At last some news on the St John’s Road site in Epping

For the first time Epping Forest district council has revealed proposals under discussion for the St John’s Road development site in Epping. (The site comprises the vacant former Epping Junior School site, the Centrepoint building on St John’s Road opposite the library, the Epping Hall site occupied by Epping Town Council and the district council’s housing depot site with access via the slip road to the High Street.)
Speaking at the district council’s Asset Management and Economic Development Cabinet Committee last night Chris Pasterfield, who is the officer who leads work on the council’s land-holdings, reported that proposals currently being discussed with developers Frontier Estates, include
  • a “relatively small” supermarket anchoring the scheme
  • small cinema, “probably three schemes”
  • Town Square
  • restaurants
  • some residential
  • offices (including for the town council replacing its office at Epping Hall)
  • car parking

It is clear there is still a lot of discussion and debate to be had.

Mr Pasterfield said the next stages are for the three councils involved to agree Heads of Terms with Frontier Estates, then negotiate a development agreement and then for the developer to submit a planning application.

There is a report on this going to the district council’s decision making Cabinet next Monday (21 July). It’s currently scheduled to be discussed in private session but Janet Whitehouse and I are asking for the discussion to be moved into public session given the significance of the the decision to the town. Hopefully that will bring more information into the public domain than the slightly sketchy details given above.
You can watch the report to the Asset Management Committee on the council’s webcast archive: the St John’s item is between
53:23 and 55:24 minutes. I was surprised to hear the comment about Epping Town Council as I believe a formal decision about the Heads of Terms has not been taken by the Town Council.
I hope to add more information as it becomes available.

Developers try again at Wintry Wood Service Station site

Every Friday Epping Forest District Council publishes a list of recently submitted planning applications. The first thing I do is to look for anything that affects Epping before I scan the file for any significant applications elsewhere.

Wintry Wood Service Station

The most interesting local application this week is yet another attempt to develop the old Wintry Wood service station site on the Thornwood Road. There can be no doubt that in principle the site is suitable for redevelopment. It is previously developed land which is not in the Green Belt. However earlier attempts to build flats have not found favour with the local planning committee (on which I sit) for various reasons – including the bulk of earlier designs and the impact on neighbours.

The revised application proposes twelve flats (10 x two-bedrooms, 2 x 3-bedrooms) and the plans can be viewed on the district council’s website.

The site is not as straightforward to develop as might initially be supposed because of its relationship to existing houses along Thornwood Road, its proximity to the Lower Forest and the fact it is pretty much the first bit of Epping that people see if they are entering the town from the north (from Harlow / Thornwood). This makes it a sensitive so-called ‘gateway’ site.

As a member of the planning committee I won’t take a final view until I have taken account of any representations submitted by neighbours, Epping Town Council and other interested people and considered the report which council officers will prepare. But I would be interested to know what other people think.

59-65 St John’s Road

There is a much smaller scale application which also caught my eye. An applicant in St John’s Road is seeking to install cast iron railings apparently very similar to the original walls in place of the existing mixture of boundary treatments. Again, I will need to reserve final judgement until I see any representations but at first sight it looks a positive move.

It’s especially interesting to see someone going against the common trend to demolish boundaries and pave over front gardens (in order to provide off-street parking).

(Not) Building on the Green Belt

I have a map at home which shows almost every field around Epping, North Weald and Theydon Bois highlighted with green shading. These are all places where developers have expressed an interest in building large housing developments – but they can’t because the land is in the Green Belt. As long as the land stays in the Green Belt the council won’t grant planning permission unless there are very exceptional circumstances.

This hasn’t stopped some companies – including in Epping Forest – trying to sell small plots of land in the Green Belt as an “investment opportunity”. They imply that planning permission for new houses will be granted and the land will increase massively in value. (If this is the case why doesn’t the company hold on to the land and profit from the supposed increase in value itself?)

The council issued a news release yesterday with information about one of these “landbankers” which has been advertising plots of land for sale on land at Blunts Farm in Theydon Bois. Sadly this is yet another potential headache for the local residents who have already put up with all sorts of problems and issues relating to the Blunts Farm site.

The council points out that:

The land is entirely within the Green Belt, and therefore the normal restrictions on development apply. The areas of land are isolated from the existing built area of Theydon Bois, and the services it provides. No means of access has been shown to the parcels of land. The land has been submitted to the District Council under the “Call for Sites” exercise, but this does not mean that there is any certainty that this land will be allocated for development purposes. The allocation of 3,500 new homes claimed by the vendors refers to the requirement in the East of England Plan for the whole District over the period 2001 to 2021

Gypsy and Traveller sites: government consultation

Yesterday was the deadline for responding to the Secretary of State’s Proposed Changes to the draft policy on Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation in the East of England [PDF]. This is almost the final stage of a very lengthy process which will determine how many pitches Epping Forest district is expected to provide. It is an issue which Janet Whitehouse and I and other Liberal Democrat councillors have been thinking about very carefully.

Liberal Democrat district councillor Janet Whitehouse with proposed Gypsy site at Woodside, Thornwood in the background

The submission which I put in as Leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Epping Forest District Council described the Secretary of State’s decision to reduce the pitch requirement for Epping Forest from 49 to 34 pitches as a welcome improvement compared with the original proposed policy. It shows some recognition of the particular local circumstances in Epping Forest.

However I argued that it does not fully take into account the difficulty of delivering a large number of gypsy and traveller sites in Epping Forest.

Unlike some other districts Epping Forest has a very low amount of what is described as “unconstrained land”. In other words much of the land in the district is environmentally sensitive (e.g. Epping Forest and parts of the Lee Valley Regional Park or Green Belt or both). It also remains the case that the number of additional pitches sought as a proportion of total new dwellings is disproportionately high when compared to other districts in the region.

The Thornwood Action Group has carried out excellent research and analysis which I relied on heavily when putting in my response. Like other local residents’ action groups, I think the evidence justifies a further reduction down to 19 or fewer sites.  I’ve not yet been shown a copy of the official Epping Forest District Council submission, but this will also seek a reduction.

Although the Secretary of State will decide how many pitches are required locally, it is up to the district council to decide where  the pitches should be located, hence the controversial consultation which ended in February. We are now waiting for an analysis of the consultation responses and technical and sustainability reports on the proposed sites.

Caffè Nero gets another chance

There weren’t many council meetings last week but the regular planning sub-committee took place on Wednesday . The most high profile agenda item [PDF] was about Caffè Nero  in Epping High Street: the latest installment of a long saga which dates back to July 2006.

The coffee shop has been trading in defiance of planning law for the last few years but, judging from the emails and comments I have received, it has built up a loyal group of customers in that time. Councillors were asked whether Caffè Nero’s owners should have the opportunity to submit a new planning application which could take account of changed circumstances since the original planning application was submitted in 2006.

I argued that councillors should have the chance to consider a planning application and I’m pleased that other members thought the same. Caffè Nero now has just under four weeks to submit a planning application which councillors will consider in public at a future planning committee meeting.

Happy anniversary

Over the weekend St John’s Church in Epping celebrated the 100th anniversary of the construction of its tower, which is still Epping’s most important landmark: visible from the M25 and for miles around. I thoroughly enjoyed the celebratory concert, featuring the Epping Church Choirs Association, St John’s Church Choir and other musicians on Friday evening.

We are fortunate that those who commissioned the church and its tower were far-sighted enough to appoint an architect as good as G F Bodley, who is considered to have made a major contribution to church architecture.

The church is now raising funds to build a new extension, at the west end of the church where St John’s House is now. (Apparently this was going to be the original location of the tower until someone pointed out that the clock would be more visible if it could be seen from the High Steet.)

I don’t think anyone will miss St John’s House when it is pulled down – it is an undistinguished building – but whatever takes its place will have to be a very special design if it is to complement the existing church and serve the congregation and community as well as Bodley’s design has done for the past 100 years. From what I hear the architect is a big admirer of Bodley and up for the challenge.

Do we want advertising hoardings on our roundabouts?

The district council has been casting about for ways of generating cash. As a result it has submitted a planning application (to itself!) requesting permission to erect advertising hoardings at 15 locations on roundabouts across the district.

I will be interested to see how this is received. When the same idea was put forward several years ago it was withdrawn quite swiftly because various people were unhappy at the prospect of advertising and further ‘clutter’ in Epping Forest.This has not deterred the Conservatives from including the Wake Arms and Robin Hood roundabouts in the current application, as well as other roundabouts in less sensitive locations. As far as I can see from the information on the district council website, the City of London (which is responsible for Epping Forest) hasn’t been asked for its views.

The council hopes to erect up to three hoardings per roundabout (5 feet by about 2½ feet) mounted on poles. You can find out more using the council’s new online planning service: the application number is EPF/1814/2008.