A tangle of conflicting interests raises questions over how developers have managed to push forward plans to build a new supermarket and a McDonald’s on a wildlife corridor on the outskirts of Helston in Cornwall.
In 2019, Helston Town Council declared a climate emergency and announced that Helston was becoming an ‘Earth Protector Town’, a move warmly welcomed by many residents.
So there were not a few raised eyebrows when it emerged last year that a charitable trust whose trustees consist entirely of Helston town councillors had agreed the sale of around two hectares of undeveloped grassland at Hospital Cross, on the outskirts of the town, to developers.
The green space on the town’s southern edge is part of a wildlife corridor between the Penrose Estate and the Helford Valley, and provides habitat for wildlife including badgers, owls, deer and sparrowhawks. As undeveloped grassland with a variety of mature trees and old hedgerows, it also sequesters a large amount of carbon, estimated at up to 1000 tons.
Inevitably, covering this land with concrete and tarmac in order to create a new Aldi, a McDonald’s, a Range home and leisure store, and a drive-through Costa coffee outlet will add significantly to the town’s carbon emissions. Helston Climate Action Group points out that “Cornwall has been chosen as one of five areas in the country to trial the development of a Nature Recovery Plan, for which an important concept is the preservation and creation of Nature Recovery Networks. This proposed development could seriously set back such efforts in this region of Cornwall.”
Cornwall Council announced in February that the proposed development would not need an environmental impact survey, despite the Council’s own screening report noting: “It is a greenfield site which is agricultural land Grade 3a. In addition to the loss of open fields there would be an impact on the existing hedges and biodiversity. ” As the plan of the proposed development makes clear, “an impact” is a very considerable understatement, unless local fauna are expected to somehow adapt to life in a busy car park.
Campaigners also say that yet another out-of-town supermarket and more fast-food outlets will take away custom from small businesses in the town centre. Helston is already amply served by major supermarkets, with large Sainsburys, Tesco and Lidl stores all located on the town’s outskirts.
The Helston Downsland Charity, which owns the land, was set up 200 years ago (it was originally called the Helston Allotment In Aid of Poor Rates) and its stated aim is to further “such charitable purposes for the general benefit of the inhabitants of the area as the trustees may from time to time see fit”. It does this principally by providing grants to local organisations and good causes, and for most of this time it has carried on this work without controversy.
In 2002, however, serious irregularities were found in its accounts. An investigation discovered that the trust had been defrauded to the tune of more than £300,000 by its clerk, a former solicitor who was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison. A Charity Commission report found that this had been allowed to happen “as a result of minimal supervision and a lack of accountability” at the charity.
At the time, the charity said that it planned to change its constitution so that town councillors did not automatically become trustees, and that other independent people would be brought onto the board. But this does not appear to have happened, and the trust’s relationship with the town council is still remarkably close. The chair of the charity, Tim Grattan-Kane, is also the chair of the town council and mayor of Helston, and all of the eight people currently listed as trustees are also town councillors. Among these is Councillor Miles Kenchington, chair of Helston Town Council’s planning committee and deputy mayor.
The charity’s governing document does not seem to have been updated since 1991, and it still states that all Helston town councillors are automatically also trustees of the charity. Despite this, new councillors becoming trustees of the Downsland Charity are not offered any training on what it means to be a trustee of a charity. Nor have the new Helston councillors elected on 6 May been shown a copy of the contract that the Downsland Charity has made with the would-be developers of the land at Hospital Cross. It seems there has been no meeting of the trustees since the sale was agreed.
Moreover, we understand that the clerk of the town council, Pamela Lavelle, recently wrote to councillors to inform them that Mr Grattan-Kane has spoken to the Charity Commission, who advised him that all councillors are also ex officio trustees of the Downsland Charity. Although this information matches what is stated in the charity’s constitution, it also conflicts with the list of trustees on the Charity Commission website, which lists only eight trustees and does not include Helston Town Council as a corporate body.
Ms Lavelle, after consulting the Monitoring Officer at Cornwall Council and the Cornwall Association of Local Councils (CALC), emailed Helston town councillors to say:
‘For the above reasons I must advise that Helston Town Council should make no comment regarding a planning application for the hospital cross development if/ when it is submitted. I would also recommend that Councillors do not make any comment regarding the development. If/ when a planning application is submitted we will make the public aware of how they can comment on the process. I must also advise that should any Councillor feel the need to participate in the application process in any form including as an individual or as part of another organisation they would not be covered by an indemnity from Helston Town Council.’
We also understand that Mr Grattan-Kane has emailed new councillors who have become new de facto Downsland trustees to give advice that some of these councillors found somewhat intimidating.
The email, apparently sent from Mr Grattan-Kane’s town council email address, implies that councillors may become individually liable if they act to undermine a contract made between a property developer and the Downsland Charity. This could include opposing any planning application made by the developers wanting to build on the site at Hospital Cross.
One councillor told West Country Bylines:
“This email was sent only to the six new councillors, several of whom are strongly opposed to the development at Hospital Cross. It feels not just like an attempt to silence us, but also to stop us acting as effective trustees. We have been offered no induction into our duties as trustees of a charity, we haven’t been shown the contract in question and repeated attempts to call a meeting of the trustees to discuss this situation have been prevented by the chair.”
The “advice” sent by Mr Grattan-Kane references a phone conversation between himself and a solicitor named Greg Adams of the Helston-based firm Randle Thomas. Mr Adams is understood to have acted as a legal adviser both to the charity and to the town council.
Whether or not Mr Grattan-Kane’s advice is correct, this situation clearly puts Helston town councillors who wish to object to the proposed development in an extremely awkward position. They have, effectively, been told by the chair of the council that even if they think their constituents’ interests are not best served by a development that damages the local environment and adds to carbon emissions, they cannot speak out against it without potentially becoming personally liable for any loss to the developers. And the sums involved are not small.
The arrangement that the trust has made with the developers, Parsonage Developments, is a so-called ‘option agreement’. This gives the developer the option to buy the land, reportedly for a sum of £1.5 million, if planning permission can be obtained on it. Parsonage is understood to have paid a non-refundable £10,000 ‘option fee’, and on 16 July it announced that it had put in a planning application to Cornwall Council.
Nearly two months later, this application is still not available to view on Cornwall Council’s planning portal, having been delayed by what the council describes as “minor administrative matters”, although the screening opinion that determined there to be no need for an environmental impact assessment can be seen here.
Two Helston councillors are believed to have resigned as trustees of the charity as a result of the invidious position in which they have been placed. It may be that more will follow, and it is certainly hard to see how the extremely cosy relationship between the charity and the council does not create the conditions for conflicts of interest to arise.
At the very least, councillors need to be able to speak out on matters that impact on the lives of their constituents and on the on local environment that Helston Town Council has pledged to protect.
And Mr Grattan-Kane, chair of both the Downsland Charity and of Helston Town Council, owes the people of Helston a full and transparent explanation as to why the charity has decided to condemn a greenfield site to destruction at the hands of profit-driven developers, and why their elected representatives have been told they are forbidden from expressing any view on this state of affairs.
Since this article was published we have been contacted by Ms Lavelle, Town Clerk for Helston Town Council, who has provided the text of the email she sent to councillors advising on the Hospital Cross situation.
Ms Lavelle comments:
“As you can see there is quite a difference in telling Councillors they cannot comment to telling them they cannot object and it appears to imply bias on my part which does not exist. I would therefore be grateful if you can issue a correction at your earliest opportunity.
I would also just like to clarify that officers of the Town Council are not involved in the decisions made by the Council nor the running of the Downsland Trust and have no involvement in the legal arrangements between the Downsland Trust and any outside organisation.
It is also worth noting that under the Code of Conduct Councillors should not have reached any decision prior to an item being discussed at a meeting or they are considered predetermined and a decision could be legally challenged. The article refers to ‘Councillors who wish to object to the application’ and these could be considered predetermined.”
We are happy to publish Ms Lavelle’s correction and have amended the text of the article above to include the wording of her email to councillors.