FROME campaigners are celebrating after plans to redevelop a major town centre site were quashed by the High Court.

The Acorn Property Group and Mayday Saxonvale put forward competing visions for the redevelopment of the Saxonvale site, which lies near the River Frome in the town centre.

Mayday Saxonvale launched a judicial review after the Acorn scheme was granted outline planning permission, claiming that Mendip District Council had not followed its own planning policies correctly when it made this decision.

The High Court has now ruled in Mayday’s favour – meaning the outline planning consent for the Acorn scheme has been torn up.

Acorn has expressed disappointment in the decision and has pledged to put its plans forward again for approval.

Somerset County Gazette: Mayday Saxonvale protesters in Shepton Mallet.Mayday Saxonvale protesters in Shepton Mallet. (Image: Mayday Saxonvale)

Here’s everything you need to know:

Where is the Saxonvale site?

The Saxonvale site lies in the heart of Frome town centre, being bordered by the River Frome to the north, the Merchant’s Barton car park to the west, the existing properties on Vicarage Street to the south and the town’s Lidl store to the east.

The 12-acre site is currently sealed off to the public, but has road access leading into it from two sides: Garsdale to the east and Saxonvale itself to the west (near the Silk Mill Studios).

Saxonvale was purchased by Mendip District Council in 2018, with the council purchasing land that once belonged to Notts Industries and Terramond.

Since then, the council has been working with the Acorn Property Group to bring forward sensitive proposals to regenerate the area.

The site is allocated within the Mendip Local Plan Part II (which has since been carried over to Somerset Council) to deliver a minimum of 250 homes along with commercial space and additional town centre car parking.

Somerset County Gazette: An artist's impression of the Mayday Saxonvale scheme in Frome, looking north.An artist's impression of the Mayday Saxonvale scheme in Frome, looking north. (Image: Mayday Saxonvale)

What are the rival proposals for the site?

There are two rival proposals to redevelop the Saxonvale site – one put forward by the Acorn Property Group, the other by Mayday Saxonvale.

Acorn – which has offices in Bath and Bristol – proposes building 300 homes on the site, of which 24 per cent (the equivalent of 72 properties) will be affordable.

The site will also include at least 45,000 sq ft of “flexible commercial space” (including restaurants, cafés and shops) and a co-working office scheme (providing 25,000 sq ft of workspace), creating up to 500 new local jobs.

The plans also include a riverside park and a bridge to link the Saxonvale site to Willow Vale, Rodden Meadow and the existing cycle route, which links the site to Frome railway station.

Mayday Saxonvale (a not-for-profit group based in Frome) proposes a much smaller number of homes for the site, topping out at 182 rather than 300.

It promises that 40 per cent of these will be affordable (the equivalent of 73 properties) – much higher than Acorn has managed to achieve.

Additionally, the Mayday plans will include more than 118,000 sq ft of employment space, with “a wide mix of different spaces for new and established businesses and organisations”, ranging from live/work units to retail outlets.

The site will also include a hotel and spa, a music and performance space, a lido and a riverside park with a connection towards Willow Vale and Rodden Meadow.

Why was there a judicial review?

Frustrated with Mendip District Council’s approach, Mayday Saxonvale director Damon Moore lodged a judicial review against the council in February, which was given permission to proceed in May.

This judicial review (which was heard by the High Court) contended that the council did not follow its own planning policies when it granted permission to the Acorn scheme by allowing fewer affordable homes and a lower-than-acceptable amount of employment space.

Somerset Council – which replaced the district council in April – contested the judicial review, and put on hold any negotiations with Mayday Saxonvale until the outcome was known.

Somerset County Gazette: More than 200 Mayday Saxonvale supporters gathered at the site in Frome in May.More than 200 Mayday Saxonvale supporters gathered at the site in Frome in May. (Image: Garfield Austin)

What did the High Court Say?

Mr Justice Jay heard the judicial review at the High Court on October 3, and published his ruling in full on October 12.

The crux of the matter centres around the council’s planning policy CP6, which dictates that 11,850 sq m of employment space must be provided within the Frome during the life of the Local Plan Part II – of which “at least half” (5,925 sq m) must come from the Saxonvale site.

The Acorn scheme only allow for 4,181 sq m of commercial case – something which, the judge argued, would have been reason enough not to grant planning permission.

He said: “Given that 4,181 sq m is less than 5,925 sq m, and that no reason was given by the planning officer for departing from the development plan, the only proper course on this premise was to have refused this planning application.

“Given that Saxonvale comprises at least 80 per cent of the Frome town centre development area, it is hardly surprising that local planners should be insisting that at least half of the 11,850 sq m requirement should be met within Saxonvale.

“The planning permission granted [to Acorn] on August 30, 2022 must be quashed.”

How has Mayday Saxonvale reacted to the news?

Mr Moore said he was “incredibly happy” with the decision and looked forward to working with the council to make the Mayday vision a reality.

He said: “The decision by the judge acknowledges the critical importance
of Saxonvale in providing a genuine town centre extension.

“Not only has our economic future as a town been protected, but I feel we are on the cusp of a momentous step forward with Frome leading the way towards an alternative, community-led development model.

“We are now one step closer to realising the right plan for Saxonvale which meets Frome’s housing, social, environmental, cultural and employment priorities.

“With the judicial review behind us, we look forward to sitting down with the council to progress our alternative plan in due course.”

How has Acorn responded to the decision?

The Acorn Property Group has expressed disappointment in the High Court’s decision – and said it intended to resubmit its outline planning application for the development as soon as possible.

Strategic partnerships manager Amy Proctor said: “We are disappointed with the outcome of the judicial review, which ultimately centred on a procedural technicality.

“We have spent the last five years working hard to deliver a scheme that will completely transform this redundant site, with much needed new homes, including 72 affordable homes for Frome, and over 45,000 sq ft of office, retail and community space.

“For more than two decades it has lain vacant, having faced ongoing challenges at the planning stage. The technical challenges for this site cannot be underestimated and events like this will only cause further delay.

“Like so many of the residents of Frome, we are all keen for development to commence. We remain positive and pleased to be in a contractual relationship with Somerset Council, which continues to be very supportive.

“We now look forward to bringing the scheme back through the planning system, and we will continue to work with stakeholders. Our scheme is sustainable and of benefit to the community of Frome.”

The developer has not confirmed whether its reserved matters application for the riverside park will be withdrawn until a new decision on the outline permission for the entire scheme has been taken.

How has Frome’s new MP reacted?

Sarah Dyke has been the Liberal Democrat MP for Somerton and Frome for three months, following her emphatic by-election victory in July.

Following her maiden speech in the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon (October 17), Ms Dyke said the decision over how to move forward with regenerating the site had to be done with the best interest of Frome residents at heart.

Ms Dyke said: “So far, the future of the Saxonvale site been an emotionally charged and political issue. Given the result of the judicial review, it is more vital than ever that stakeholders take stock and consider a way forward.

“Everyone in Frome has a vested interest in making the right choice for the town. Any development must evidence that it is viable and should balance housing need, commercial space and recreation.

“It must also deliver the best connectivity possible between the development and the town centre. The opportunity to enhance this beautiful town in the short-term but secure its sustainability well into the future must not be delayed.

“The worst possible outcome is for this site is for it to be left undeveloped for decades to come.

“Frome deserves an exemplar project, and everyone involved wants the optimal outcome for the town. Ideally this needs to be achieved in the shortest time possible and with the least animosity.

“It is now down to the council to work with both Mayday Saxonvale and Acorn to ensure the best outcome for Frome as quickly as possible.

“In addition, Mayday Saxonvale must now demonstrate that they have the capability and financial wherewithal to proceed as Saxonvale cannot be allowed to continue as an empty site.

“I have always been committed to ensuring we get the best possible outcome for Frome and the people who live in the town. This always has been and always will be my number one priority.

“Frome expects movement without further delay.”

How has the council responded – and what happens next?

Somerset Council is in a unique position in the Saxonvale affair, since it is both the local planning authority and the owner of the site.

While the council’s planning department could sign off on the Mayday plans in the near-future, the council-as-landowner would still have a contract with Acorn to develop the site.

The precise terms of the contract have not been made public – meaning we do not know how much it would cost the council to end its partnership with Acorn if councillors decided to proceed with the Mayday plans.

Any final decision on the sale of the land to either party would have to come before the council’s executive committee for final approval.

A spokesman said: “We are always disappointed if the courts decide we got a decision wrong, so we will be carefully considering the technical issues on which this judgement hinged before deciding on our next steps.”