Think of Darlington and the Industrial Revolution and the birth of the railways might spring to mind. But there’s another Darlington, a green haven of wildlife that lives on in bucolic peace.
Not for long though, thanks to developers Martin Corney and his stepfather Ian Waller, a former estate agent, together with their planning agent co-director, Chris Harrison. The three own half of the 90% private interest in the Teesworks Ltd joint venture, harvesting millions in scrap and lease sales on the former steelworks site in Redcar. But their projects extend across the Tees Valley.
One such is at Skerningham on the northern edge of Darlington. It’s destined to be buried under a new 487-hectare, 4,500-home suburban development, Skerningham Garden Village.
Most of the area is made up of rolling farmland and Darlington Golf Course. Along the north of the site is woodland, a green lung for the townsfolk. It is comprised of the old Skerningham plantation known as Skunny Woods and the Hutton plantation, joined together with a crescent of 20-year-old trees called Skerningham Community Woodland. Some of the trees are rare black poplars
The woods are home to roe deer, muntjacs, badgers, foxes, and hares. According to local campaigners, the area has 20 red-listed “risk of extinction” bird species including redwings, cuckoos and fieldfares as well as 11 amber-listed avians.
The original idea was to build houses on the golf club and move the golf course onto the woods. The fairway would be created by felling the Community Woodland trees. After a public outcry the council directed that the proposed site should be moved elsewhere. Then the golf club voted unanimously to pull out of the project.
There’s still the issue of a new distributor road planned to run along the southern edge of the woods, cutting off the two southern corners of the most ancient plantations. It begs the question: how will the deer cope with the new road, or the motorists for that matter? Across the UK, the annual toll of deer involved in vehicle collisions is estimated at up to 74,000, according to the National Deer-Vehicle Collisions Project.
Corney and Waller
Corney and Waller own the lion’s share of the Garden Village footprint. Their interest in Skerningham goes back more than two decades with land made up of the woods and some fields. The idea over 20 years ago was to make a visitor attraction out of the woods. In 2001 Corney lodged a planning application for a new access road, car park, and visitors’ centre in woods that were already accessible.
There was outrage from neighbours and councillors. The visitor project was nipped in the bud.
In 2004, Corney won two Forestry Commission grants totalling £59,454 for planting new trees. As part of the grant conditions, the trees can’t be felled for 20 years. Their reprieve expires next April. In 2014 the Conservative government launched the Garden Communities Programme to accelerate housebuilding. A golden opportunity for property developers: a last nail in the coffin for Green Belt planning.
It’s easy to see why a Garden Village would appeal to a local authority of whatever political hue. A fifth of the new Skerningham dwellings would be affordable housing, either as bricks and mortar or in the form of financial compensation. Health centres, parks, schools and other amenities would spring up. Road, water, sewerage, street lights, electricity and gas infrastructure would be installed. Construction jobs, albeit temporary, would be created, economic growth would result. What’s not to love?
All of this would be paid for and organised by the developers. The council would have to pay nothing and just watch the council tax roll in.
It’s the perfect formula for ‘council tax farming’ – unnecessary building for the local tax return. Especially as the Tory government has taken a wrecking ball to council budgets since 2010.
The Skerningham Garden Village site is a jigsaw of land ownership as well as Theakstons, the business brand of Corney and Waller. The local landowners include farmers and Durham Cathedral. The other landowners could enter into a joint partnership, but Theakstons, the official promotors, are the driving force behind the development. They claim to also have purchase options on a number of plots in addition to their own land.
The council began work on a Skerningham masterplan with Theakstons and the landowners in 2017.
Skerningham has already won the government’s Garden Community status. The bid to central government in 2018 carried supporting statements from the then Labour Council Leader Stephen Harker and Conservative Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen. Waller donated £7,000 to Houchen in 2018-19 and Houchen pledged two garden villages in his election campaign.
After Houchen’s first electoral success in 2017, the Tories took control of Darlington Council in 2019. Labour retrieved the council earlier this year, but nothing has changed in the Skerningham proposal process. The next step is approval of the design code.
Darlington has already received a government grant for processing the plan. The £150,000 pays for a dedicated officer and extra work in central government to fast-track infrastructure approvals.
There are plenty of grounds for objection, however. Even from council officers, who listed many reasons for rejection in a 2015 document.
In a table of site suitability appended to ‘Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment Update 6’, Skerningham was condemned as unsuitable for development. It was a rural greenfield site; there was poor access to shops, services and transport; it was in a flood zone. The summary also pointed out the loss of countryside and visual impact and the “detrimental effect on the tranquillity of the area”. There was in addition a contamination risk from the landfill on the site plus issues about roads.
Other comments about the environment included: protect the riparian habitat; Skerningham Plantation SNCI falls within the site; possible [protected] great crested newts and bats on the site.
All those objections are still valid today, yet are no longer mentioned by the authorities. The only change has been the election of Houchen as Tees Valley mayor.
There are other concerns. For instance is the Skerningham housing strictly necessary? The government’s suggested building target for Darlington is 177 a year. The local plan’s is 492.
Among a number of new developments is another garden community – Burtree Garden Village – 202 hectares with 2,000 homes being developed on the north west edge of town by Hellens Group. Government funding of £43mn for a road will be paid direct to Homes England. Again Darlington Council is not involved. The new houses won’t replace substandard dwellings. They will be high-end executive homes, intended mainly for the professionals flocking to town to work in the Great Teesside Freeport Success Story (pending).
There’s the erosion of our green and pleasant land. The Garden Village bid describes a series of small settlements separated by areas of greenery. The design will “prevent urban sprawl” reads the promotion. But that is exactly what the garden village is. It extends built-up Darlington northwards.
With the developers owning the land of the Garden Community, what will happen to the green spaces between the hamlets? How can we expect Theakstons to resist the urge to turn a swift buck and fill them with more housing?
Then there’s security. The Garden Village bid prospectus presents perfect homes in a green land where the sun never sets. But we all live on a planet that spins while it circles its star. Night-time is inevitable, when the sunny greenery of the day is replaced by a sinister darkness on the edge of town.
The idea of quasi-rural living is far from new. In the 1960s the ‘cities in the sky’ tower blocks were set in extensive lawns intended to resemble fields. Crime rates soared and environmental psychology was established by David Canter to work out why. The psychologists concluded that certain designs trigger a primordial urge in the brainstem to seize territory.
‘Defensible space’ is needed to deter crime: clearly defined territory; opportunities for witnesses; evidence of occupation. As ‘unassigned space’, open green areas are a welcome mat to crime. The defensible space principles were adopted by the police in their Secured by Design initiative. So you can expect a higher crime rate in an already high-crime area. The threat would create demand for more frequent public transport, but Darlington’s bus routes have recently been reduced, especially the longer distance services.
The solution for residents will be more cars.
There’s also the poo. A concern of the proposal’s critics is the issue of nutrient neutrality. Housebuilding can cause nitrogen pollution in rivers from residents’ faeces, so under nutrient neutrality, home building is limited by the estimated number of people per household – or compensation must be paid.
Using calculations from Opinium, Houchen’s favourite statisticians, the developers claim only 1.1 people per dwelling are expected, yet the Darlington census figure puts the number of expected occupants at 2.2.
There’s a new pledge to build a stadium for Darlington Football Club in the Garden Village – the Quakers are currently homeless. Little is known of the stadium’s proposed location. But on match days it’s doomed to be noisy and draw in traffic and fans both home and away.
As the garden community projects are devoted to healthy wellbeing, no hot takeaway businesses will be allowed. So no hot pies then.
Bending environment rules
Much hangs on trust in the developers, and the whole development is in the hands of Theakstons.
But the Skerningham developers have a history of bending environmental law. In 2016, they lodged a planning application to build houses in the Green Belt next to Flatts Lane Country Park, near Normanby. A few weeks before Theakstons filed their application, the bulldozers they had contracted filled in two ponds which were used as watering holes by the roe deer. A third pond had turned red v possibly from dye or pollution, a witness told the Northern Echo. This was during bird nesting season. The ponds were believed to house protected great-crested newts.
Redcar and Cleveland Council unanimously rejected the application but their decision was overturned by the planning inspectorate. Chris Harrison told the Northern Echo:
“As part of ongoing onsite work our agricultural agent has been ploughing fields and removing overgrown plantations.”
Then there’s the park and ride project at the Teesworks site. A planning application for the 35-acre site for 1294 cars, lodged by South Tees Development Corporation, (STDC) the public sector partner in Teesworks Ltd, was passed earlier this year. The Park and Ride site is next to Coatham Marsh Nature Reserve and removes 5% of a ‘green wedge’ – an unprotected zone between developments for recreation and wildlife.
But the site was already cleared before the application and during nesting season – losing the habitat for numerous red and amber listed threatened bird species including redwing, dunnock and willow warbler. The family of deer had vanished. Redcar’s Labour Councillor Alec Brown complained on Facebook, “Council officers were told… it was ok to remove a few trees. Not turn it into the moon.”
Local Tory MP Simon Clarke, who attacked Cllr Brown’s comments, received a donation from Waller of £2,500 in 2019.
Waller, Corney and Harrison together own 45% of Teesworks Ltd through another company Northern Land Management. How has this mega-project of demolition, remediation, and preparation of 1,052 hectares fared, from the environmental point of view? The site has Upper Tier COMAH status for pollution.
None of the explosion blow-downs were subject to environmental impact assessments. The demolition of the BOS Tower on a clear October day last year deployed 1.6 tonnes of explosives. At the same time in nearby residential Dormanstown, the air quality monitor for toxic particulate matter 10 (PM10) spiked to 50 micrograms per cubic metre from 7.5 an hour before.
We’ve seen repeat waves of dead and dying sealife, especially crabs, wash up on North East shores since September 2021. The marine die-offs have coincided with demolition and clearance on the Teesworks site, and later with the deep dredging at South Bank Quay – known to contain a cocktail of poisons. Scientists, hired by the fishermen who have seen their catches dwindle, blame new pollution.
Can we draw any conclusions from the Teesworks owners’ business conduct, as reported in Private Eye, Financial Times and Yorkshire Post and now the subject of a government review?
Corney keeps his Teesworks business in the family. His son and son-in-law launched the equipment hire firm TCC Ltd in 2020, serving clients at the site. According to Private Eye (Issue 1599) they made a profit in the year to March 2022 of £2.3mn. Corney’s other son-in-law the Albanian Orion Kotrri is currently managing scrap removal at Teesworks. Corney and Kotrri recently accompanied Houchen on a trip to Albania. No-one knows why.
How will Theakstons pay for the Skerningham project? The pot of gold lies in Teesworks. The three businessmen have together earned an estimated £48.15mn net so far on sales of scrap and a land lease.
We could also take a look at the other major Garden Village in the Tees Valley, created by Teesworks Ltd co-director Chris Musgrave.
His project was also promoted by Houchen. Musgrave hosted an election fundraiser for Houchen at his mansion. Through JC Musgrave Capital Ltd, Musgrave also donated £3,000 to the Conservative Party in 2015.
Musgrave’s Wynyard mixed-use development with 6,800 homes was pushed through Hartlepool Planning at the eleventh hour before a new development plan for Hartlepool would have outlawed it. It was granted Garden Village status in 2019.
Musgrave has resolved any issues with crime at Wynyard by recruiting NE Security Ltd. Owned by Dave Garside, the firm also guards Teesside Freeport at Teesworks, and Garside personally acted as Mrs Musgrave’s bodyguard when she attended Court on a road rage charge. Private Eye (Issue 1599) reported that Garside, an ex-boxer, was accused of gang-related violence in the 1980s and 1990s. We understand he is now very ill and the company is currently being managed by his son Dave Jr (officially in charge of health and safety) who has done prison time for a machete attack and drugs trafficking.
The planning application phase for Skerningham has yet to start. But Theakstons have a powerful ally in their planning agents Lichfields. The minority Theakstons shareholder Chris Harrison spent 14 years as a planner at Lichfields until 2014.
Lichfields produced the bid for Skerningham’s Garden Community status.
They have also made 108 planning applications for developments on Teesworks land. Lichfields currently have three contracts with Tees Valley Combined Authority (which controls STDC). One, for £1mn, is for “general planning support”.
Knights or oligarchs?
What are we to make of the Skerningham Garden Village developers? Are they the knights in shining armour with great business nous, here to rescue a Darlington in distress?
Cometh the hour cometh the property developer.
Or are they the hatchling chicks of a local oligarchy, picking over the rotting corpse of regional democracy?