Spiralling costs, an open-ended timetable, and a corrupted management process: Ledbury’s Neighbourhood Plan goes from bad to worse.
When Cllr Rob Yeoman argued keenly that Ledbury Town Council should disband Ledbury’s community-led Neighbourhood Plan group, he professed outward sadness and frustration. At that Ledbury Town Council meeting in October 2015 he said that progress was so slow on the plan that it was endangering Ledbury itself, what with predatory developers and relaxed planning regulations threatening a building spree around the town. In the interests of speed, cost and efficiency, he proposed that the job should be handed over to ‘expert’ consultants, the Foxley Tagg Partnership. (And well he might… read to the end of this piece for clues.)
No matter that a few people might be offended (the stalwart volunteers who had done all the work up to now), the priority was to get the process moving, help the consultants speedily get on with the job, and allow them ‘freely to draw on the people they consider best suited to the remaining tasks’. He sounded plausible enough for ten councillors to support his motion. His brisk manner and seeming grasp of detail often makes him sound plausible, until he loses his temper that is.
Following that ill-fated decision to disband the Neighbourhood Plan working group, a few troubling questions emerged: how long would the consultant-led programme now take to deliver? How much would it cost? What mechanism within the town council would be established to oversee the consultants’ work? On what basis would consultants decide who is deemed ‘suitable’ to participate in the process? More generally, in what sense could Ledbury’s Neighbourhood Plan be described as community-led, the guiding principle of the legislative framework for neighbourhood planning itself, if it were managed by consultants?
Predictably, Cllrs Crowe (mayor), Yeoman, Barnes and Eager, the ringleaders of the coup, stayed silent because they hadn’t any answers at the time. Now three long months later, some shapes, albeit sinister ones, are beginning to emerge from the miasma.
Let’s deal first with cost. All told, the Neighbourhood Plan budget now stands at a staggering £63 thousand.
‘Locality’ is the Government supported programme to help towns and villages produce their neighbourhood plans. It has published a series of case studies on how much communities have spent on producing their neighbourhood plans. The average cost was £13,000. Ledbury’s plan is costing an eye-watering five times more than this.
When the Foxley Tagg Partnership were engaged in 2013 to support the NP process, their tender specified a contract of £24 thousand. They were not the cheapest bid, but were judged to be the best (although they had never before delivered a Neighbourhood Plan; Ledbury was their maiden outing). With additional publicity costs, the Council set aside a budget of £30 thousand, on the high side according to advice from the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), but so be it. This project was super-important. Nobody quibbled.
The latest budget (presented to December ’15 Council) forecasts that figure to have more than doubled, while FTP’s contract has also sky-rocketed to £55 thousand (not including Ms Tagg’s hefty ‘disbursements’). Just last week, Council was asked to sanction another £5 thousand for Foxley Tagg to put out a ‘call for development sites’. Anything else Rob Yeoman, while you’re at it?
So much for getting the Plan finished quickly. The latest schedule estimates a completion sometime in 2018, way beyond the original deadline. This means the whole process will have taken five years to complete.
There is finally the management body, set up to replace the previous community-led group, which gives concern. To the small group of inside-track Ledbury councillors, a few tame ‘members of the public’ have been roped in, doubtless to provide a fig-leaf of democratic respectability to the whole rickety process. Who are these people? One obviously doesn’t wish to cause embarrassment by naming and shaming individuals, but let’s just point out the involvement of the husband of a Ledbury Town Council staff officer, mayor Annette Crowe’s latest best buddy, the girl-friend of a councillor’s son, and er… that’s it.
These apparently are the people that are ‘best suited to’ deliver Ledbury’s future. Those from the disbanded group who have delivered vast amounts of work over the last two years, have been variously snubbed, insulted or directly excluded from the process.
Even more sinister, Rob Yeoman himself has had himself installed as chair of the ‘planning policy’ group: it will be he who directs what’s in and out of the finished plan. Nifty work. You close down a body whose members might just be on the scent of something unpleasant you’re up to, and then replace it with an identical structure, consisting of your own mates and purged of your imagined enemies. Then you take charge of policy. The whole business reeks of nepotism and turpitude.
Cllr Yeoman, it should be remembered, is deeply implicated in undeclared conflicting interests surrounding the redevelopment of the Cricket Pitch for which he acted as agent for the development company, the Silverwood Partnership. Despite his protestations, the gentleman (who was then Deputy Mayor) failed to declare his links to Silverwood at meeting after meeting of the Neighbourhood Plan. It was a blatant abuse of privilege. He also denied appearing at Planning Committee in Hereford as the developer’s agent, that is, until a tape recording of his very own words showed the opposite.
Also prominent in the newly set up neighbourhood planning group is bare-faced Bob Barnes. As mayor, and as chair of the Sports Federation, Barnes suppressed an alternative plan for an integrated sports hub (for football, cricket, swimming, athletics etc), which could have delayed or even scuppered the Cricket Club’s unilateral bid for a new cricket pitch on the Ross Road which favoured them only, but disbenefited all the other sports clubs in town. Nor did Barnes act alone. He consulted three other councillors before chucking the proposal in the bin, despite being asked by the landowner to bring the ideas to the Neighbourhood Plan and to Ledbury Town Council for public debate. Was Cllr Yeoman one of those who advised the Mayor to stamp on the rival plan that might have threatened his own? Time for answers Rob. (There’s no point asking Barnes this question, and expecting a straight answer, so let’s not waste time).
Which brings us to the Foxley Tagg Partnership itself, Ledbury’s Neighbourhood Planning consultants. It may just be an unfortunate coincidence, but one of Foxley Tagg’s directors, Mark Tagg, is something of a player in the cricketing business fraternity. He has been Chief Executive at Northamptonshire County Cricket Club and as Finance Director at Worcestershire County Cricket Club, he masterminded a multi-million pound development project which was the subject of a protracted planning process. Why, Foxley Tagg are so proud of this work, they announce on their website: “During his time at the world famous County Ground time [Mark Tagg] successfully project managed the delivery of the 750 seat “Basil d’Oliveira stand” in a floodplain, a conservation area and in the shadow of the world famous Worcester Cathedral.” (www.foxleytaggplanning.co.uk/about-us) Good work Mark! The people of Worcester salute you (as will posterity)!
Foxley Tagg also scored a development success down the road at Hampton Bishop recently by piloting a controversial plan to redevelop Hereford Rugby Club’s training ground for a large housing estate, against the wishes of the local community, and its parish council. The parallels between Ledbury Cricket Club and Hampton Bishop are disquieting: sports fields being sold off for major housing developments against local majority opinion.
The small Cheltenham-based planning outfit, Foxley Tagg specialize in securing planning permissions for building developers, overcoming objections from local people. “With special expertise in project management, sustainable transport projects, transport assessments, travel plans and unlocking development potential, our commercial awareness provides an important element which large and small developers will find advantageous”, they say. Talk about hiring the fox to guard the hen-house. Remember, this company has been engaged to work on Ledbury’s behalf in order to fend off predatory building development. Do their words inspire confidence? Can they possibly be on our side? Not so much.
What people want to know specifically is how much advice Foxley Tagg gave to Ledbury Cricket Club, or to Rob Yeoman, or the Silverwood Partnership, during the months preceding the planning application to build on the cricket pitch. Serious answers from you please Sally and Mark Tagg.
As council tax payers, Ledbury residents are certainly much the poorer for this terrible mess. The prospect of a robust neighbourhood plan which protects our town’s interests is years away, perhaps lost altogether. Meanwhile, the fools and knaves of Ledbury Town Council and their retinue are glutted on their imagined political victory, but apparently clueless as to the scandal that looks about to engulf them. And at their centre is the ever-plausible, irascible, unpredictable attack dog Rob Yeoman, often threatening legal action to protect his good name but hypocritically trashing that of his critics.
One thing is certain. The goal of finding a consensus on our town’s future looks increasingly doubtful. At referendum, a majority of residents will have to vote in favour of whatever is written in the plan. Worse still for Ledbury, it will have to pass muster with the planning inspector at formal examination. Really, with the likes of Yeoman, Barnes and the Taggs running the show, does this process have a shred of credibility any more? Whatever have we done to deserve these people?