The future of one of Dacorum’s most historic landmarks has been cast into doubt after a planning application for homes on its site was refused.
Frogmore Paper Mill in Apsley signed a contract with Dacorum Borough Council (DBC) in November 2013, which agreed to sell off a parcel of the mill’s land on the Apsley Mills site.
Part of the deal – which would remain on the table for two years – stipulated that DBC would pay 60 per cent of the purchase price up front and settle the remaining 40 per cent if planning permission for the 50 affordable homes was granted.
But after the application was recently refused by the council’s own development control committee, trustees of the Apsley Paper Trail – which owns and maintains the mill – say they fear time is running out.
The council claims it has held up its end of the bargain by paying the full purchase price up front, as the the deal stated the remainder would only be paid out if planning was approved.
Derek Pullen, co-chair of trustees at the charity, said: “We put the land on the market because it was not financially viable to keep it anymore.
“When the council said they wanted to buy it, we thought it was safe.
“We thought they must care about the future of Dacorum.”
As part of the contract, the council coughed up the initial 60 per cent of the purchase price – which is close to £1million – and are due to pay the remaining balance of £700,000 once the plans have been approved.
But the process has ground to a halt after the application for the development was refused by the council’s own development control committee on the basis of flooding risk and privacy issues.
Mr Pullen said: “It’s almost like we’ve hit a brick wall. The officers are sympathetic to our situation but no one is offering us a solution.
“We have received no feedback or advice. One thing they could do to help is to extend the contract to give us time to get the application approved.
“If we do not get this resolved, they will be getting the land at way below the market value.”
The mill is an important historic landmark in the local area, holding the title of the world’s oldest working mechanical paper mill after it was set up by John Dickinson in 1804.
A group of 100 dedicated volunteers work tirelessly, holding regular guided tours for the public as well as educational workshops for school children.
The charity employs 11 people full-time, but Mr Pullen says he and fellow trustees have had to tell six of those that their jobs are at risk.
He said: “It is a very difficult situation. We’ve told those six that we can’t afford to keep them.”
Mr Pullen said the anticipated £700k payment is vital, as the initial cash has already been used to pay debts and keep the charitya’s head about water.
If the money doesn’t come through, the closure of the mill is a real possibility.
Jacky Bennett, chair of trustees, said: “This is a terrible blow. We were delighted when the council purchased the land and were looking forward to a bright future – now that future is looking bleak.
“We will do everything we can to maintain our support for the thousands of primary and secondary school students who visit, as well as our adult learners, but our resources will only stretch so far.”
Now the charity is calling on the public for their support in keeping the mill, which costs around £100,000 a year to run, open for as long as possible.
They have suggested people should send a letter to their local Dacorum councillor, saying they believe the council should honour the contract, copying in the council’s chief executive Sally Marshall.
A sample letter can be found on the charity’s website here.
Meanwhile, DBC recently launched the Enjoy Dacorum tourism initiative which aims to establish the borough as a holiday destination of choice.
In a statement, a spokesman for Dacorum Borough Council said the blame lay with Apsley Paper Trail (APT), as its planning application was rejected.
They said: “The full stated contract price for this site has been paid with no further payments due.
“A separate clause was agreed and included within the sale agreement regarding an ‘overage’ payment to provide additional payments to APT should planning permission be granted for over 25 residential units on the land.
“APT has not met the condition of the overage clause following their unsuccessful planning application which was refused by the council’s Development Control Committee on May 28.
“There is a clear distinction, which is recognised in the sale contract, between the council as the body which bought the land and the council as Local Planning Authority which is a statutory function bound by local and national planning policy.
“There are strict rules which keep the functions of the council as landowner and as Local Planning Authority entirely separate.
“These have been adhered to by the council.
“The council has provided significant financial support to APT over many years and has a strong relationship with the charity which it hopes will continue.”