

Charles Roberts (right) tweeted back in 2018 that it “was a pleasure to show the Housing Minister Kit Malthouse (2nd right) around Stretham CLT earlier this week. He commented upon the fantastic design of the homes and the “entrepreneurial” approach taken by East Cambs Council”. With them is former Mayor James Palmer and former Cllr Tom Hunt, now MP for Ipswich.

Charles Roberts (right) tweeted back in 2018 that it “was a pleasure to show the Housing Minister Kit Malthouse (2nd right) around Stretham CLT earlier this week. He commented upon the fantastic design of the homes and the “entrepreneurial” approach taken by East Cambs Council”. With them is former Mayor James Palmer and former Cllr Tom Hunt who went onto become MP for Ipswich.

“This project will strengthen the local community and provide not only for the current community, but also future generations to come”.

Mayor Johnson was not convinced, and the document is no longer visible among the 300 documents the application accumulated.

Not yet answered, of course, is any reason being offered by CAPCA why the inquiry was delayed – indeed no one is able to explain if it ever began its work.

In essence the plan for Wilburton sounded promising, with 35 houses out of the 115 to be owned and administered by a community land trust.

Those 35 homes would be available for local people at affordable rents and would be built and paid for through the planning gain on the field with the developers using the market price homes to cross subsidise the community land trust homes.

But many villagers of Wilburton were never convinced of the merits of increasing the village housing stock by over 20 per cent on a field well outside the village envelope.

Questions began to be asked, motives for the advancement of the CLT model considered, and so began a mission to derail it.

Campaigners from ‘Save Wilburton from Over Development’ have created a number of campaign messages to enhance their case for an investigation into a proposed community housing scheme for their village.

Campaigners from ‘Save Wilburton from Over Development’  created a number of campaign messages to enhance their case for an investigation into a proposed community housing scheme for their village.

Not because CLTs of themselves were considered a bad thing, but the scale, machinations, and seemingly ruthless pursuit of this particular scheme in Wilburton rang alarm bells.

Villagers rallied and one early letter to East Cambs planners – from April 2020 and signed by ‘members of the Wilburton community’ – set the tone of the battle to follow.

The villagers (East Cambs planners redacted the numbers) reminded the council of “widespread opposition” to the proposals since they had been outlined two years earlier.

The letter pointed out that a clear majority of villagers had given it a “resounding thumbs down” as reported by Fenscene magazine who reported on a 2019 public meeting.

Villagers also pointed out that a survey in 2020 by the parish council showed that 75 per cent of those who responded were either opposed or strongly opposed to Camps Field.

It was the involvement of the Combined Authority with the application that became an early focus of incoming Mayor Dr Nik Johnson after his surprise defeat of James Palmer in May of 2021.

Now the answers to questions long posed by many villagers – and by Mayor Johnson himself – could be answered.

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