Eden Project team still want to build M5 tourist attraction

The team behind the Eden Project is still interested in development at junction 27 of the M5, councillors have been told. In 2020, Mid Devon’s local plan outlined how a visitor centre, hotel, outdoor adventure zone and outlet shopping could be among the facilities to be considered at the 71 hectares of land near Uffculme.

Ollie Heptinstall www.devonlive.com

It comes after initial plans were revealed years ago for a £200 million surf lake and a ‘mini’ Eden Project, backed by the Cornwall landmark’s co-creator Sir Tim Smit and other business partners. However, a new report says the covid pandemic and market changes mean no further plans have progressed, raising the question of “whether changes are required to some elements of the scheme in order to support delivery.”

Eden was recently awarded £250,000 from the UK Community Renewal Fund to allow it to refine and develop proposals for the site, with the report stressing that “interest in the scheme does remain” from the company. This work began recently and is expected to be completed later this year, according to the update, presented this week to a meeting of Mid Devon District Council’s (MDDC) ruling cabinet.

The council is also likely to start ‘enabling discussions’ in the coming weeks “with and between landowners and prospective occupiers” to get further clarity and consider what action is needed to progress work.

“The outcome of such discussions will clearly be important and will allow all parties to better understand the timescale of any development,” the report said. An update was also provided on development around junction 28 at Cullompton., which Mid Devon’s local plan identifyies as “the principal focus of development within the district.”

Up to 5,000 homes could be built at Culm Garden Village, east of the town, while work is progressing well on the proposed new Cullompton railway station, located off junction 28. Councillors were told that a lack of commercial premises in Devon and high demand means that “opportunity does therefore exist for further commercial development to progress – driving economic growth and job creation within the district.”

As part of the Culm Garden Village project, the council has instructed an employment and skills study to consider how the village can contribute to further employment growth in and around junction 28. It will see how this can be done in a way which supports new development, while reducing car ownership and longer commuting. Provisional findings are expected soon.

Councillor Richard Chesterton (Conservative, Lower Culm), cabinet member for planning and economic regeneration told the meeting: “Whilst progress may have been slower than anticipated in the recent time, work is underway in relation to development opportunities at our motorway junctions and they do continue to offer opportunities for further economic development and growth within the district.”

Deputy leader Bob Evans (Conservative, Lower Culm) said: “I think one of the really vital key elements here, to the opportunities that definitely lie at both junctions for this authority, is that engagement is key and listening to the key stakeholders – that includes residents and local businesses – to what they would see as the key opportunities.”

But Councillor John Downes (Lib Dem, Boniface), chair of the council’s economic policy development group, is concerned that both junctions, due to their close proximity, “could offer similar services to the detriment of each” and wanted them to be viewed “in the whole.” He said the council should be thinking “outside the box” about what to do at both sites, in particular junction 27, and is concerned that the Cullompton site could end up “confused and piecemeal” because of what is already there and what is planned.

“Things could happen in blocks, and the overall objective of making that a destination junction with not just services for motorists but also for the community, like incubator spaces and start-up spaces, [should] get considered in the whole,” Cllr Downes said. He asked for the council’s economic team to commission a review of the two junctions.

“We want the developments to become part of the community so that we’ve got people working locally, living locally, being employed locally, travelling locally – not being a satellite for Exeter,” he said. “Public engagement is essential because I think these two junctions really are the jewels in our crown. They can offer resource and money to the council and they could be destination places and they could benefit the community.”

Leader Bob Deed (New Independent, Cadbury) replied: “I appreciate that dealing with these two junctions holistically is the way forward, but realistically we’re dealing with silos, and it’s not as easy as getting everybody together and knocking their heads together for the benefit of all parties of the end of the day.” Councillor Ben Holdman (Lib Dem, Castle) is worried that “places like Cullompton, Tiverton and Willand are going to get left behind if we concentrate solely just on the junction.”

“They need to be encompassing of the surrounding areas and we need to encourage people back into our town centres and to include Willand’s village centre as well as the other villages.” In reply later in the meeting, Cllr Downes said there was “no intention whatsoever” to do anything at the junctions that would be “to the detriment of the economy of any of our market towns. The idea is to encourage growth, which those communities could be part of.”