Interview with Tony Molesworth for yourChesham.
By Andrew Ketteringham
Tony Molesworth and his family moved to Chesham almost 35 years ago and in 2011 he became chair of the Chesham Society. It was in that capacity that he went along, in April 2011, to hear Chiltern District Council submit to the planning inspector its plan for building new homes in the area. That plan was thrown out and CDC was told to come back with something better. That experience led Tony and fellow Chesham Society members to conclude that, rather than a threat, the government requirement plan could prove to be a major boost to Chesham, provided new homes were built within the town boundary, not on Green Belt, and with appropriate new infrastructure to support the growing population.
By 2017 a new company, Chesham Renaissance, had been formed to produce a Masterplan for growth and regeneration of the town. Tony became the Chairman of the new company and I spoke with him at his home, shortly after Christmas.
It’s a year now since you completed the consultation on the Masterplan. Can you remind us of the result? There was overwhelming support for a plan which would build new dwellings within the town centre and replace the existing car parks with multi storey car parking. 70% supported the overall approach, while only 10% did not. That might have been surprising for a plan which was for high density and affordable homes but people could see that the influx of people into the town centre could change the economics of the High Street and, provided transport and other infrastructure projects were built, give the town the boost it so desperately needs – including employment prospects. It was also clear there was no support for the Council proposal to build new homes on Green Belt land at the top of Nashleigh Hill; 73% said ‘no’ to that.
That was very encouraging but what’s happened since then? We’ve been doing a lot of detailed implementation planning and have established around 16 individual projects which can in time be submitted as planning applications. We’ve established good working relationships with the local authorities and started discussions with the major housing providers working in the town. In addition we have made an application for central government funding. The continuing delay to the District Plan has not stopped us from getting on with finding sources of funding for our plans.
What has been the cost of the work so far and who has provided the funding? The cost so far is £237,000, most of which was spent on the production of a Masterplan, the transport survey and the public consultation. Not a penny of that has come from the public purse. The money has come from local investors, from loans made by some of the directors and some debt. Costs have been contained by most directors not charging for any of the considerable amount of time they have had to devote to the project.
What’s going to happen next? We have to appoint an ‘implementation company’ to help us put our plans together, initially focussing on one or two of the 16 projects, seek permission for the plan or plans and start building. We expect to start discussions with a company before the end of January; I can’t make public yet the name of the company but it is local and has a very fine record of home building. We are also going to commission a third stage of the Masterplan, covering all areas of the town and identifying how we can eventually provide 2,000 new dwellings, including the 650 proposed for the town centre. Transport, parking and infrastructure will feature highly in all of the immediate plans.
Chesham Renaissance is a community interest company (CIC) and you have made much of the ability it will have for an ‘asset lock’. What does that mean? We are a not-for-profit company although we will provide a return to investors. However, the principal purpose of a CIC is to benefit the community and the substantial proportion of the company income will be placed within the ‘asset lock’; a fund of money which will be spent within Chesham. That means we will be able to provide assets such as, for example, a new civic centre, bringing together local authority administration and facilities such as a public library and a town museum.
That sounds like a lot of money. How much do you estimate will be held within the asset lock? We believe that on the basis of 2,000 new dwellings we may have up to £20 million to spend on facilities directly benefitting the town. The money will come from the developers and from funding which government might otherwise provide to the local authority. So, the money stays within the town which is providing the new homes.
Who will be responsible for holding and spending the money? The asset lock money will be under the control of Chesham Renaissance which will want to make decisions in conjunction with its members, which currently include local councils and the Environment Agency. After 10 or 15 years the company will have completed its work and will be dissolved. At that point the Regulator of CICs will direct who will control the asset lock monies. This cannot be a local council but has to be a locally based organisation which represents the interest of residents.
Finally, your hopes for 2019? The Masterplan addresses issues of housing, transport, employment, infrastructure and environment. This all-encompassing approach has to be better than anything we have seen so far. I hope that will become the accepted approach to what has to be done. I also hope that by the end of this year we will have begun the building work necessary for a new look Chesham; have a very clear idea of what the town is going to look like when the work is complete; and have the full support of those living and working here to the concept and proposals of the Masterplan.