Photographs of Thorpe woodlands, their varied habitats, plantlife and wildlife all taken by friends and supporters. most taken between 2010 and 2013

Sunday, 28 November 2010

The $64,000,000 Question

Some people may have wondered why the Thorpe & Felthorpe Trust have been so desperate to gain support for their development scheme. We all remember the Trustees earnestly assuring us during their 'charette' that their motivation was mainly to provide something of benefit to the local community and, although profit was a motive, it was by no means primary. Many people have wondered why, if that was the case, they have devoted so much effort to pursuing their scheme despite the dazzlingly obvious fact that nobody wants the woods turned into a vast housing estate.

Answers aren't hard to find. If Broadland District Council were to grant planning permission for 800 houses, they would effectively be handing T&FT a winning lottery ticket. Let's remember before going any further that T&FT already own the woods outright, which puts them in a very advantageous position compared to most would-be developers, with no cost to them for development land.

The conventional rule of thumb employed by developers is the 'third-third-third' rule. This means that, when estimating profits, the assumption is that roughly a third of the final sale value of houses is made up of land cost; another third is made up of construction costs; and the final third is profit. According to this rule, T&FT could expect TWO THIRDS of final sale prices to be profit, as there is no land cost in their case.

The 'third-third-third' rule is, of course, only rough, but has historically been surprisingly reliable. In the current economic situation the profit margin may be somewhat lower. It may seem excessively generous to reduce it by, say, 30% - leaving T&FT with 36% profit on every house sold - but I am doing so here to safeguard against any accusations of exaggeration. This is, effectively, allowing up to 64% of the sale price of each house to be accounted for by construction costs alone.

On this basis, T&FT's profit projections work out as follows (if you dislike figures, please skip to the last three paragraphs, and return to the intervening section if you want to see how the conclusions were arrived at).

We start with 800 houses. If the full 40% requirement for 'affordable housing' were to be met (and this is unlikely as developers have many ways of getting away with providing a far lower percentage), this equates to 320 houses.

If we call the average sale price of each affordable housing unit £100,000, this gives 320 x £100,000 = £32,000,000

This leaves 480 houses. If we say that 30% would be 'average' price, this means 144 houses sold at c£170,000 = c£24,480,000

This leaves 336 houses. If we say that 50% would be 'exectutive' style houses with an average price of £275,000, this means 168 houses sold at c£275,000 = c£46,200,000

This leaves 168 houses. If we say that 50% are a bit more expensive, with an average price of c£350,000, this mean 84 houses sold at c£350,000 = c£29,400,000

This leaves 84 houses. If we say that 50% are 'high-end' houses, with an average price of c£450,000, this means 42 houses sold at c£450,000 = c£18,900,000

This leaves 42 houses. If we say that these are 'luxury' houses with huge gardens (such as those envisaged for Brown's Plantation), with an average price of £650,000, this means 42 houses sold at c£650,000 = c£27,300,000

TOTAL sale price for all 800 houses = c£178,280,000

Going by the profit margin estimate given above, the T&FT would make 36% profit on £178,280,000 which is £64,180,000. That is nearly £13million for each of the five Trustees.

If we revert to the 'third-third-third' rule, the profit figures could be almost doubled. These figures are only estimates. But even when accounting for falling house prices, static labour costs and rising materials costs - and even when deducting tax payable on profits - the net profit on 800 houses with no initial land costs would nonetheless be huge. Trusts are generally set up with at least an element of tax avoidance in mind: without knowing the details of the T&FT's tax status it is impossible to guess to what degree the Trustees might benefit in this respect.

The £££ signs must have lit up in the T&FT's eyes some time ago. From their perspective, many millions of pounds is what they have to lose. The members of Friends of Thorpe Woodlands and thousands of other local people have no financial stake in this game, but we have 205 acres of superb woodland to lose. Money can be made, lost and made again, but once the woods are gone, they are gone forever.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Map Magic

Take a look at these maps. The first is the Thorpe & Felthorpe Trust's 'Masterplan', as shown to the public at their 'charette' final presentation on July 13th. Notice the overall greenness of the image, suggesting (so they claimed) that lots of woodland would remain even after their 631 houses were built.

The second map has been amended to show only the T&FT's woodland, with land outside the woodland shown as grey. This gives a rather different impression. If you look at the first map you will see that their masterplan appears to include a piece of woodland along the eastern boundary of Brown's Plantation that isn't actually part of the site, but actually belongs to a different owner. If you look more closely, you should be able to see that there is a thin red line showing the actual boundary here, but at a casual glance - which is all we got to see at the presentation - it looks as if 'their' woodland extends right up to Dussindale Drive.

Look again and you will see that their masterplan also includes a fair chunk of apparently 'retained woodland' at the south-west corner of Racecourse Plantation. This chunk isn't part of the site either, but is actually occupied by a fence & shed business, two houses and a Scout hut & activity area. Again, the effect is to stretch the apparent volume of retained woodland.

Could these inaccuracies simply be explained as mistakes? Possibly, but it seems a happy coincidence that the 'mistakes' all work in the T&FT's favour, by exaggerating their scheme's 'green' credentials and creating the impression that more woodland would be retained.

Only a glance at the masterplan is necessary to see that virtually all of Racecourse's woodland would be destroyed, even if we are meant to assume that the patches of green splashed about represent the retention of existing trees. Woodland obliteration on this scale would completely eradicate the wildlife habitat value of the wood, leaving nothing but isolated clumps and narrow belts of trees, at best.

In Brown's, even the masterplan indicates that almost all land not actually built on would be turned into people's gardens - hardly an effective nature conservation method. At Belmore, the south-western corner is shown as retained, but this would represent less than 15% of the total woodland area. And, don't forget, this masterplan was drawn up in July, when 'only' 631 houses were proposed. That figure has since grown to 800, and T&FT have not yet let on where the extra 170 would go.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Answer = 0.1 nanometre

The question we should all be asking is, how far can we trust the Trust?

From the moment the Thorpe & Felthorpe Trust embarked on their charette in early July, the Trustees sought to persuade everyone that they were genuine, sincere people who had found themselves lumbered with a difficult problem. Their problem, they told us, was that their woodlands - which consisted of conifers planted after the war - had grown to the point where they were due for 'harvesting'. They told us that the conifers had been planted for pit-props, a market that vanished with the closure of the coal mines, and that they were left with an area of land on which lots of commercially valueless conifers stood. Because of this, they desperately needed to find alternative uses for their site. They spun this tale so convincingly that a few people actually felt sorry for them.

Luckily, they had come up with a brilliant idea: they could build some houses in the woods and keep the rest for everyone to enjoy - not just as they are now (full of dodgy trees that could fall on people or burst into flames at any moment), but greatly improved, with proper paths, cycle tracks and a lot more wildlife than the existing overgrown Christmas trees (or was it pit-props?) could ever hope to harbour. They earnestly urged us to consider that although the woods might look superficially nice to the untrained eye they were in reality not very nice at all. Definitely in need of a good tidy-up, and building a few decent houses would enable them to do just that for the benefit of all.

Their idea would not only solve their dilemma but would also bring big benefits to the local community. They wanted to share it with us and find out what we thought about it. They were nothing like typical developers: they wanted to involve everyone with any interest in what happened to the woods right from the start, they told us. Time and again they declared - standing up at public meetings, speaking at their 'drop-in' sessions and through their printed material - that they really wanted to know what we all felt: How many houses would we consider acceptable? What should they look like? What about the layout? Would we like any other facilities?

They repeatedly told us that if the answers they received indicated that people didn't want any houses built in the woods, none would be built. Before the charette's final presentation many people imagined that T&FT were thinking in terms of a couple of dozen houses, but the overwhelming response was still a resounding NO! Despite this, at the final presentation the T&FT announced that - having considered everyone's views - precisely 631 houses would be the best number to build.

They went on to tell us that '50% of the woodland would be retained', and that this would be managed to maximise its wildlife habitat value. This would be an improvement because, they implied, if they simply left the woods alone and did nothing, they would soon deteriorate into a dark and sinister, lifeless place.

Friends of Thorpe Woodlands came into being around this time and researched T&FT's claims, to which the facts bore little resemblance. The woods were clearly not recent conifer plantations; they were even better wildlife habitats than anyone expected; the proposed housing would eradicate virtually all of the County Wildlife Site quality habitat and turn what little remained into ecologically unsustainable, fragmented pockets; and the '50%' figure for 'retained' woodland was hugely inflated. The only way the 50% figure could be arrived at turned out to be if virtually every garden, formal open space and patch of trees were included. The only part of the woodlands that might, according to their own masterplan, be retained in anything like its natural state would be a corner of Belmore Plantation, and this amounted to less than 15% of the 205 acre total. The truth of this will be demonstrated in further blog posts.

Throughout their 'consultation' the T&FT spun a web of misinformation, highly selective facts and distorted figures to support their case. Even when these tactics palpably failed, they maintained their butter-wouldn't-melt facade to the media and local council members. They told the press that they "welcomed the formation of Friends of Thorpe Woodlands and looked forward to a productive discussion on how to conserve and improve the woodlands". They told Thorpe St Andrew and Broadland District councillors thEy they would hold a public meeting where local people could raise their concerns. They told the press that they are "committed to the conservation of the environment". And they told everyone at their final presentation that they would make the video recording available within a few days.

Every one of these promises and assertions has proved false. The T&FT has failed to engage in any discussion with FTW, despite our repeated attempts to do so with them. They abandoned their public meeting, having first tried (and failed) to skew it to suit their agenda. They have clung doggedly to their development plans despite the obvious fact that these would obliterate an enormous area of the environment they say they're committed to conserving. They have stalled for four months on the video they promised to release directly after their final presentation.

But it gets worse. They have now let it slip that they want to build "the maximum number of houses that a site of this size in this location could accommodate". Justin Meath-Baker said as much to the Evening News on November 3rd, in response to FTW's revelation that they have surreptitiously increased their proposed housing numbers from 631 up to 800.

They offered no excuses for keeping this drastic change quiet, but they did try to justify it by saying that: "Low density with large house sizes is not necessarily what the local market needs, which is looking for a sizeable affordable housing provision". They can't even speak honestly on this - far from responding altruistically to 'local market needs', they are responding to a requirement of the GNDP's Joint Core Strategy, the Examination into which began on November 9th. The T&FT have strongly contested the JCS's stipulation that 40% of large developments should consist of 'affordable housing' (affordable housing isn't very profitable). They have apparently realised that it might help their case if they came up with a higher proportion of affordable housing and, rather than simply increase that proportion within the original number, they have tacked it on top. Where these extra 'affordable' houses would go is unclear - the T&FT have been characteristically reticent on this.

One thing we can be sure of is that the heavily greenwashed images shown during their charette were as meaningless as their housing numbers, and almost everything else they have uttered. It's a safe bet that, if T&FT ever get their way, the number of houses will creep ever upwards. At their charrette they assured everyone that their development wouldn't remotely resemble another Dussindale estate - but they have already shown that this is pretty much what they will create if given the chance. Unless we all make a concerted effort to speak out for the conservation of the woodlands in their entirety, there is a risk that they will get their collective foot in the door and, from that moment on, there'll be no stopping them.

T&FT's original strategy of trying to smooth-talk the public via their charette has severely backfired. They are working behind closed doors now, and will go over the local community's heads from now on. They are desperate to convince the planning authorities that the big area shown on the JCS maps as Green Infrastructure, Area of High Landscape Value, Area of Core Biodiversity and County Wildlife Site doesn't really add up to much, and that the benefits of their scheme will outweigh the environmental costs. The JCS Examination can't concede specifically to the woods being built on, but it might uphold the 'Growth Triangle' concept, the boundary of which encompasses the woods. Alternatively, it might throw out the Growth Triangle, or even the entire JCS, leaving Broadland District Council to come up with new development policies for its area. Either way, everything will ultimately depend upon BDC, which has the ultimate say on whether development can take place on the woods at all.

Whatever the results of the JCS Examination turn out to be, T&FT will undoubtedly put a great deal of effort into lobbying BDC councillors and planning officers. Unless we make an equally concerted effort, we run the risk that T&FT may wear BDC's resistance down.

We already have several important BDC councillors on our side: these should be encouraged to continue working to save the woods. But the time is approaching when we must tell the rest of BDC how we feel, especially the planning committee. As soon as we have a fair idea of the outcome of the JCS Examination, we will publish details of who to contact, with suggestions on key points to raise. Keep watching the blog!

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Write to oppose 800 homes

Many of our 400 members will have received an update from us earlier this week drawing attention to the fact that the Thorpe & Felthorpe Trust have increased the number of houses they are proposing to build on Thorpe woods.

At the end of the Charrette the Trust informed local residents, councillors and the press that they proposed building 630 house across Racecourse, Browns and much of Belmore Plantations. There was overwhelming opposition to these plans.

Rather than listening to the views of the people who they had allegedly consulted the Trust pushed ahead with their plans and this week we discovered that not only are they still pushing ahead with plans to build over this County Wildlife Site, they have in fact increased the numbers of houses they would like to build from 630 to up to 800.

This contempt for the views of local people and their representatives should come as no surprise to us as the Trust has continually stated one thing in public whilst doing the opposite in private.

You can help to ensure that this dreadful proposal for building 800 high density houses over a unique conservation area, that is cherished by so many local people, doesn't come true by writing to the press and your local councillors.

Many councillors are backing this campaign as was seen when we marched through the woods at the end of August, but it is essential to keep momentum going.

Many of you will have contacted the press or council already but in the light of these new proposals we would once again call on you to write a letter or email to the following voicing your continued opposition to these outrageous plans.

The Trustees hope that if they ignore us we will go away, lets show them how wrong they are.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Trust's broken promise on video

At the start of the final presentation of the Thorpe & Felthorpe Trust's 'charette' their agent, Andres Duany told the audience: "There's no need to take notes - all of this is being recorded [motioning to a tripod-mounted camera and fluffy microphone at the back of the hall] and you can all get a copy when this is over". In view of this promise, most people didn't take notes. That was on July 13th.

The video should contain footage of the heated exchanges between Save Thorpe Woodlands supporters and Duany, which exposed his lack of knowledge or, apparently, interest in the woodlands' ecology. The use of the term should is necessary because nobody has yet seen the video. The T&FT have been sent innumerable requests for it (to their email address: ) dating from July 15th up to last week. T&FT ingnored all emails until this fact was highlighted in a letter from FTW to the Evening News on September 3rd. This prompted a brief flurry of email responses, merely repeating what they'd said during their 'charette' and failing to challenge anything FTW has said about their scheme. These emails promised that the video would be made available "soon" on their website.

On September 8th I sent T&FT an email requesting confirmation that the full video would be made available and that it would not be an edited and sanitised version. Their reply, of October 1st, reads:

"We are sorry that it has taken so very long to get the video up onto our website, we have in fact had to change our website providers in order to do this, we really do hope to have it up and running within the next few days. The charette and final presentation were all fully public events: to provide an edited and sanitised version would be completely counter to our approach"

As I write it is November 2nd, and still no sign of the video. In fact the T&FT's website hasn't changed since July 13th. One can't help wondering whether T&FT would rather not let anyone have a video recording of their representative displaying his ecological ignorance, or repeating the assertion that the woods are merely conifer plantations due for harvesting like a farm crop. This is an important matter because the video will provide solid evidence on a number of important points, not least of which being Duany's statement that the outcome of their 'charette' was that they had decided on 631 houses for the woods.

The Examination in Public (EiP) into the GNDP's Joint Core Strategy starts on November 9th. If we had that video, we could discredit the T&FT's statement to the EiP that the outcome of their 'charette' was that 700-800 houses could be built. We wonder whether they'll manage to fix their technical problems by then?

It is very hard to believe that the T&FT, which could afford to spend around £300,000 on thier 'charette', can't find a web designer capable of making the video work. And - if it really is so problematic - why can't they simply make copies on DVD and post them to whoever requests one, as was implied by a member of the 'charette' staff immediately after the final presentation? Surely such stalling must be completely counter to their approach?

If you think T&FT should keep their promise and, at the very least, provide a DVD copy to FTW, why not email them and ask? That email address again: . It would be useful if you could copy any emails you send, and any replies, to FTW, on: