A property developer linked to financial giants Legal & General and NatWest has come under fire in claims it was ‘relentlessly bombarding’ a local councillor and ignoring the views of residents in a bid to get planning applications heard.
Inspired Villages, a joint venture backed by Legal & General and NatWest Pension group fund, has recently been looking at several sites, including plans for 160 homes built in a small village on the edge of the Cotswolds and 133 flats on the edge of Sonning Common in the Chilterns.
The developer says on its website that it is ‘reinventing retirement living with premium properties to purchase or rent, set in beautiful and secure environments, situated in some of the most sought-after locations in the UK’.
But its approach to building on the site in the village of Freeland, in West Oxfordshire, has been questioned by local Councillor Merilyn Davies, who described it as ‘pressurised’ and ‘boorish’.
Areas such as the Cotswolds are desirable places to live, placing huge pressure on them for new homes to be built
The developer insists its plans have been designed to address the growing shortage of specialist accommodation for older residents, while also delivering a range of new facilities that are all open to local residents.
While the developer said that it was too early to discuss prices for these sites, it said values on its other sites start at £230,000 for a one-bed flat.
Ms Davies told MailOnline Property: ‘As district councillor on the planning committee, Legal & General’s Inspired Villages relentlessly bombarded me with highly pressurised emails to the extent I had to tell them to stop contacting me.
‘This treatment is the worst I have ever experienced from a developer.
‘These are developers who, even by developer standards, show absolute disregard for not only residents of the existing village but also for those of their proposed village.’
She added: ‘Villages comprise of built up areas in the centre which gradually peter out into the countryside. To build on these outlying areas destroys the village characteristic and risks urbanising a defining part of its identity.’
It follows recent speculation that the Cotswolds could be designated a National Park, which could affect future planning permissions.
The Government said recently that the Cotswolds was not currently being considered for a change in status – although a review of such areas is due to begin shortly.
Meanwhile, developers are ploughing ahead with proposals with more development in the surrounding area.
Councillor Merilyn Davies
Cllr Davies explained that she has now ‘excused herself’ from any potential planning committee meetings concerning the application, as she ‘cannot remain impartial, as required’ and so that she can ‘campaign openly to stop’ the application in the village of Freeland.
Cllr Davies, of West Oxfordshire district council, is a ward member for Freeland and Hanborough as well as cabinet member for Housing and Communities.
She said: ‘L&G’s Inspired Villages appear to be conducting an attack on local plans and conducting themselves in a boorish manner so as to make their applications appear a given.
‘This ignores the democratic nature of local plans as well as ignoring the housing need identified within it.’
Freeland is already surrounded by development with 3,000 houses being built within a three-mile radius amid plans to double Oxfordshire’s housing by 2050.
Residents believe that the planning application could prove to be a test case as the site is so unsuitable.
Cllr Davies added: ‘Its proposals would see elderly people ghettoised on the edge of a village which already has an older demographic as well as no bus route, no street lighting, and no shop.
Inspired Villages is hoping to get 160 homes built in a small village on the edge of the Cotswolds called Freeland (plans pictured)
Meanwhile, a different councillor resigned amid other plans by Inspired Villages to develop another site in the county, in south Oxfordshire.
Tom Fort was a member of the Sonning Common parish council in south Oxfordshire until the beginning of July.
Tom Fort was a member of the Sonning Common parish council in south Oxfordshire until the beginning of July
He says that he resigned partially in protest at the decision to allow an appeal by Inspired Villages for a 133 apartment retirement village to be built on part of the Chilterns, on the edge of Sonning Common.
Mr Fort says that a public meeting at the village hall was attended by around 100 local residents who opposed the plans.
He said: ‘Despite being under the umbrella of Legal & General, Inspired Villages is essentially a speculative land development company.
‘It has no interest in the views of local people, or in the Local Plan produced by South Oxfordshire District Council or in the preservation of the highly vulnerable countryside of south Oxfordshire.
‘Their argument is that there is an acute need for assisted living and extra care accommodation which the district council has failed to provide for, and that this highly debatable shortage should enable them to trample on planning policies that have taken years to produce.
‘In doing so they display an unbounded contempt for local democracy and are prepared to go to extreme lengths to exploit the planning inquiry system to their advantage.’
Inspired Villages hopes to build a 133 apartment retirement village in the Chilterns, on the edge of Sonning Common (pictured)
Response from Inspired Villages
We contacted the developer about the claims and a spokesperson from Inspired Villages said: ‘As a long term developer and operator, we are dedicated to bringing forward schemes which not only address the chronic shortage of housing for older people across the UK, but which are designed and built to respond to local community needs.
‘Our proposals at Freeland have been designed to address the growing shortage of specialist accommodation for older residents in West Oxfordshire, whilst also delivering a range of new facilities including a village club house and shop, wellness centre and transport to surrounding retail and leisure outlets – all open to the local community.
‘As part of our commitment, we are dedicated to enhancing the surrounding ecology for local residents and the scheme at Freeland will achieve a biodiversity net gain, aiming to be carbon net zero to minimise environmental impact.
‘To ensure our proposals best respond to local needs, we have met with local politicians and Parish Councillors to gain feedback and began engaging with Planning Officers at West Oxfordshire District Council in December 2018, making representations to both the Local Plan and Salt Cross Area Action Plan.
‘We have also undertaken extensive engagement with local residents over the past year to ensure local priorities are reflected in our design.’
They added: ‘Unlike short term developers, whose businesses might be based around ‘buying and flipping’ sites, at Inspired Villages we deliver more than just bricks and mortar.
‘Our long term developer and operator model, backed by patient pension capital, means that we are long term members of the community. Our business is built around enabling residents to enjoy a mentally, physically and socially active lifestyle thanks to the vibrant communities we create, and ensuring that our villages are integrated into and open to the local community. As such it is our top priority that we actively engage with local stakeholders to ensure our schemes match the enduring local needs and thrive.
‘As with all our developments, our plans in Sonning Common have been designed to address the growing shortage of specialist accommodation for older residents in the Oxfordshire area, which we have identified through extensive research.
‘Comprehensive engagement included letters to local residents, Parish Councillors and local ward members; a 2-day public consultation and a 10 day public inquiry. Following this, the Secretary-of-State-appointed Planning Inspector was in full agreement that the scheme would address the lack of housing land supply, as well as fulfil the critical need for extra care housing within the district.
‘It was concluded that this would then, in turn, free up homes for local families and provide health and wellbeing benefits to older people, taking the burden off local health and social care systems. To ensure we are bringing forward schemes which deliver added benefits to local communities, our scheme in Sonning will include a restaurant, café, hairdressers and wellness centre with gym and swimming pool – all open for local residents to enjoy.
‘As a business, we also take environmental issues very seriously and are working to achieve net zero carbon on all our sites by 2030. In Sonning Common, our scheme will plant hundreds of new trees to provide attractive landscaping and improve the ecology benefits to both residents and the wider community.’
It added that while it wouldn’t be able to give exact pricing breakdowns at this early stage in the planning and development process for these sites, it could refer to Inspired Villages’ wider model
The spokesman explained: ‘At Inspired Villages, we aim to give our customers a wide range of choice to suit their individual needs and situation, offering both rental and ownership options across a variety of formats. Our houses start from £230,000 and include 1, 2 and 3 bedroom apartments and cottages, all carefully designed for the needs of older people and focused on promoting an active lifestyle.
‘Helping our customers to rightsize, this model also frees up many under-occupied former family homes, in turn allowing younger families to move in, which contributes to creating vibrant sustainable communities.’