HorseWorld future in doubt after planning refusal

Horseworld artist impressionThe future of HorseWorld’s visitor centre is uncertain after yesterday’s decision by B&NES Development Control committee to ignore a planning officer’s recommendation and refuse permission to redevelop its site at Whitchurch.

Faced with a mounting equine crisis, the 60 year old charity has been called on to rescue record number of horses in recent times while suffering a 60% drop in donations to pay for its running costs. The visitor centre, opened a dozen years ago is now the charity’s principal source of income and with 100,000 visitors a year, is the fourth largest attraction in Bath & North East Somerset. With the site now at capacity and beginning to show its age, HorseWorld came forward with ambitious plans for a new visitor centre built around a covered arena, to enable it to save on running costs and develop visitor numbers further in future.  To pay for the redevelopment, 125 houses were proposed on the site of the existing visitor centre.

Managing Director Mark Owen told committee members this was a critical moment for HorseWorld. “It is either the start of a new dawn or the end of 60 years of caring for horses” he told them. If permission was not granted, HorseWorld would close, two thirds of the staff would be made redundant and the visitor centre site would have to be sold. “Charity commission rules dictate that we would have to sell to the highest bidder and that would almost certainly mean a developer” he warned.

He explained that the charity had already cut its overheads by £400,000 a year but was being called on to rescue increasing numbers of horses. Care and welfare costs had risen to the extent that the charity has been using up to £300,000 of its cash reserves for the last three years – a situation that could no longer be sustained. Referring to B&NES emerging Core Strategy, in which the council has agreed to remove land from the green belt in Whitchurch for 200 homes, Mr Owen said that this application could not wait. “I am not asking for planning permission to bail out HorseWorld but to implement part of a business plan for a sustainable future.”

Speaking against the proposal, Mary Walsh from the Whitchurch Village Action Group accused the council of treating HorseWorld more favourably than other residents by recommending approval of the scheme.  Mark Broomfield, a Staunton Lane resident claimed the traffic created by the new visitor centre and the extra houses would cause chaos in and around Whitchurch and challenged the findings of the council highways team in their report.

B&NES Council planning officer Daniel Stone explained that the application’s main hurdle to overcome was the green belt location. However, there were very special conditions whereby if the benefits can be proved to outweigh the harm,  greenbelt land can be developed. He advised the committee that the plan for 125 homes only included provision for 10% to be affordable, as opposed to the required 35%. A ‘claw back’ clause had been agreed with the developer however which would allow a higher proportion of affordable homes to become available should the financial projections be exceeded or land values increased.

But the committee was not convinced. While several of the members had clearly been unable to understand the distinction between HorseWorld’s charitable work and the financial contribution of its visitor centre business, the major concerns were whether the ‘very special conditions’ had indeed been met and the fact that only 10% of the houses would be affordable. They also found difficulty in agreeing with the highways department’s traffic modelling in the area and voted by a majority of 10 to 2 to refuse the application.

Quite where this leaves B&NES’ own core strategy or the residents of Whitchurch is unclear. The government inspector now requires the B&NES to identify specific parcels of land to be taken out of the green belt in accordance with the core strategy revisions agreed by the council in February.  Ironically, a public consultation event took place in Whitchurch the previous evening. In rejecting the HorseWorld application, the development control committee was at least consistent, having previously refused two other schemes to build on the green belt in Whitchurch.  One of those applications, for 49 homes off Sleep Lane, was later allowed on appeal, while the other, for 200 houses off Orchard Lane, is currently at appeal.  Consequently Whitchurch is going to have at least 200 new houses somewhere in the next 15 years. As for the staff at HorseWorld, the long term future is not so assured.