Proposals for 68 up market cabins on Juniper Hill in the heart of the Mortimer Forest have divided opinion in Ludlow and the countryside to the south. Over five days, I took a straw poll of opinion. The poll attracted nearly 600 votes and the results show more support for the scheme than I was expecting.
Although support for the scheme is higher than I expected, though opposition seems to be growing as more people learn about the scheme. The Forestry Commission and Forest Holidays have not helped themselves by involving Shropshire and Ludlow residents at a very late stage. Most people heard about it through my blog and newsletter. Here is a small selection of the comments for and against the scheme:
Joyce: “Mortimer Forest is a wild life haven and a joy to walkers, whether they are keen for a five mile trek or a twenty minute doddle, the idea that this wonderful natural area should be turned over to a profit making jamboree horrifies me.”
Andrew: “I do believe this COULD be a good thing if managed correctly. Ludlow is a tourist town and needs every bit of help it can get. If we oppose every new opportunity presented to us in Ludlow the town will wither and die.”
Melissa: “That’s great but what about the small businesses around? There is already a camping and caravan site at Monstay farm across the road from this proposed site do you want them to go out of business for a company that is part owned by the forestry commission, Lloyds business arm and an equity company that earnt 36.6 million last year.”
Julia: “This is very kind of thing half a million people voted against in the Save Our Forests Campaign in 2010. It’s privatisation through the back door. If we allow these developments we may lose our public forests.”
Terry: “It’s a good thing for the town all industry and opportunities that generate money for the area should be welcomed with open arms.”
Various: “This is greenspace in the public domain, not another commodity for venture capitalist to feast upon.” “This is beyond awful. It’s a beautiful forest that should be preserved.” “What a horrendous idea.” “The whole idea sounds both impractical and horrid.” “It needs to be in a controlled area at sensible prices to attract visitors and a much needed boost to the economy of the area.”
I remain sceptical about the benefits of the scheme. The promoters claim that it will create 50 jobs during construction. Once the resort is open another 43 FTE permanent jobs will be created at the site once it opens along with 47 FTE in the local economy. All these figures look on the high side to me. I am also concerned that once the site is operating, the jobs will be low paid and low skilled – though Forest Holidays says it pays above the minimum wage.
Forest Holidays claim that the site will pump £2.4million a year into the local economy. This is based on an average spend of £30,000 a year for each cabin – £3,000 a month based on a ten month occupancy rate. Although this looks on the high side, the cabins are expensive and the customer profile will be AB1. But to make £2.4m a year for the local economy, Forest Holidays itself will need to spend £360,000 on local suppliers and services, £5,300 a cabin. That again looks high. And Forest Holidays is not taking into account any trade damage to local B&Bs, hotels and holiday lets.
The customer profile and number of cabins means that it will attract visitors with large cars, possibly more than one car. The workers on the site will also use vehicles. That could add around two thousand vehicle journeys a week both on forest tracks and the narrow roads leading to the site, including Killhorse Lane and Whitcliffe Road. I don’t think this is sustainable and have asked Forest Holidays to consider committing a minibus to and from Ludlow during the day and evening, seven days a week.
Developments often pay the community infrastructure levy (CIL). But CIL in not charged in Herefordshire. Any money for local road improvements, should they be desirable, would have to be negotiated as a S106 agreement or offered by the developer as a unilateral undertaking.
The promoters say the scheme will not be seen from High Vinnalls. We won’t be able to check this until the full planning permission is published in the summer. Neither will be see an assessment of the schemes impact on the environment and biodiversity until that point.
Forest Holidays will have a 125-year lease on the site, beyond the life of the cabins. But use of the site will have been established and its character could change in the future. Forest Holidays could also be sold or merge with another company such as Centre Parcs. Nothing in the planning system can prevent this or insist that a new ownership has the same values as Forest Holidays. I worry that one scheme will be approved but another most destructive scheme could be negotiated by the new owners.
The jury is out on this scheme for me until we have a lot more information. I am not against holiday accommodation in the Mortimer Forest in principle. But my provisional view is that the benefits of this proposal are overstated and the scheme is too big for Ludlow.
A planning perspective
This development is in Herefordshire and Shropshire has no formal involvement, neither does Ludlow Town Council. Although my ward covers part of the Mortimer Forest, it is not directly affected by this development, except for traffic impacts.
I am not an expert on planning rules in Herefordshire but I can’t see anything in the county’s core strategy that prevents a development like this outright. Policy RA6 does say that developments which diversify the rural economy should be of a scale that are commensurate with its location and setting. The development must also not cause unacceptable adverse impacts to the amenity of nearby residents or generate traffic movements that cannot safely be accommodated within the local road network. However, policy E4 supports tourism facilities that promote Herefordshire as a “destination for quality leisure visits and sustainable tourism by utilising, conserving and enhancing the county’s unique environmental and heritage assets.” It also supports “sustainable tourism opportunities, capitalising on assets such as the county’s landscape, rivers, other waterways and attractive rural settlements, where there is no detrimental impact on the county’s varied natural and heritage assets or on the overall character and quality of the environment.” The policy encourages “new, accommodation and attractions throughout the county, which will help to diversify the tourist provision, extend the tourist season and increase the number of visitors staying overnight.”
The site has no environmental protections or other designations. It doesn’t qualify as “irreplaceable habitats including ancient woodland; aged or veteran trees”, which are given explicit protection in the draft revised NPPF published on Monday.
It will be very difficult under national planning rules to sustain an objection to loss of trade to existing businesses. There is also very little in the National Planning Policy Framework that could be used to oppose a scheme like this, other than its general presumption of sustainable development.
Part of the Forestry Commission’s case is that the scheme will improve the biodiversity and quality on Juniper Hill. The quality of the woodland and biodiversity on this site is currently poor. It is a dense conifer plantation dating to the 1980s with extensive self-seeding. The wood crop has not been thinned by the Forestry Commission which seems not to have managed the land properly. However, neglect is not usually a reason to block planning permission for unprotected sites.
. Forest Holidays have promised me data to back up the jobs claim but it has not yet been supplied.
. Even in Shropshire, CIL is only charged on housing, not commercial developments.
. It always surprises me that just 11% of the landscape is protected in Herefordshire compared to 33% in Shropshire.