There are people who will tell you that there’s no point trying to change things because they never change. That nobody ever listens, that the odds against ordinary people trying to shift large organisations are so unbalanced that it makes no sense trying to shift anything.
Since September, when it became known that Dartington Hall Trust had submitted 19 sites to South Hams District Council’s ‘Our Plan’ process, many Dartington residents have worked together, determined to prove those naysayers wrong. They have protested, marched, distributed thousands of flyers, organised online petitions, set up a website, tweeted, Facebooked, carried out a Community Vote of No Confidence in the Trustees and senior management at Dartington Hall, presented their case to DHT’s Trustees. Thousands of hours of voluntary time across the community. And it seems to have worked. This is our opportunity to say thank you.
A new letter, dropping through letterboxes in the parish today, from outgoing DHT Chair Sir David Green to “Dartington parishioners” (none of that rather patronishing “Dear Neighbour” stuff from the last one) sets out just how far DHT have come in the last 6 months. To begin with, it apologises for the Trust’s recent behaviour:
“The Trustees are sad and sorry that recent and past events have contributed to a breakdown in trust between The Dartington Hall Trust and the local community and are committed to putting this right”.
In other communication, DHT have not just apologised, but have actually offered their thanks for the work the community has undertaken. Writing to Trudy Turrell of DBDUC, Dartington CEO Vaughan Lindsay recently said:
“I also wanted to write to thank you, and your colleagues, for all you have done to help facilitate such a change”.
This is a remarkable turnaround from September. And it is due in large part to you, to everyone who got involved in and supported this campaign. Everyone who gave up their morning to march from Foxhole to Follaton House. The incredible dedicated team who went door to door with the Community Vote of No Confidence, which 387 local people signed. Everyone who distributed flyers. You did this. That’s something to feel really good about.
We didn’t do it alone though. We have to also thank Dartington Parish Council, those involved with the Neighbourhood Plan and many others who so powerfully came together to present DHT with a very powerful “no”, but also with a creative and open alternative. As a show of unity from different groups across the community it has been remarkable, a spirit we felt was embodied in last week’s excellent Future Housing Conference at Dartington Hall.
We have all, over the years, become accustomed to feeling cynical about pronouncements that come out of Dartington Hall. This time though, those members of DBDUC who have met with the Trustees feel the change of spirit described in Sir David’s letter is for real. We believe the Trust is sincere when it says that it will be striving to make significant financial savings in its operations. We applaud its decision to look at development on the estate as well as off it and to apply the same principles and ethics to both. We welcome the openness to discussing “issues of tenure, including affordable housing, self-build and cohousing”.
We believe Sir David when he says that “we also know that we need to become more visible to, and genuinely collaborative and cooperative with, local people”. We are especially pleased that Trustees have decided to withdraw “a significant percentage of [their] remaining off-estate land from the Our Plan process”. Clearly this is not yet a complete victory as it is not yet clear what this will entail, but DBDUC will enter into this discussion with an open mind, mindful that any final decision remains that of the wider community.
But we would also like to credit the Trustees for engaging with us. We appreciate that it can’t have been easy. They have spent 6 months in the eye of a storm, and that can never be a comfortable experience. The presentation given to Trustees by DBDUC in mid-December was, we imagine, the first time anyone has spoken to DHT Trustees so openly, frankly and strongly, possibly ever. Trustees also toured all the current and potential development sites. We would have loved to be a fly on the wall during their visit to the much-despised Sawmill Fields development. But they engaged, listened, and went on a journey of their own. We applaud that.
The proof of the pudding will, of course, be in the eating. Over the years we have become all too accustomed to a rather schizophrenic approach from DHT, of talking a great talk while acting in ways that run counter to its words. We hope those days are now past. But although we celebrate today what feels like a deep and very real shift, we are clear that our role in holding DHT to account, questioning actions, applauding good actions when appropriate and pointing out inconsistencies or shortcomings, will continue.
For example, for us the redevelopment of Brimhay has become a touchstone, especially given that DHT actually finalised the sale of the site 4 months into this process of dialogue with us (on December 3rd). We feel they have a moral duty to bring whatever pressure they can to bear on South Devon Rural Housing in order to get this development reconsidered.
It is our sense that they are trying to do this, although as this is ongoing, it remains to be seen the depth of their organisational commitment to this. Brimhay powerfully represents a powerful first key test of their professed new values.
Likewise, DHT still can bring a lot of influence to bear on the developments they are already committed to. Both the Abundant Life project and Cavanna Homes’ redevelopment of Higher Tweed Mills are currently slated to be Code 3. We can already see at Sawmill Field what this looks like and what a missed opportunity it represents. We will continue to press DHT to raise the ambition of both developments.
DBDUC have always said that we have been protesting not because we hate Dartington, but because we love it. We are pleased that Sir David picked this up in his letter:
“Despite recent tensions and concerns, we are heartened by how much local people care about the Trust and the estate, its charitable, artistic, social and environmental activities and its future as a vibrant and sustainable place. So, we look forward to collaborating with the community in more innovative, productive and successful ways in order to shape the future of both the estate and the village”.
So do we. This feels like an historic moment. We hope very much that it proves to be so.