Roller coaster ride for St Albans campaigners trying to save neighbourhood green
- Credit: Archant
Families fighting to save a communal green have lost their battle after developers withdrew from a deal at the 11th hour.
Residents of the Wynches Farm Drive estate believed they had won a fight to stop Taylor Wimpey (TW) auctioning off a piece of land next to their homes.
The precious space is used for children playing, families picnicking and other community activities, but neighbours feared a new owner would fence it off and leave it to become a wasteland.
Since news of the auction circulated just over a week ago, residents had been lobbying TW to withdraw the lot and instead sell the land to either St Albans district council (SADC) or themselves.
TW initially agreed and offered it to SADC for just £1 - but the council turned it down.
Deputy chief executive for development at SADC, Richard Shwe, said the council would not be prepared to take on the site without a financial contribution from TW for its future maintenance.
He said its upkeep would be a considerable and recurring expense to the taxpayer: “They suddenly contacted us again [after negotiations before March] to offer us the land, but without any mention of the required commitment to undertake the remedial work or pay a commuted sum. We, of course, declined.”
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TW then gave the same £1 offer to the residents of Wynches Farm Drive, with an exchange deadline of “before the auction”.
The neighbours also needed to cough up £3,000 to cover TW’s legal and auctioneer’s fees, and Wynches Farm Drive residents’ own legal fees bumped up the outlay to £10,000.
This contract included a covenant protecting the open or recreational space in perpetuity.
As part of the agreement, TW also asked the residents to reverse negative media publicity surrounding the site as far as they could.
In order to buy the land, seven of the residents hurriedly became directors of a joint company called Wynches Farm Green Limited, with the view of creating a trust when they had time.
The contracts and legal documents were not ready until late in the day on May 30 - a day before the auction - and the newfound company raced to sign the deeds, arriving at 4.50pm.
All ready at 5.30pm, the new directors say TW only then announced the deadline was 5pm and had passed.
Businesswoman Natalie Henderson, 45, has lived opposite the green for eight years: “It was very difficult. We didn’t leave anything to the last minute, we acted as fast as we could and as soon as the contract was ready. At the end of the day we were not given enough time.
“I feel absolutely gutted because so much time and energy has been put into this and we don’t know if it will end up in someone else’s hands.”
Two of the directors went to the auction to bid on the land, but Natalie was not hopeful.
At the time, she said: “We are trying to buy it to stop it being sold to a developer. It’s our only option now, but we are assuming that the bidding will end up getting much more expensive than we can afford. It could go for £100,000.
“If it gets sold we will fight to stop anyone applying for planning permission.”
In the end, the land was sold for £86,500 to a buyer interested in parcels of land in the south east of England. Wynches Farm Green Limited will now be dissolved.
Natalie said they are in the process of applying to SADC to make the site an asset of community value. This means if it is up for sale again, the community is given six months to prepare an acquisition bid.
The land has a troubled past - a play area specified in the original 1991 Wynches Farm Drive estate planning application was never created.
In 2009, during a rejected appeal over a planning application for a three bedroom house, it was deemed the play area was actually not necessary but that the green was “a key prominent area of landscaping amenity open space”.
A TW spokesperson said: “Prior to the auction we offered local residents the opportunity to purchase the land that we currently own off Wynches Farm Drive in St Albans for a nominal fee.
“Unfortunately contracts were not exchanged before the scheduled auction.”