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Mayor Nik Johnson claims predecessor ‘improperly submitted’ community benefit support letter for 115 homes

Save Wilburton from Over Development campaigned against the 115 homes

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Mayor Dr Nik Johnson today claimed that his predecessor James Palmer was wrong to have pledged the support of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Authority to a ‘community-led” housing development at Wilburton. He accused the Combined Authority, then run by Mr Palmer, of being instrumental in sending an “improperly submitted statement of community benefit” in support of the controversial housing scheme.

Mayor Johnson also hinted at a cover-up after explaining he had first raised the issue in 2021 after being elected and had done so again in “throughout 2022 and as recently as December 2023”.

He declined to expand on which “external independent organisations” he has approached in his bid to investigate the housing scheme.

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The mayor was responding to a question submitted to the Combined Authority board reminding them of the delay in following through on a promised inquiry into the 115 homes proposed for the village.

The proposals were drawn up by the Stretham and Wilburton Community Land Trust in conjunction with Laragh Homes and East Cambs Trading Company, the commercial arm of East Cambs Council.

It was publicly and widely acknowledged at the time that the proposals had Combined Authority support, but that was later challenged. An early letter from the Combined Authority backing the homes was later removed from the planning portal of the East Cambs Council website.

Eighty homes – including five self-build plots –were included with 35 additional homes being described as ‘affordable’ on the 40-acre site.

‘Improperly submitted statement of community benefit’

Answering a question from the Save Wilburton from Over Development campaign group today, Mayor Johnson, he told them: “It is to your credit that even though your community is no longer facing the prospect of a large development that your campaign group remains committed to understanding the circumstances of the improperly submitted statement of community benefit abut also the wider systemic question of Combined Authority governance with specific regard to their housing programme”.

Board members sat in silence as the question was asked and during Mayor Johnson’s response.

Mayor Johnson said the issues raised by the question were going to be on the agenda for the July meeting of the Combined Authority overview and scrutiny committee.

He said: “I would also add and acknowledge you first contacted myself about this matter as far back as 2021 and it was raised with senior officers of the Combined Authority at the time

“I am sorry it has taken far too long to get where we are today,”

He said he was “pleased to understand that as a direct result of your community group’s hard work and efforts over many years, that the representative voice of your committee has been recognized and the planning application that caused so many concerns to so many residents has finally been disposed of.”

Mayor Johnson said that in July 2022 when such an investigation was discussed and initiated by the overview and scrutiny, the reasons for the delay in following this through remain “unclear but in preparing to answer this question I have been reassured by senior officers and the chair of the overview and scrutiny committee they are now in a position to move forward at pace.

“I welcome that. I have always shared your concerns and as far back as summer 2021 throughout 2022 and recently as December 2023 I have been raising these issues within the organisation and with external independent organisations.

“From July 2022 onwards I want to acknowledge the support of senior officers both within my own organisation and in those external bodies to take the very concerns your community has raised seriously and begin appropriate investigations.”

He added: “On a final note, I will add that the Combined Authority as an organisation has been through huge changes over the years.

“I am proud to be the mayor and leader of this organisation and in answering your question in full we will be able to demonstrate how the organisation has changed for the better and how we will be well placed to serve all the communities of Peterborough and Cambridgeshire.”

The ‘Save Wilburton’ group’s question challenged the level of involvement of Combined Authority in the origins of the scheme.

It told the board: “We write to you as residents of the community of Wilburton in East Cambridgeshire.

“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’.

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“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 added: “On 26th April 2024 the Camps Field planning application was formally ‘disposed of’ 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.

“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 and a timeframe for its completion.

“Sincerely The Save Wilburton from Overdevelopment Community Group.”

Mysteriously dropped 

In July of 2022, the overview and scrutiny first announced an inquiry, but it was then mysteriously dropped.

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

Save Wilburton from Over Development group campaigned vigorously against the 115 homes planned by Laragh Homes at Camps Field, Wilburton.

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

It came after Laragh Homes failed to meet extended deadlines set by East Cambridgeshire District Council to deliver key documents, and planning chief Toni Hylton removed the application.

Heated exchanges over the years involved SWCLT chair Charles Roberts, a former chair of East Cambs and former housing adviser to Mayor Palmer, who said opponents of the 115 homes were “wreckers and they are blockers; they target from behind keyboards, via social media”.

He said: “They have no concern for creating a community which offers a place for everyone, regardless of wealth or background.

‘Systematic and nasty campaign’

“It is a systematic and nasty campaign against these proposals, orchestrated by three people.”

Mr Roberts argued that opposition had led to “parish councillors resigning because they can’t stand the abuse on social media”

He promised that Stretham and Wilburton Community Land Trust (SWCLT) “has the entire dossier we have built up over time – we will use it to take legal action if we have to. It has got to the stage where people are fearful.”

Mayor Palmer felt that “the Stretham and Wilburton Community Land Trust is without doubt a trailblazer and shows the vast potential of this way of delivering housing.

“Community land trusts are a key component of our housing policy, and we have a dedicated team helping to facilitate their establishment across the region.

“This model can work anywhere and we’re here to support communities in setting them up.”

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