Of the phrases most likely to cause concern for those who love our country houses, up there with ‘dry rot’, ‘water leak’ and ‘death duties’ has to be ‘enabling development’. Originally designed to protect heritage assets by permitting limited development to fund repairs, it appears to now be used to circumvent local and national planning guidelines to facilitate inappropriate development where it otherwise ought to be refused.
In Essex, perhaps one of the largest examples of its kind was submitted by the Sargeant family who bought St Osyth Priory in 1999 through their development company ‘City and Country Group‘ (CCG) . The company applied to build 190 houses as part of an enabling development to fund repairs to the main house and the other 22 listed buildings in the complex claiming that some £30m-worth of repairs were required (and personally I doubt the cost would be that high – happy to be proved wrong by an independent survey from a SPAB scholar). This number would naturally bolster the calculation for the total conservation deficit (that is, the amount by which the cost of repair (and conversion to optimum beneficial use if appropriate) of a significant place exceeds its market value on completion of repair and conversion, allowing for all appropriate development costs, but assuming a nil or nominal land value). But is this a case of a developer using the provisions of enabling development to gain permission regardless of the consequences for the house – and the local area?
After passing through various Royal hands, it was sold to Lord Darcy in 1553 and remained the home of various Earls, Viscounts, Lords and Baronets until it was eventually bought in 1954 by author Somerset de Chair who, in 1974, married Lady Juliet Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, daughter of the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam of Wentworth Woodhouse. The couple lived in the gatehouse, with much of the valuable Wentworth Woodhouse art collection, but de Chair died in 1995, so in 1999 Juliet married Dr. Christopher Tadgell and sold St Osyth to CCG and went to live in Bourne Park, near Canterbury.
CCG have a track record of taking on historic houses and have recently restored Balls Park, Hertfordshire and Herringswell Manor, Suffolk and previously Cheverells and Gilston Park – but these were easier to convert as they had all been used for other institutional or commercial purposes rather than as a family home. St Osyth Priory and related buildings have sad recent history of insufficient maintenance over many years and have been included on the various buildings at risk registers and undoubtedly needs significant work – but can the repair bill really be £30m (by comparison, the whole of St Paul’s Cathedral was recently restored for £40m)?
To play Devil’s advocate, perhaps this figure might be explained by the provisions of ‘enabling development’ which require that;
It is demonstrated that the amount of enabling development is the minimum necessary to secure the future of the place”
– ‘Enabling development and the conservation of significant places‘ English Heritage (2008)
…so to secure a development of sufficient size to make it profitable for CCG, it would need a suitably large repair bill to justify this (see letter from local resident). It has been suggested on the St Osyth Parish Council website that offering the house for sale (with just 20-acres rather than the full estate) is merely part of the process of proving that no-one is willing to take on the house and restore it and therefore the enabling development is the only option. In reality, for someone to invest that much in a house (purchase+restoration) they would expect an estate of at least 100-acres, if not two or three times that. The plans also seem inappropriate with regard to other provisions of the English Heritage guidance:
- It will not materially harm the heritage values of the place or setting.
- It avoids detrimental fragmentation of management of the place.
This all seems depressingly familiar where a developer ignores what’s best for the house, and, in this case, what seems to be determined to bloat the size of the local village in pursuit of this unpopular and out-sized scheme. An active and well-supported local campaign has been highlighting the various flaws of the scheme and the potential damage to the setting and the village if the scheme were to go ahead, but of course, it’s the house which is continuing to suffer.
In an ideal world, the house would be restored for much less than £30m thus showing that the scale of development proposed was unjustifiably large. This again would show that ‘enabling development’ is apparently being used as a means to try and circumvent the usual planning restrictions which are there to protect our heritage and countryside. Then perhaps one day the house with the full estate (hopefully once CCG realise they won’t get permission) will be offered for sale and someone will get the chance to take care of this important house and estate without sacrificing it for housing.
Property details: ‘St Osyth Priory, Essex‘ – Bidwells
More details: ‘Priory battle gathers pace‘ [Daily Gazette]