Plans backed by the man who co-founded the Eden Project for a considerable tourist hotspot near the M5 in Mid Devon, including a surf lake, lagoon and beach, are ‘past their sell-by date’. While the Mid Devon District Council (MDDC) Local Plan 2013-2033 had an allocation on a site of approximately 71 hectares adjoining the southbound carriageway of the motorway adjacent to junction 27 for major development, grand plans put forward by the team behind the Eden Project have stagnated.
Sir Tim Smit, the man behind the Eden Project as well as promoter Malcolm Dudley Williams, had backed plans to create a £200million surf lake and a ‘mini’ Eden Project. It is a partnership project by the Eden Project and investors Friends Life, part of the Aviva Group.
Richard Marsh, director of place at MDDC, explained at an economy meeting on Thursday, March 17, that the local plan included a major high-quality regional tourism, leisure, and retail development at the junction 27 site. He said: “It’s expected or outlined within the plan that this will be supported by ancillary roadside services and associated supporting infrastructure. The plan itself is particularly prescriptive in terms of the process through which development needs to come forward with regard to planning policy.
“Since the adoption of the local plan, progress on the scheme at junction 27 has been slower than would have been anticipated. Progress has undoubtedly been influenced by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and by uncertainties and market changes that have been driven by it. As such, no plans have progressed for the site and landowners, or interested parties have no progressed plans that would be necessary to facilitate the site’s development.
“Discussions with some of the landowners and interested parties more recently suggest that some development interest does remain at junction 27, but it certainly can be questioned as to whether development would come forwards in the manner that was initially seen when the previous local plan was adopted That, therefore, opens a question as to whether the council and parties should reflect on what the form of development would look like now were it to come forward.”
He said interest in the site remained and work ongoing from the Eden Project team, who had secured £225k from community renewal fund money to work towards proposals towards their component of the site and broader proposals. Mr Marsh continued: “Whilst Mid Devon does not have any direct land interest, we do have interest in development from the perspective of the development of the district as a whole. It’s therefore, in the interest of the district to be involved in positively shaping any development that comes forward in due course to make sure that it meets the needs and expectations of residents, businesses, visitors alike.”
He added that MDDC was seeking to take a proactive role in engaging landowners to understand development aspirations and progress any schemes in the future. “In due course, engagement will widen to include businesses and residents more widely and clearly,” he said. “There is also a relationship with the new local plan, which is currently in development. Therefore, officers will need to be mindful of the discussions we have and the timetable to make sure that we’re running the two aspects in side-by- side.”
Councilors expressed disappointment that original plans put forward for Eden Westwood were now not going ahead. This included the Eden Ark at the center of the scheme that would be split into four zones and have a hotel, a visitor hub, an artificial surfing lake, a food hall, outdoor play areas, cafes and restaurants, shops for small businesses and a designer clothes outlet discount shopping centre. The surf lagoon would be at the heart of the outdoor adventure zone, similar to Surf Snowdonia in Wales.
Councillor Christine Collis (Canonsleigh, Conservative) said: “They’ve raised 225k for new plans because the plans for the surfing park and everything else that went with it are a bit past their sell-by date now. Everybody was so blinded with the euphoria of what could be that now that it’s failed, everybody’s wondering what will happen.”
She said it was now vital to encourage high paying jobs to Mid Devon. Cllr Collis said: “When we’re looking at proposals, we have to think of the pay. In the hospitality industry and in shops that would have been there, it’s very low pay. House prices are getting out of control, and first- time buyers can’t even think of having one. We need to be looking realistically at what goes there so that people can earn a decent wage to buy a decent house within the area.”
She said homes in Sampford Peverell were only giving the go-ahead on the provision that development would take place at junction 27 and ‘all the wondrous things it was going to produce.’ She added: “Now it’s not here; there will be houses built that nobody in the village can afford.
“When plans go in, and housing developers say that they’re going to build so many affordable houses, we know that once that’s passed, they come back at us and say there’s no way they could build that amount. They start pinching out the number of affordable houses they’re going to build.
Mr Marsh responded: “Everybody is aware that the market conditions now are different from where they were before. Passage of time means that it makes sense to look again and make sure that those plans are robust and realistic.
“Regarding wages, I completely agree. Clearly, different sectors pay in different ways, but we know that hospitality and retail are one of the lower-paying sectors. One of the things we need to do is consider retail demand, whether the market exists still for that type of use, and therefore will need to be aware of that.”
Cllr John Downes (Boniface, Liberal Democrats) said: “We’re all disappointed at the scale of the development as was proposed to this council and then the delay of the last local plan to include it. We all want to know why, and we want to know what can be done to bring it back to the scale that was proposed.
Mr Marsh responded: “The land will always need to broadly stay within that parameter as a regional attractor destination. We’re looking at something which maintains that concept.
“There’s a vast amount of interest around the district in various sectors. We also know that the district has significant strengths in certain areas, agriculture being one.
“Therefore there are types of businesses who know the district, understand the district, and we could reasonably expect they would be looking into this area. We know that there’s operational interest from some of the businesses that are already there; the service station, for example.
“I’m not overly concerned about the need or the challenge of going out and engaging people. When we’re clearer about the development as a whole, we will be in a strong position to engage more widely.”
Cllr Barry Warren (Lower Culm, Conservative) said that areas surrounding junction 27 had expanded, making considerations to anything developed more challenging. He said: “Junction 27 feed Willand and Halberton, and while this has all been stagnating, Hitchcocks Business Park has been expanding and is still expanding.
“We’ve got phase two of the Mid Devon Business Park coming, and if we’re not careful with what goes on closer to junction 27, you may badly affect the transport down to these other areas. What was proposed for junction 27 previously probably wouldn’t be fit for purpose now with the other developments that have been allowed at Hitchcocks and the Mid Devon Business Park at Willand.”
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