Elmbridge councillors have unanimously rejected The Jockey Club’s plans to build 318 apartments and construct a 150 bed hotel on Sandown Park – Green Belt land.

Following a powerful campaign for SaveEsherGreenbelt, councillors of all affiliations voted to reject the recommended application.

A very powerful 3 Minute Objection speech by Linda Stotesbury of SEG was followed by a thorough site by site review of the application.

The application was a hybrid, seeking full permission to make changes to parts of the racecourse and access points and an outline application seeking the council’s view of the idea of building on certain parts of the site.

This was complex because the size of buildings and their architecture was not up for discussion, since these, as well as landscaping, were ‘reserved matters’ and only for debate if outline permission were granted and a full application made. In a nutshell, the question was…”Is the idea of building here acceptable? We plan to build this number of flats and they might look roughly like this”

As the plans involved building on the Green Belt, the applicant (Jockey Club Racecourses Ltd.) had to prove Very Special Circumstances to get the go ahead. This they failed conclusively failed to do.

A number of councillors from all sides made powerful and extremely knowledgeable contributions to the debate. Cllr Simon Waugh from Esher Conservatives led the interrogation of each site and ERA Cllr. Richard Williams led the discussion on the evaluation of the Very Special Circumstances. These are his views:

“Since 1959 owners of Sandown Park have been denied Planning Permission 10 times over Green Belt matters. In many of those cases, they were prevented from building far smaller housing developments than those in front of us now. 

This proves how important the Green Belt is to residents of Esher. Trying to build on the Green Belt should be and is one of the highest hurdles for developers to overcome. Nobody disputes the officers’ views that these proposals, in the round, constitute inappropriate development on the Green Belt.

I must point out that I do not think it’s our job to give up the very valuable Green Belt to make life easier for a highly successful commercial venture.

So what are the Very Special Circumstances that outweigh the damage to the Green Belt for this application? The benefits given the most weighting by the officers are:

  • Need for improved racecourse facilities
  • Provision of a hotel
  • Contribution to meeting housing need
  • Contribution to affordable housing

Need for improved racecourse facilities

The Jockey Club’s advert in the local paper of September 20th says their customers expect a quality experience and that to remain ‘competitive’ Sandown Park must refurbish and improve its track, stables, grandstand etc.

‘Competitiveness’ is a word, used in the Rapley’s document too. It seems an odd term to use. What’s the competition? In terms of horseracing – the Jockey Club runs all the nearby tracks, they control the market and thus they control ‘competitiveness’. I can’t see that ‘competitiveness’ is a need that has to be satisfied by building on the Green Belt.

How much will the improved facilities change the economic impact for Esher? Since we are given no business plan or projections, I have no evidence that convinces me they will deliver much of value.

The Jockey Club says in its advert and I quote: “it is committed to Sandown Park and its contribution to Esher and Elmbridge, however without the proposals its ability to achieve its vision and associated benefits will be significantly restricted” – this would imply that these improvements are not a desperate need. The business is not going to fail, it’s more ‘we’d really like to do this work.’ Again is that a reason to forever damage the Green Belt?

Indeed, according their ad, Sandown Park is doing very well without the refurbishment – with 324 social events, 227,000 visitors. This doesn’t sound like a business in intensive care…

So, summarising ‘race course improvements’ In terms of benefit to Esher and wider Elmbridge, I would score this ‘benefit’ at Zero rather than ‘Significant’ because improvements to the customer experience will contribute very little to the town.

Provision of a hotel

If a hotel is so important why haven’t they built the one they have had permission for since 2011 – which was meant to secure the future of the track for years to come? I see the arguments about lack of take up, but if there’s a lack of take up that would imply there’s not the need for a hotel. If they want a hotel and there’s a need for one, they should use the permission they already have. 

Again, since they already have permission for a hotel, I can’t view this new one as a Significant benefit and it should be marked down to Zero.

Contribution to housing need

We need housing in Elmbridge, however, this is not a sufficient justification alone to release Green Belt land.

Beyond the need for affordable housing, we are desperate for housing that regular people can buy. We need to house our policemen, teachers and shop workers in an area where housing is already terribly expensive.

The proposed apartments will surround the race track. They will all have views over the circuit and those views will sell at an absolute premium – as would any dwelling that overlooks a great sporting spectacle. A two bedroom new build flat in St George’s Heights, a normal block nearby, is for sale for nearly £900,000. Add to this the premium of trackside views, I am not convinced that this proposed market housing is going to do anything at all for our housing shortage. Our much needed essential workers are very unlikely to own one of these – unless they have a win on the horses.

The Benefits chart values the housing need as ‘Significant’ – these won’t helps us at all and I put their benefit at ‘zero’.

Contribution to affordable housing

Council policy is that on developments of sites of 15 or more dwellings, the target of 40% affordable homes is applicable. I read the arguments advanced that officers have managed to negotiate the originally proposed 15% up to 20% affordable homes, but that number is not policy compliant so I cannot consider this provision Significant. I would, instead mark it as Limited.

Requalifying these benefits, I cannot see that the applicant has got anywhere near Very Special Circumstances in this application. It would do very significant harm to the openness of the Green Belt and deliver extremely limited benefits to Esher and Elmbridge.

Indeed, the only people it would really benefit are the Jockey Club themselves, who will reinvest the money they get for selling the sites and plough it back into the sport and into maintaining their prize money levels.

One final point. Documentation says that granting permission for this application will make the site sustainable for 20 years – which implies they’ll be back for more in a couple of decades.

Should Jockey Club Racecourses – a very successful private business wish to ‘make Sandown Park more competitive’, then they should raise money in the usual ways –it is not for the residents of Esher to lose a valuable asset like the Green Belt to enable this.