What is Brunel Park?

Brunel Park is the name of the former Dairy Crest depot in Totnes which closed in 2007 and has been derelict since. The eight-acre brownfield site is named after engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He designed the 1848 pumping station on site, which is Grade II listed in recognition of its historic interest as part of Brunel’s South Devon atmospheric railway.

Who owns Brunel Park?

Brunel Park was acquired by Essex-based company Fastglobe in January 2021 for £1.35 million from the previous owner Saputo, which acquired Dairy Crest in 2019. Fastglobe is a family-owned specialist contractor with offices across the UK. The £8.5m turnover business has a significant investment property portfolio of which Brunel Park is part.

What is the Brunel Park Partnership?

The Brunel Park Partnership is the name of the development team established by Fastglobe to deliver the regeneration of Brunel Park. It is led by locally based property consultant and developer, Patrick Gillies, who has been a Totnes resident for the past seven years and has significant experience spanning a 27-year career within the industry.

What are the plans for Brunel Park?

Brunel Park is a mixed-use regeneration scheme of a long-derelict brownfield site. At its heart will be the restored Brunel Building creating a hub for music, art and spaces for local community groups to use. The scheme will feature a mix of housing, business and artisan retail units, extensive green open space, a new walkway connecting to the riverside path and cycleway, and key flood attenuation as part of the town’s flood defence scheme.

Who will operate the Brunel Building community facility?

The building will be operated by a Community Interest Company (CIC) as an independent, not-for-profit community hub. The various uses of the facility will be shaped by the CIC in partnership with the local community but could include:

  • Spaces for local artists, performers and groups to host art, music, theatre and live workshops, classes and exhibitions
  • Restaurant and bar
  • Performance spaces
  • Public spaces for use by community groups such as toddler groups, exercise classes or for public meetings
  • Recording studios
  • Youth facility

What will happen to the iconic chimney on site?

The chimney will be restored and retained as an integral part of the scheme, and will overlook a planned new public piazza outside the Brunel Building with local shops and workspace.

How many new homes will there be?

The planning application proposes 79 new homes. These include 29 one-bedroomed apartments, 34 two and three bedroomed homes in terraced blocks, and 16 two and three-bedroomed terraced railway cottages fronting the main approach to the site by Totnes railway station.

How many affordable homes will there be?

It’s too early to say. The application is only at outline stage and the level of affordable housing will be determined by application of Vacant Building Credit to the scheme. This is a Government mechanism designed to support the development of brownfield sites, especially where there are significant abnormal costs associated with regeneration, as is the case here.

What is happening with the ecology on site?

One of the first actions of the Brunel Park Partnership was to employ professional ecologists to survey the site and ensure that as a minimum the new development achieves 10% net biodiversity gain, in line with Government policy. The hope is that the final scheme will significantly exceed this especially with the amount of green open space it includes. There are protected bat species roosting on site and the Brunel Park Partnership has already received planning permission from South Hams District Council for a ‘bat house’ to create an alternative roost. The green buffer that exists between the northern end of the site and the River Dart will be protected. No development is proposed there.

What are you doing to ensure the scheme is low carbon?

The Brunel Park Partnership is committed to using renewable technologies and sustainable materials wherever possible to mitigate carbon emissions. The aim is to create a new walkable neighbourhood for Totnes where local people can enjoy the community facilities and open spaces without needing the car, while the proximity to the station allows for sustainable transport options.

What are you doing about flooding?

The site forms an integral and important part of the Totnes town centre flood defence scheme and includes an area of floodplain that will occasionally flood in order to protect the rest of the town. Since April 2021 the Brunel Park Partnership has been working with expert consultants and the Environment Agency to enhance the existing flood attenuation plans for the town. This enhanced provision is to ensure that the flood defences can handle a one in a hundred year flood event. The floodplain will take the form of a lowered part of the site nearest the river, which can be used as green amenity space for most of the time but provides attenuation when required.

In a letter to Fastglobe’s planning consultants dated August 2022, the Environment Agency said: “From the information provided it appears that a development can be provided on this site which would be safe from flooding over its lifetime, not increase flood risk elsewhere and provide a betterment to Totnes.” The letter adds that because the flood modelling uses the latest available (2019) Climate Change allowances, the extent of flooding is worse than was considered under the previous scheme and therefore there is now less of the site available for development.

What has happened to the Community Right to Build Order that was previously being promoted for the site?

It has lapsed.  The Order was granted by South Hams District Council in March 2017. The Council confirmed in July 2021 that it had lapsed because no physical start on site had taken place within the order’s three-year time limit for work to begin.

Cllr Judy Pearce, Leader of South Hams District Council, said at the time: “Now the order has expired, a planning application for the site would have to be made to us as the planning authority. If this happens we would have to consider how any new application sought to deliver the aims of the Joint Local Plan policy on the site.”

“The expectation for the site in the adopted Joint Local Plan still supports a mixed use development on the site, including sensitive design, respect for the setting of heritage assets and habitat enhancement and address any constraints such as flooding or contamination.”

In a letter from the Head of Legal Services at South Hams District Council to Fastglobe’s solicitor in July 2021, the Council said it “accepted that the provisions of the Joint Local Plan that relate directly to the [Community Right to Build] Order are now out of date”.

The Brunel Park Partnership sought clarity on this point in the High Court, which confirmed on 15th October 2021 that the original order has lapsed and that a fresh and separate planning permission would be required to lawfully develop the site.

The Brunel Park Partnership’s planning application is in line with the relevant provisions of the Joint Local Plan.

What about the Neighbourhood Plan?

In October 2021 Totnes Town Council resolved to pause the Neighbourhood Plan examination process to consult on a proposed new policy (called C12) for Brunel Park.

It argued that the previous proposals for the site, which had been subject to the Community Right to Build Order but were never begun, should not be lost and should therefore be added to the Neighbourhood Plan. It launched a consultation about the proposal.

The Brunel Park Partnership wrote to the Town Council on 26th November 2021 pointing out that adding such a policy to the Neighbourhood Plan would impose a straightjacket on the site by seeking to impose a form of development which is demonstrably commercially unviable.

This would perpetuate blight and dereliction rather than encourage an alternative and deliverable mixed-use regeneration scheme, as envisaged in the Joint Local Plan and that will support the vitality of Totnes.

The letter to the Council also points out that such a move could put the Council in breach of a raft of planning regulations. The full letter can be read here.

In March 2022, Totnes Town Council extended the pause in the examination of the Neighbourhood Plan for a further three months in order for legal advice to be considered.

On 6th September there will be a public hearing conducted by the independent examiner of the Totnes Neighbourhood Development Plan.

Were the Community Right to Build Order proposals ever going to happen?

According to an independent report jointly commissioned by the supporters of the previous scheme (the Totnes Community Development Society) and the then site owners, Dairy Crest, the plans were not commercially viable.

The Valuation Advisory report carried out by international property experts JLL and published in May 2019 concluded that the site, if developed as then planned, would result in a land value of negative £55.35 million because of the significant development costs involved, which were then calculated at £66.88m.

The JJL reports states (para 7.4, page 31):

We have undertaken a residual appraisal of the proposed scheme having regard to comparable evidence in order to arrive at the gross development value [GDV] and adopting the construction costs set out in Mace’s cost estimate. The development costs are significantly in excess of the GDV which results in the appraisal showing a residual land value of negative [JLL’s emphasis] £55,350,000. This demonstrates that the proposed scheme is not currently commercially viable [our emphasis] which is in part due to the high costs of the enabling works and groundworks required to provide migration in respect to flood risk and the ecological constraints and to meet the requirements of key statutory agencies (Environment Agency and Natural England), the high specification for the development and the low values of the proposed land uses.

A full copy of the JLL report is available here.

Please note that the JLL analysis excludes finance costs (interest on borrowing and loan set up costs) from their analysis.

The Totnes Community Development Society Limited’s (TCDS) most recent available annual return and accounts to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which are published on the FCA’s website and dated 29 July 2022, state (page 15) that in the year ended 31st December 2021, the society was overdrawn by £635,690, with unsecured (mostly interest-bearing) loans totalling £540,000. The society said (page 21) it had agreed extensions to repayment deadlines on a £70,000 loan to November 2022, and on three other loans totalling £300,000 to July 2023.

Auditors PKF Francis Clark state in the report that in their professional opinion “a material uncertainty exists that may cast significant doubt on the society’s ability to continue as a going concern”. They state (page 10):

Material uncertainty related to going concern

We draw attention to note 1 in the financial statements, which sets out the circumstances resulting in the net current liabilities at the balance sheet date of £635,690 and the society’s reliance on the continued support of loan funders. These conditions, along with other matters set forth in note 1, indicate that a material uncertainty exists that may cast significant doubt on the society’s ability to continue as a going concern. Our opinion is not modified in respect of this matter.

The same auditors have expressed the same opinion in the Society’s last three annual returns which can be viewed on the FCA website, under the ‘Documents’ tab.

The report also states (page 17) that total TCDS expenditure on the Dairy Crest project at 31 December 2021 was £1,168,394.

But didn’t the JLL report find that the site could deliver some positive value?

Not from the Community Right to Build Order scheme.

JLL looked at three scenarios. One was the Community Right to Build Order scheme, which resulted in the £55m negative valuation outlined above. The two other scenarios resulted in an estimated market value of £450,000 and £460,000.

But these higher valuations do not relate to the development proposed under the Community Right to Build Order, which the study found was not commercially viable. Instead they looked at alternative scenarios with a more commercial approach, which resulted in a positive market value.

So if the former scheme was unviable how is yours different?

By reducing costs (in some places) and increasing income (in others), sensitive regeneration of the site can be achieved alongside substantial benefits including community use of the Brunel Building, new jobs, new homes, open space and flood prevention. It’s about having the right mix of uses in the right proportions to make the overall scheme viable, and that is what is proposed. The added complication is that the new flood risk assessment reduces the area of land available for regeneration, but the mix of uses now proposed, and the quantum of development, take account of this.

What will happen next?

The Brunel Park Partnership has submitted a revised planning application to South Hams District Council. This includes a full planning application for permission for the change of use of the Brunel Building to provide community space and an outline planning application for the mixed use redevelopment of the site including approximately 79 residential dwellings (a mixture of houses and apartments), and 10 commercial/retail units providing around 1,100 sq m of space. A planning application for the bat house was made in March 2022 and this has already been approved.