Mayor Dorothy Thornhill has published a response to an open letter she received from the Farm Terrace Community Association (FTCA) on Friday 23rd August, regarding the inclusion of the Farm Terrace allotment site within the Watford Health Campus scheme.
Please find a copy of the letter below.
Mayor Dorothy Thornhill said: “Although the Health Campus partners and I have made our position very clear on many of these issues already, a number of inaccuracies and incorrect interpretations of recent events continue to be raised and I felt it was necessary to publicly respond to these.
“It was always with regret that I agreed to the allotment land being included within the scheme but I believe that Watford Health Campus offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to transform a large part of West Watford that is currently unattractive, contaminated and derelict in parts and poorly served in terms of open space and amenities into an area of real benefit to the local and wider community.
Anybody wishing a hard copy of the letter should contact the Mayor’s office on 01923 278371.
Dear Farm Terrace Community Association
Thank you for your open letter, published via a full page advert in the Watford Observer. You have asked me to respond to various matters concerning proposals to develop land around Watford Hospital: the Watford Health Campus scheme.
There are two sides to every argument and we have listened very carefully to the views of the Association, we simply do not agree with them. You state that the opposition parties have supported you, but it is worth pointing out that until your campaign took off they had been fully in favour of our plans. I do not have the luxury of being able to bow under pressure for political expediency; as your Mayor I have to do what I believe to be right and in the long term interests of the majority of residents both now and into the future.
I have paid close attention to all the arguments made and evidence cited – especially from yourselves who clearly are adversely affected by the Health Campus proposals. No Elected Mayor will want to upset residents if there are other practical options. But I remain convinced that relocating the allotments is the best way of providing for a new hospital to serve the needs of local patients. In fact your campaign has made me question every aspect of the proposals and in doing so I have strengthened my resolve that although very difficult and painful, it is the right thing to do.
1) YOU QUESTION IF THE HEALTH CAMPUS IS NOT REALLY ABOUT THE HOSPITAL
As a campaign tactic, creating a disconnect between the Health Campus and the wider community who would benefit from the West Herts Hospital NHS Trust’s plans for Watford General Hospital might be seen to help your cause but it is simply misleading to the public.
West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust (WHHT) is committed to redeveloping the Watford Hospital site to ensure it can continue to provide the best possible care to the people of Watford and surrounding areas.
The Trust is a key partner within the Watford Health Campus scheme as it believes this is the best way to deliver the redevelopment.
The Trust is currently working with its doctors, nurses, midwives and other staff to develop a clinical strategy which will determine the ultimate size and shape of the hospital redevelopment and considers the flexibility offered by the allotments to be a key part of this vision.
Planning this is not a short-term fix but denying WHHT the flexibility to develop Watford General Hospital in the way that it wants would be to the detriment of patients, service users and the wider community, now and in the future.
The land around the hospital has been marked for development for many years. In fact, the only reason that the site is not already developed is precisely because the then Chief Exec of the Hospital asked me to reconsider an original scheme to take into account the future needs of having an acute hospital on the site, fit for the 21st century. I felt this was far more important than the plans we had in progress and “pulled the plug” on the old scheme and a new scheme ‘the Health Campus’ was born. It has had the need for the hospital to expand beyond its current footprint and provide first class facilities for the people of Watford and West Herts at its heart ever since.
WHHT is jointly funding the new access road, which is crucial to their plans for improving the hospital. This is a sign of their long-term commitment to Watford as the main acute services hospital for West Hertfordshire. Regardless of when it is built, or how it is funded, there is no way I will do anything to jeopardise WHHT’s desire to provide improved facilities.
At the time of our Cabinet decision the then chair of the Hospitals Trust made it clear that it would be more difficult and expensive to provide a new hospital without use of the allotment land. It would also confine the hospital onto its existing site. A representative from the Trust, spoke at our Cabinet meeting at which your members were present, to say that without the allotments it would be a “make do and mend situation”.
The last few years have shown that funding and building a new hospital is far from straightforward. I think it would be wrong for the town’s Mayor to add to the cost or difficulty of providing the new hospital, by not making the land available that would enable the improved hospital facilities that we want for local patients. That was crucial to the decision to include the allotment land in the Health Campus and the situation has not changed.
2) YOU QUESTION WHETHER THE ALLOTMENTS ARE BEING TAKEN JUST TO BUILD LOTS OF NEW HOMES
The letter contains real inaccuracies about the number of homes on the Watford Health Campus site. In our Local Plan the whole site was expected to deliver at least 500 new homes (more to follow shortly on why we need these homes). The number of homes being proposed underwent extensive public consultation that gave people the opportunity to comment on the proposals.
Nearly half of the allotment would be allocated specifically for the hospital’s use. The remainder of the allotment site would generate in fact about 70 new homes, with the significant benefit of these being sustainable, energy efficient, family homes with gardens. We know this would provide a better quality of housing mix for the Campus with more accessible, open space overall, resulting in a well-rounded and attractive community both to live in and for the surrounding West Watford community.
It is entirely incorrect, therefore, to link the inclusion of the allotments to building an additional 300 homes on the Campus as claimed in your letter; this is misleading to local residents who might infer that, by not including the allotments, 300 fewer homes would be built on the site overall. Without the allotments it would mean a denser development with less space for family houses.
3) YOU QUESTION WHY WE NEED THESE NEW HOMES
We are facing a national housing crisis which successive governments have sought to address via the imposition of top down targets for the delivery of new homes. One of the first actions of the current coalition Government was to abolish these targets and allow local councils to develop their own targets. However, these targets still have to be based on evidenced housing growth requirements and councils are required to show that they have a supply of specific deliverable sites sufficient to provide five years worth of housing against their housing requirements.
In order to manage the demand for new housing we recently adopted our Local Plan (Core Strategy), which directs development to sustainable locations, regenerating brownfield and underused land. This means we can protect the town, as there would be less pressure on us to agree to developments that residents don’t like, such as those in back gardens and house to flat conversions. The alternative to managing growth in this way would be to let the market decide where houses are built, which would be likely to mean further pressure for infill development and an inability to deliver necessary social infrastructure such as schools along with new development.
The beauty of the Health Campus is that we are not simply selling land to developers, who will build whatever they can in order to generate the most profit. As a partner, we retain control and can create a quality neighbourhood, with supporting local infrastructure in place – for example the new access road to the site will be built before homes, and help reduce congestion on Vicarage Road and we will provide a new school.
I am also proud that the Campus is currently planning to have 35% of affordable homes, although this positive outcome could be undermined without the inclusion of the allotments. It is a shame that the 200 or so individuals and families who could benefit in future from this number of affordable homes do not have a collective voice to add to the current debate.
At the moment, it is the council who has the responsibility both for enabling the delivery of affordable homes and managing those in housing need. The town is experiencing considerable housing pressures. The population is growing, the number of homeless people has increased and the age of the average first time buyer is now 37. Young people are, therefore, having to live longer with their parents or move into shared accommodation. Families are often in homes that are too small for their needs. If we don’t provide the homes that Watford needs these problems will only increase.
In recent months, there has been a significant push from central Government to increase the availability and quantity of residential accommodation through changes to planning legislation as a method of addressing the significant demand for housing. Many of these changes will result in housing being located in unsuitable locations with a potential loss of commercial office space and job availability. Through developing an overall vision for the Health Campus, we can provide a large proportion of our housing requirements within a new and mixed community with a range of housing types and tenures, open space, community facilities and commercial units to support the developing community.
For Watford, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to develop a planned, new community and the delivery of further family housing will only support this vision.
4) YOU QUESTION WHETHER THE DEVELOPER AND THE COUNCIL WILL MAKE LOTS OF MONEY OUT OF THE HEALTH CAMPUS
No, not at all. What people forget is that the council has been developing the Health Campus scheme for many years at a cost and it will also be investing Council-owned land. Our assessment is that the Council, in the medium term, will receive a return from the scheme that matches what we have put into it. So we break even, but achieve the regeneration benefits and support the hospital at the same time. Kier bring their expertise and finance. Yes they will take 50% of the profit – but they also carry 50% of the risk – if the housing market collapses again or if the costs of the scheme are much greater than expected, the scheme could make a loss. This is another reason why the inclusion of the allotments makes sense – it helps improve the financial viability of the scheme and makes it more certain that the scheme will happen.
5) YOU QUESTION WHETHER I AM LISTENING AND RESPONDING TO LOCAL PEOPLE
The Association makes a number of claims about a significant amount of local support for the Farm Terrace Community Association’s campaign. These claims do not tally with feedback that the Council and other Campus partners have experienced. You have engaged in a social media campaign, attracting responses from allotment holders and gardeners from all around the country, which may be distorting the picture.
As well as all the normal channels for receiving local feedback, the Council has asked all Watford residents and other stakeholders for their views. For example, last year’s Community Survey, enabled over 1100 people to comment on issues and living in Watford and comments received were generally positive.
It is our understanding that the Association does not even represent or speak for the current 61 Farm Terrace allotment holders. We have engaged with all of the tenants and we have found that many of the current tenants do understand the wider issues and accept that the future of the allotments needs to be considered in terms of what the Campus can achieve for many, many more people than the 61 who currently have the benefit of allotment gardening on the site.
Apart from all the engagement Council staff have had with the Farm Terrace group of allotment holders, as far back as January, two members of the Farm Terrace Community Association were invited to speak directly with me on the issues. They refused as they preferred to carry out discussions via social media. This is their right but it is unfair to say they have not been listened to when they have refused face to face engagement. Not agreeing does not mean not listening.
Further public engagement on the scheme is planned later in the year and details will be available on the Council’s website.
6) YOU QUESTION WHETHER THERE REALLY WILL BE MORE OPEN SPACE
The Health Campus partners agreed that exploring the option of a Community Garden – an idea put forward in the Farm Terrace Group engagement – as part of the scheme would be worthwhile and this is subsequently being built into the masterplanning process.
The Garden does not have to be on the current area covered by the allotments – the Campus site is nearly 30 hectares and so there are a number of options as to where this could be best located for the benefit of the community overall. People might not be aware but Farm Terrace is surrounded by a gated and locked security fence. You can, therefore, only access the allotments if you are a tenant and have a key. I want a Community Garden on the site, to be open to all and provide benefits for the residents of West Watford and wider. For example 8,000 people live in Vicarage Ward. There are 61 allotment holders meaning that currently less than 1% of the local population have access to the green space represented by the allotments.
This is why additional open public space is a fundamental element of the Health Campus. There will be more accessible open space created, more cycle routes to link in with existing networks and an opening up of the Colne river valley. I hope it will be a really good place to live.
7) YOU QUESTION WHY THE COUNCIL IS DISCUSSING RELOCATION OPTIONS WITH FARM TERRACE TENANTS NOW BEFORE THE ISSUE IS DECIDED
This engagement is entirely on a voluntary basis. There is no ‘divide and rule agenda’ just a response to those current Farm Terrace allotment holders who would like to move to another site in Watford. This is entirely their choice and their prerogative. Watford Borough Council has simply asked people the question as to where they might like to move and if they did so what would they want to take with them from their current plot. Where a tenant would like to take their shed, this has been facilitated. If a shed is in a condition such that it wouldn’t stand up to a move, then a new shed has been provided.
Each individual plot holder has different requirements – this is not something that can be done on a group basis – and some have decided that there would be more choices open to them by engaging early.
The Council has made a commitment that all the Farm Terrace allotment holders will be offered relocation and compensation and that there will be no reduction in the overall amount of allotment land in the Town. Indeed, Watford has more allotment land per head of population than the national guidance recommends.
8) YOU QUESTION WHETHER THE ALLOTMENT HOLDERS ARE BEING RELOCATED A LONG DISTANCE AWAY
It is a complete inaccuracy to state as the Association does that the next nearest site to Farm Terrace is a 2-3 mile walk. Anyone who lives in West Watford would know there are allotments within 500 metres or a 5-10 minute walk (Holywell and Brightwell) not to mention others close by.
Whilst, full re-provision will be made at the Paddock Road allotment site (which is less than 2 miles from Farm Terrace), there are a number of vacant plots at the Holywell and Brightwell sites. Indeed, with current vacancy levels, over half of Farm Terrace tenants could find new homes within a matter of minutes from where they are now. The open letter fails to mention that all current Farm Terrace allotment holders are being offered plots on these and other alternative sites.
Once interest in relocation has come to an end, the council has a full programme of promotion planned but at present it is securing vacancies for Farm Terrace allotment holders as a priority.
9) YOU QUESTION WHY DID THE SECRETARY OF STATE MAKE A MISTAKE IN GRANTING PERMISSION TO DEVELOP ON THE ALLOTMENTS?
The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) only acknowledged that their decision letter contained an arguable error of law in that the Secretary of State gave insufficient reasons for departing with one of his policy criteria. DCLG, therefore, accepted that the decision would need to be quashed and the matter considered, by them, again.
However, it is important to note that this was based on an a potential defect in the way DCLG had considered the matter – not on the merits of the case made by the council or on any matter related to the Watford Health Campus, including its wider benefits to the whole west Watford community. The Secretary of State will now consider the matter afresh and for the reasons I have stated above, the Council will be re-submitting its case.
In conclusion, I fully sympathise with the allotment holders, but as Mayor of the town it would be wrong to agree to a mediocre scheme, that compromises on quality and doesn’t give our hospital the utmost flexibility for getting the new facilities they want and need. We are looking after all allotment holders by investing significantly in sites in the town, while creating more open public green space for all to enjoy. Importantly the Health Campus will also bring some 1600 permanent jobs to our town. I am sorry that you don’t agree that these benefits outweigh your loss.