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‘Serious flaws’ in bid to build 10,000-home garden town in Norfolk countryside

PUBLISHED: 06:23 02 August 2018 | UPDATED: 09:18 03 August 2018

Breckland councillor Bill Borrett (l) with John Labouchere (c) and Jennie Borgnis (r)  from North Elmham Parish Council on the old railway line between North Elmham and County School station. Photo: Bill Borrett

Breckland councillor Bill Borrett (l) with John Labouchere (c) and Jennie Borgnis (r) from North Elmham Parish Council on the old railway line between North Elmham and County School station. Photo: Bill Borrett

Archant

Major flaws can today be revealed in a bid to build a new 10,000-home garden town in the countryside.

The site of a proposed 10,000 home new garden town in the Norfolk countryside near North Elmham, Photo: ArchantThe site of a proposed 10,000 home new garden town in the Norfolk countryside near North Elmham, Photo: Archant

Norwich planners Lanpro has put forward proposals for a town the size of Thetford between the villages of North Elmham, Billingford and Bintree in mid-Norfolk.

But since we revealed the plans in mid-July the reaction has been fierce.

Among the concerns our investigation has found are:

• The area is earmarked for only 91 homes up to 2036;

• A heritage railway line to take commuters from the new town can only currently run at 25mph – and does not exist north of the site;

• The railway trust which owns the line slams as “absurd” a claim by Lanpro about the service’s potential;

• The project will be rejected for government funding without council backing, which it does not currently have.

New garden towns have been given government funding across the country, but they must be supported by local communities, be close to jobs and have green forms of transport.

The image from the Cities: Skylines computer game used in the Lanpro prospectus about the Mid Norfolk Garden Town, Image: Lanpro/Colossal OrderThe image from the Cities: Skylines computer game used in the Lanpro prospectus about the Mid Norfolk Garden Town, Image: Lanpro/Colossal Order

The town, which would be the fourth largest settlement in Norfolk, would be built on arable farmland off the A1067.

It is crossed by single country lanes and leads down to the Wensum river valley which is a protected site. The town would also encircle Bintree Woods on three sides.

But the agent behind the ambitious scheme said Norfolk was failing to build enough homes and must find fresh ways to develop for its growing population.

Chris Leeming, pictured below, managing director of Lanpro, said they had been working on the project since 2016, but had been looking at using Norfolk’s railways for development before that.

The site of a proposed 10,000 home new garden town in the Norfolk countryside near North Elmham, Photo: ArchantThe site of a proposed 10,000 home new garden town in the Norfolk countryside near North Elmham, Photo: Archant

He said North Elmham was picked “largely on landscape capacity grounds”.

Mr Leeming has set up a separate firm called the Norfolk Railway Village Limited to lead the proposal.

They have got permission from two landowners - farming families the Sextons and Garrods - to put the 1,300 acres of land forward for the development. The Sextons and Garrods declined to comment.

If developed it would land a multi-million-pound payday for the landowners and agents.

One acre of good quality arable land in Norfolk is worth around £9,000, according to industry experts.

With planning permission for homes, that acre could be worth 40 times as much at £350,000. That means the 1,300 acre site could have a potential value of £455 million.

The scheme does not have Breckland Council’s support at the moment, but the council said it was open to “discussing the concept of a new Norfolk garden town”.

However, it would only be backed by Breckland if a majority of the authority’s 49 councillors supported it.

Chris Leeming, managing director of planning consultants Lanpro, at the firm's headquarters in Pottergate, Norwich. Picture: Carl WillimottChris Leeming, managing director of planning consultants Lanpro, at the firm's headquarters in Pottergate, Norwich. Picture: Carl Willimott

The council is already in the final stages of identifying where 15,000 new homes could be built by 2036 in the district. The majority of those new homes are going near to the A11 in Thetford and Attleborough. North Elmham has just 91 new homes in the “local plan”.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) said it expected Breckland to stick to its plan.

But Mr Leeming said not enough homes were being built to meet demand or government targets. Just under 3,000 new homes were built in Norfolk last year, including 390 in Breckland.

In a letter to Mr Leeming in July, Breckland’s chief executive Anna Graves said the council had already looked at building a new settlement but did not find anywhere suitable.

North Elmham station is abandoned but would be brought back under the plans, Photo: ArchantNorth Elmham station is abandoned but would be brought back under the plans, Photo: Archant

She also told Mr Leeming the proposal would need to find a way to fund the infrastructure.

“Most significantly, there should be full and extensive public engagement from the outset,” she added.

But parish councils in the area are yet to be approached by Lanpro.

In November 2017 Lanpro produced an eight-page proposal for the “Mid Norfolk Garden Town”.

And local councils have rubbished some of the claims in the document.

Valerie Wilson, from Billingford Parish Council, described the garden town as a “preposterous idea”.

She said Lanpro’s proposal included “fundamental misrepresentations of facts”.

It shows a map of the site as it is now with a railway line running to the north, which no longer exists.

The new town site borders the protected Wensum river valley, Photo: ArchantThe new town site borders the protected Wensum river valley, Photo: Archant

She also said the scale of the development was not represented in the document.

Chairman of North Elmham Parish Council Jennie Borgnis said the council was “vehemently opposed” to the choice of the site and the proposal was “seriously flawed”.

“It appears to rely heavily, if not entirely, on the suggestion that the Mid Norfolk Railway can be reinstated as a link between the old station at County School (near North Elmham) and Wymondham,” she said.

“It is laughable to suggest that this railway could ever be used as a commercially viable commuter route to Wymondham.”

Peter Eyre from the Mid Norfolk Railway Trust at the old County School station which developers want to reinstate to build a new town, Photo: ArchantPeter Eyre from the Mid Norfolk Railway Trust at the old County School station which developers want to reinstate to build a new town, Photo: Archant

The trains on the track currently run at 25mph and do not run a service north of Dereham.

The project also does not have the support of the people running the heritage line - the Mid Norfolk Railway Preservation Trust.

George Saville, manager at the trust, said it was “absurd” to claim, as Lanpro does in its prospectus, that the line could “secure an economic future” for communities on the route.

Mr Saville stressed the trust had no involvement with the project.

The disused station at County School near North Elmham which would be brought back to a working commuter railway line under the proposals, Photo: ArchantThe disused station at County School near North Elmham which would be brought back to a working commuter railway line under the proposals, Photo: Archant

The line currently has no track north of County School station, which would be the nearest station to the site, as depicted in the prospectus.

Peter Eyre, former chairman of the trust, said the line could not run further north as homes had been built over the old tracks and a railway bridge taken down.

Despite the line being key to the town going ahead, he said the trust’s members had only found out about it when the news was broken by this paper the Saturday before last.

The map in the Lanpro prospectus also shows the new town encircling Bintree Woods, owned by the Forestry Commission, on three sides. The woods are home to buzzards and kestrels.

Roger Woods, from the Forestry Commission, said they had been told nothing about the plans.

Mr Leeming said the woods would remain but added: “If Breckland Council and the Government ultimately see the merits of the project we will start a dialogue with the Forestry Commission over long term
use of this site as part of the scheme.”

The proposals have also been slammed by Breckland councillor for the area Bill Borrett.

“The proposals are not very clear”, he said. “It is a huge amount of housing in an unsuitable place but not a huge amount of information.”

Michael Rayner, from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), said Breckland Council should reject the proposal, which would make it ineligible for government funding.

“It is hard to think of a more inappropriate site” he said.

“The government is keen on new settlements but of ones granted permission every single one is next to a trunk road or motorway junction or on the edge of a city.”

•See Lanpro’s proposal for the Mid Norfolk Garden town here

•‘Easy to take negative stance’

Norfolk’s population is expected to increase to around 950,000 by 2026 and Mr Leeming said new ways needed to be found to build enough homes.

Building a new garden town would go a long way to meet those needs, he added.

Mr Leeming said: “It is very easy to take a negative stance and to resist change but what we are trying to do in this instance is to deliver major area-wide benefits through properly planned long term development strategies.

“It is key that people understand that all we have done is asked the local authority (Breckland) to explore an opportunity.

“It may be that the local authority decides that the existing system is the right way.

“However there is now a real opportunity to do different and deliver infrastructure and jobs at the same time as we meet our own shared housing needs.”

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