A petition against the ‘inappropriate’ development of the Bantham estate has reached 7,836 of its 8,000 signature target in just over two weeks.
Nicholas Johnston, who bought the Bantham estate for £11.5m in 2014, told a magazine at the time that there would be ‘no development, no change, no music festivals and no more houses’.
But Mr Johnston recently revealed plans for the redevelopment of the area, including new housing, a beach club and an underground car park.
His plans have been met with fierce opposition from many locals and visitors who are keen to preserve and protect the ‘much-loved beauty spot’.
A spokesman for Mr Johnston claimed Thurlestone Parish Council requested Mr Johnston to draw up the plans in response to the housing needs survey. But the parish council has disputed this.
Parish chairman Andrew Rhymes and clerk Philip Millard stated that no request was made to Mr Johnston from the parish council, but the request may have come from the neighbourhood plan steering group.
But Tony Goddard, chairman of the Thurlestone Parish Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group said that ‘it was agreed that Mr Johnston would share with us his plans’.
Mr Johnston has claimed his plans were a ‘direct response’ to the findings of the parish questionnaire and housing needs survey , carried out in the parish of Thurlestone, Bantham and West Buckland.
But Mr Goddard described Mr Johnston’s analysis of the questionnaire and survey as ‘materially different in many respects to our analysis of them’.
Mr Goddard said: ‘It was agreed between Mr Johnston and our project director Sue Crowther that Mr Johnston would attend our next scheduled meeting to share with us his plans for the future of the Bantham estate.
‘He told us at the meeting that he had in preparation for the meeting studied the results of the housing needs survey and the questionnaire – which are freely available on the parish website – and that his plans purported to respond to the aspirations of the parish as disclosed by the responses to that survey and questionnaire.
‘I have to say that his analysis of those responses is materially different in many respects to our analysis of them.’
The petition, which is to be delivered to the South Hams District Council planning department, was set up by Chris Jones, who wrote: ‘When Nicholas Johnston bought the Bantham estate, much against the wishes of most locals, he promised that he would leave it untouched.
‘Now he is proposing to develop both the village and the beach, even going so far as to say that he will not be making the new housing affordable for local people – which, in a part of the country that has some of the most unaffordable housing available, should be a priority for any development, rather than lining the pockets of a man who has already proven he has no love for the people born and bred here.’
Mr Jones has called the plans ‘unacceptable’ to those who have ‘enjoyed Bantham in its current form for so many decades’ and that the ‘infrastructure around Bantham village struggles as it is – this development would make a bad situation worse, in particular for the existing village residents, especially during the summer’.
He said that while he had ‘no legal training’, he intended for the petition to show the ‘depth of feeling against such inappropriate plans for a much-loved local beauty spot’.
Mr Johnston addressed a meeting of the neighbourhood plan steering group in January, making a presentation alongside Ryan Hooper, Bantham estate manager, and David Hunt, estate architect and surveyor, who is based at Great Tew, Johnston’s 4,000-acre home estate in Oxfordshire.
Critics have pointed out that Mr Johnston’s plans for the estate fail to address a number of pertinent issues identified in the survey, including the overwhelming need for properties priced between £125,000 and £350,000 and the desire to restrict second home ownership in the parish – something 67 per cent of respondents supported.
Mr Johnston also provided no response to the 89 per cent of people who supported the provision of assisted living and elderly homes in the parish.
Mr Johnston has hit back at people who oppose his plans for Bantham. He told a national newspaper that the people who already live in the parish were responding in a ‘slightly selfish, bigoted way’.
He told The Times that the average age of the respondents to the survey was ‘pathetically old’ and that he believes Bantham should be a ‘vibrant community where young families want to be, not a retirement dormitory where people just want to be left to walk the dog’.
In the parish housing needs survey , the second most popular comment was that ‘new housing should only be to supply local need’, yet critics have pointed out that Mr Johnston’s plans are focused on eight family houses for rent and eight large, open market houses with a price tag of more than £350,000.
Mr Johnston claimed that ‘it would be very difficult to address the wish for new housing for sale in the £125,000 to £350,000 price bracket requested.’
The petition against the development has attracted a number of comments in opposition to the plans. Linda P wrote: ‘Bantham is beautiful and unspoilt. It should be allowed to remain as such, particularly when that was promised in its purchase.’
While Rosemary B wrote: ‘Our family has been enjoy- ing this wondrous haven of peace for decades, where we find the perfect escape to feed the soul and enjoy the beauties of the natural world at their unspoilt finest. Any action that puts this at risk for so many people now and future generations would be sacrilege on every possible level, not least the inevitable destruction of a rare and special local community . Please, please reject these crass, avaricious proposals.’
And Andrew N wrote: ‘Bantham village and beach are among the few unspoilt areas in the South Hams... We must put a stop to this exploitation before irreversible damage is done!’
The Gazette contacted Mr Johnston with a number of questions about his plans on Monday , February 20, but he had not responded at the time of going to press.