‘We have no Plan B’ – Machine firm says controversial village move is only way to keep HQ in Norfolk
PUBLISHED: 10:17 03 September 2020 | UPDATED: 10:17 03 September 2020
A Norfolk farm machinery firm claims skilled jobs could be lost from the county unless its controversial relocation to a rural greenfield site is approved – despite angry opposition from neighbouring villagers.
Ben Burgess says it urgently needs to relocate from its cramped current base at Trowse, outside Norwich, which is “no longer fit for purpose” and is restricting the firm’s ability to continue growing and contributing to the local economy.
The John Deere dealer wants to build a new two-storey headquarters on 11.5 hectares of land to the west of the A140, on the outskirts of Swainsthorpe. Its proposals also include display areas, parts stores, workshops, offices and training rooms.
But furious village campaigners say the greenfield development “risks the destruction of the village’s character”, despite a surplus of suitable alternatives having been designated for industrial use.
READ MORE: Fresh calls to block multi-million pound Ben Burgess site at public meeting
The plans were originally put forward in 2018, but revised documents were submitted to South Norfolk Council last month including detailed assessments of 19 possible development sites – and Swainsthorpe was the only one which met all the firm’s criteria for size, location and availability. The company says if a suitable site is not found, it would force the headquarters functions out of the area “with the potential displacement of 45 high skilled jobs”.
A planning statement submitted on behalf of the company says: “Should the current application not be successful it would not be viable to retain the Ben Burgess operation in Norfolk as presently configured. The company is currently expanding its area of responsibility north into the East Midlands through a new depot in Oakham, Rutland and employing another 30 employees which will need to be attracted and trained by the company, with many further opportunities for growth after that.
“If the group is unable to locate its Centre of Excellence within South Norfolk it would have to look further afield, putting both the current and future local employment opportunities at great risk as the long-term future stability and growth of the business would be put in jeopardy.”
Managing director Ben Turner said he was determined to keep the firm’s headquarters in Norfolk where it was founded – but after more than six years of searching, the Swainsthorpe site was the only viable option.
“We do not have a ‘Plan B’,” he said “We very much want to stay in Norfolk, because that is where we started in 1931 and it is where the majority of our staff are. We have been growing as a company. We have grown our turnover and we have grown the number of people we can employ. But the health and safety of staff working on our present site is of utmost importance and the confined nature of our present site is putting us under intense pressure.
“We have put forward numerous different sites and we have looked at many others, but this (Swainsthorpe) is the one that time and time again comes back to us.
“We want to get on with our neighbours. We are hoping to build a building of style which will sit nicely in the countryside, and nearly 60pc of the site will be grassland and green areas and trees.”
READ MORE: Norfolk farm machinery firm set to expand into the Midlands
The proposals are opposed by groups including the parish council and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, and they have sparked the creation of the “Saving Swainsthorpe” campaign group whose website describes the new planning addendum documents “as a desperate last-ditch attempt to strongarm South Norfolk district councillors to nod through the Ben Burgess plan”.
Group member Robin Parkinson said: “Ben Burgess is an ambitious company and they need new premises, but there is a surplus of employment land already designated, and everything they have done with this detailed analysis has always been heading towards Swainsthorpe as the only possible location. We believe it is not.
“I can see that the criteria they have used [to choose the location] are perfectly legitimate business criteria, but they are not planning criteria. There is no compromise to the interests of the community, or even the South Norfolk countryside.
“The councillors would have to convince themselves that the case Ben Burgess is putting forward is so compelling that they would have to set aside the present planning rules and regulations restricting development in the countryside. There are plenty of alternatives for them if they were willing to compromise. Why should the countryside be compromised for the vanity of a company?”
The proposal was due to be decided by South Norfolk Council’s development management committee on September 23, but a council spokesman said it is now “looking less likely” that date will be met, as the authority wants to ensure there is enough time for people to comment and respond to the revised plans.
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