4 September 2012

The end game at Home Farm.......

I could have titled this one, 'Cowboy Country' but that would have been giving cowboys a bad name. Maybe 'blood from a stone' would have been a better choice but, instead, this M&B tells something of the story currently unfolding at the property known as Home Farm in West End, Somerton.

Home Farm has been the home of the Chant family since it was purchased by them in the late 1920s. At that time, Home Farm was a working farm in open country, but time moves on and Somerton has expanded significantly over the decades. In 1951, the buildings which front West End were listed (grade 2) and in 1984 Home Farm is recorded as being one of the last farms operating within Somerton. By the early 1990s, the gentrification of West End meant that Home Farm's continued operation was in conflict with the essentially residential nature of that street and seen by at least one resident as a blight on local property values. Thus the stage was set for the battle between SSDC and the Chants.

In March of 2010, I visited South Somerset District Council to have a look at what they told me was the entire Home Farm file. The paperwork arrived on a trolley and ran to thousands of pages (I photographed 1200 pages which were by no means the whole of the file), the earliest of which seemed to be from 1994. The file indicated that, for unexplained reasons, SSDC's Conservation Officers had started to take an interest in Home Farm, ostensibly because of the poor condition of the listed farmhouse and barn which front onto West End. It is unclear whether or not local residents or councillors played a part in the initiation of this interest but they are recorded as being directly involved as the process unfolded.

By 1999, SSDC had started to formulate a plan to deal with both the agricultural use of the farmyard and the condition of the listed buildings. The strategy was enunciated in this Committee Report:
24/11/1999 p15 & p16
Committee Report 24/11/1999 p17 & p18

If you read this report you will see that SSDC's intention was to a) to CPO the farmhouse and b) to CPO the farmyard for use as 'social housing' (hilarious laughter). SSDC had decided to designate the farmyard for residential development and their intention was to add land from the farmyard to the listed farmhouse to make it a more attractive sale, once SSDC had skewered the Chants.

In 2001 the plan had taken a slightly different shape as described in these Minutes:
Minutes of Meeting 25/05/2001

Here, SSDC is changing tack a little and planning seeking a Discontinuation Order which would force the Chants to stop all agricultural/commercial work on the site, effectively denying them a livelihood. The planning aspect of the approach is addressed, as well as reference to 'compensation' and, possibly unsurprisingly, Canvin's name pops up although, at this time, his access to the process was limited, his not yet being a District Councillor. SSDC went forward with this plan and successfully achieved the Discontinuation Order which applied to the area on the plan below:
Discontinuation Order plan

The matter is again discussed at SSDC in 2004 in the following document:
Meeting Notes 25/06/2004

Apart from the notes themselves, the attendees to this meeting make interesting reading with Beale and Canvin involved in their roles as District Councillors. (In March of 2010, SSDC took some pains to assure me that they had advised Canvin to stay out of the Home Farm issue, an assurance in which I have put little faith.) Again, back in 2001, 'Matt Frost' was involved as an 'enforcement planner' for SSDC. That is, most probably, the same 'Matt Frost' who went on to work for Canvin's chosen planning advisors, Boon Brown and was involved in misleading Somerton Town Council over the planning status of Canvin's site at Badger's Cross. In these Meeting Notes, one SSDC officer questions the sense of SSDC pursuing the issues with the listed building but it is clear that SSDC are committed to a course of action which would, ultimately, result in the Chants losing their use of Home Farm, both as a place to live and a place to work.

The Chants made an unsuccessful appeal against the Discontinuation Order and then sought to obtain planning consent for an alternative 'homestead' at Somertonfield. Recently I read through some of the related documentation and it may have been a co-incidence but, both of the objectors to that application had links to Canvin. That notwithstanding, SSDC refused the Chant's application on a range of grounds which closed that particular avenue.
Since that time, SSDC has been involved in a war of attrition waged against the Chants and whilst it is fair to say that the Chants have been, in many ways, the authors of many aspects of their present situation, it is also fair to say that this has not been an equal struggle or anything like it.

When I first became aware of the Chant's trials, in early 2010, I started to look at the location and size of the Home Farm site and it enjoys a very central and attractive position at the heart of what is now Somerton. That makes it a very juicy proposition for Somerton's development community and Home Farm was mentioned by at least one developer in their communications with the Primary Care Trust in relation to a possible health centre location. But, of greater significance is the relationship between Home Farm and the adjacent, now demolished, Somerton Service Garage, as illustrated in the image below:
Home Farm and Somerton Service Garage
The farmyard of Home Farm is shown outlined (very approximately) in red and the primary access to the site is shown by the red arrows onto West End. The listed farmhouse is shown at the top left, outlined in orange. I am quite certain that County Highways would have a view were the Home Farm farmyard to be developed (14 units as proposed by SSDC planners) with a single access onto West End at that point.

But look to the right, within the green circle, where the farmyard shares a common boundary with the Somerton Service Garage site, outlined in yellow. That site has two excellent accesses onto the Langport Rd and the Sutton Rd, making it a no-brainer to view the two sites as one development opportunity which is just shy of 2 acres. The Home Farm site encompasses the larger part of the land and the Somerton Service Garage site offers much improved access. All in all, a very nice earner and certainly a very good reason for SSDC to consider CPOing the Home Farm site and the listed building and rejigging the ownership to maximise their benefit.

Today, the farmyard is in the hands of H&S Developments and contractors working on the site last weekend triggered off a ruck when they reportedly attempted to demolish a wall on the site which was also a supporting wall for an adjacent building. The Police were called to restore order but I think that we are now witnessing SSDC's plans (the committee report at the top of this article) coming to fruition, albeit with a private developer as the executioner. It will be interesting to see how SSDC seek to justify their intention to grab part of the farmyard when they proceed to CPO the farmhouse and, in so doing, throw the Chant family out on the street.

(A legal view of the Chant's situation, with regard to the 'Human Rights Act' can be found here.)

From what I know of the players, the Chants have long been something of an anachronism both in their occupation of Home Farm and their use of it. They had, through an accident of chance, become the owners of a land-locked agricultural site, a site which, over time, had become marooned in the middle of Somerton. Back in 1951, the Listing of the Farmhouse and barn probably seemed quite inconsequential but, by the early 1990s, reflecting the growing British obsession with 'property', the decaying fabric of the farmhouse must have grated on other residents keen to improve their property values by imposing their 'grand designs' mentality on their neighbours.

That the Chants consumed the fabric of the farmhouse through their lack of maintenance might, in some eyes, be seen as deplorable, but is not an uncommon approach. I witnessed exactly the same thing in Bermondsey in the 1980s where antiques warehouses stood decaying and unloved until the mid 1990s when a new generation of owners either demolished them or polished them. Speaking entirely personally, I couldn't care less about yet another thatched farmhouse and I certainly don't care enough about it to support hosing public money at an 18-year-long prosecution of the owners. 

And on the subject of public money, I enquired of SSDC as to the cost, thus far, of prosecuting their various actions against the Chant family and you won't be surprised to learn that, after 18 years, thousands of pages of paperwork, a Discontinuation Order and a Public Enquiry, barristers, counsel, consultants and probably thousands of hours of officers time, SSDC are clueless as to how much this horror-show has cost the public. SSDC have suggested, tongue-in-cheek I assume, that the cost might be more than £7,000 but how much more, they are unable to say. If that it true then SSDC is a clownshow run by incompetents. If its not true then maybe we should be told exactly how much it has cost the taxpayer to deliver Home Farm into the hands of the development community. And what benefit, if any, accrues to the taxpayer, apart, that is, from the future possibility of some city wide boy being able to buy a twee thatched house.

Maybe SSDC should organise a rodeo at Brympton Way, they certainly have enough cowboys.

Till next time, I'm still Niall Connolly