The North Wales Psychiatric Hospital just outside Denbigh closed in 1995. At its height there were 1500 inpatients and 500 staff directly employed by the NHS and its wage bill in the year before it closed was £1.5 million. Other towns had coal mines, steel works or large factories as their main employers but Denbigh relied on the Hospital. I was born and bred in Denbigh and when I returned to work there as a GP I had many dealings with the hospital. In 1999 the North Wales Health Authority sold the buildings and site to a developer for £155,000 with planning permission for housing and light industrial units. He more than recouped the purchase price by selling off former doctors’ houses and land attached to the hospital farm. His plans for the main hospital building and the grounds were strongly opposed by some members of the public so he pulled out and sold the site to the first of a succession of speculative buyers, who did nothing with it.
The empty buildings decayed through neglect, looting, vandalism and arson and achieved online notoriety as a destination for ghost hunters and explorers of derelict buildings. The later owners ignored requests from Denbighshire County Council to improve security and carry out repairs. In 2018 the dangerous condition of the buildings, which had become an adventure playground for local children, forced a reluctant Denbighshire County Council into making a Compulsory Purchase Order. DCC immediately started searching for a financially sound developer to take the site off their hands, but the only serious offer came from a company which wanted to turn the site into a themed lunatic asylum holiday park. At one time the Prince of Wales’s Phoenix Trust was involved but they have since disappeared from the scene.
Denbighshire’s planning policy is to give planning permission for new houses on farming land only when there are no brownfield sites available. The hospital is a brownfield site covering an area of roughly 70 acres and would appear to tick all the boxes but, twenty five years after it was sold for development, not a brick has been laid. During that time many privately-built housing estates were built on farming land all over the Vale of Clwyd and planning permission exists for more. Typically, they are advertised as “luxury houses in beautiful countryside with easy access to the A55” and sell for £350,000 upwards, a price well beyond the reach of local people buying their first home. The problems of second homes and holiday rental – B&B, self catering, eg Airbnb, etc ,which have afflicted Gwynedd for generations, have caught up with us here and the small, simple terraced cottages which used to be ideal for young or retired couples on low incomes have become part of the “hospitality industry”. The Covid Pandemic encouraged many people in urban areas from the North of England to re-settle in the Welsh countryside where they can work from home or commute. The net result is that people who buy new houses in rural Denbighshire are not the people who are most in need of a house.
In May 2020 Denbighshire CC allowed a reputable, local construction company to occupy the site, rent-free, and build a training school for their apprentices. There were no time constraints on the commencement or completion of the work. In March 2021 the company was promised £3 million from the Welsh Development Fund. Denbighshire made them the preferred developer of the site and gave them three years to comply with the usual Section 106 conditions of the Town and Country Planning Act concerning utilities, safety, security and protection of wild life. At the end of this time planning permission was to be granted and legal ownership transferred to the company. Outline planning permission already existed for 34 apartments inside the front of the main building, which is Grade 2 listed, and up to 300 dwellings in the grounds plus business units. Denbighshire presented the deal to the town as a “win win” solution to the problem, and local people were delighted that the eyesore on their doorstep would be given a useful future.
Three years have now gone by and a large training school has been built but the deadline to comply with the original conditions expired last summer without the Section 106 conditions being satisfied. Denbighshire gave the company until the end of 2023 to comply but, instead, the developers have submitted an application for an extension of the original permission for another 10 years. It was surprising that such a large company with many years’ experience in their industry could not complete the necessary paper work in three years. The patience of Denbigh people is wearing thin and Denbigh Town Council has formally objected to the planning application for an extension.
The County Access to Information Officer told me that ownership of the whole site would be transferred to the company once the Section 106 agreement was completed. The developers do not pay rent and Denbighshire have not said if the transfer of ownership would be by a sale or a gift. If the developers get the planning permission they are now asking for, it is possible they could end up owning the site without developing it. Denbighshire, like other county councils nationwide, are desperately short of money and are having to slash spending on important services. The developers should pay a commercial rent for occupying the site.
My parents lived through the food rationing of the two World Wars when farmers used every scrap of land to grow food and everyone else was encouraged to “Dig for Victory” in their own gardens. The population now is much bigger and we depend on cheap imported food to fill our plates. The events in Ukraine and the Middle East should make us value agriculture and guard our fields as if they were national treasures. Our planners should make food security a priority. Why build on good farming land when brownfield sites such as the North Wales Hospital are available? Every time a field is given planning permission its value shoots up and neighbouring land owners are tempted to jump on the bandwagon. What we see now in the Vale of Clwyd is a huge game of Monopoly with the landowners, builders, prospective buyers and the County Planning Committee throwing the dice. If we are serious about solving the “Housing Crisis” perhaps we should be building high quality prefabs instead of expensive luxury houses with beautiful views. Prefabs built by local councils for rent played an important part in solving the post-war housing shortage – they were not luxurious but were warm, dry, had all the mod cons of the day and were affordable to build and live in.
I have no special knowledge of the planning laws but it seems strange to me that a contentious planning application concerning land owned by the County Council should be decided by their own planning committee. Is this normal practice?