Former Conservative leader Michael Howard is one of the key players behind plans to build a massive new town that will despoil vast swathes of some of the most beautiful countryside in England.
Lord Howard of Lympne is the chairman of South West Strategic Developments (SWSD), a little-known company ultimately owned by a private equity firm based in Bermuda, which has drawn up proposals to build up to 15,000 houses in rural Somerset, next to the village of Sparkford.
A large slice of the land in question is owned by a multi-millionaire property developer, Bill Hopkins, who is best known for a bitter High Court battle over his fortune with his ex-wife. The cement tycoon, who would stand to profit handsomely from the deal, also owns a nearby castle.
Lord Howard is the chairman of South West Strategic Developments (SWSD), which has drawn up proposals to build up to 15,000 houses in rural Somerset, next to the village of Sparkford
Local councillors say it will wreck a beautiful part of the rural landscape and is motivated by greed. Critics also argue the land is on a flood plain and that the town could take up to 20 years to build, causing huge upheaval in an area where there are no extra opportunities for employment and no rail infrastructure.
Henry Hobhouse, a Liberal Democrat district councillor for South Somerset, claims the land is unsuitable because it is on the River Cary flood plain and lacks the infrastructure needed to support the families who would live in the homes, such as schools and roads.
‘They [developers] are not interested in thinking about anything. This is about money,’ he said.
Hobhouse said local residents are ‘absolutely against it’, adding: ‘I’ve yet to meet anybody who likes it apart from the landowners. It’s a complete greenfield site that has absolutely no infrastructure at all.’
Lord Howard hit back, telling the MoS: ‘The people who would benefit – if the scheme gets planning permission – would be the thousands who will then have houses to live in.’
The plans have won the backing of local Tory MPs, but have divided local residents, some of whom are horrified at the prospect of thousands of new-build homes. Unsurprisingly, Tory MP Marcus Fysh, whose constituency next door will not be affected, supported the scheme.
Local councillors say the development will wreck a beautiful part of the rural landscape
He said: ‘It’s a big job and quite daunting in planning terms but there are fine examples happening elsewhere in the country and we should be confident in bidding for that level of investment here.’ Despite its name, South West Strategic Developments is based in Chichester, West Sussex, nearly 100 miles away. It promotes development schemes and funds projects in their early stages.
Companies House documents reveal SWSD is owned by a company called Cardinal International.
Cardinal is owned by a firm called CRBF Private Equity Limited, which is based in Bermuda, a well-known offshore tax haven. CRBF was named in the so-called Paradise Papers because it used Appleby, the law firm at the centre of the leak that exposed offshore dealings of banks, billionaires, and major world companies.
The accounts state that SWSD is reliant on loans from Cardinal, which itself depends on loans from CRBF. Lord Howard said: ‘SWSD is a UK company liable to UK taxes and any profits it makes are taxed in this country.’
It is unclear exactly how much Lord Howard is paid for his role at the company because this is not revealed in the accounts. Landowner Bill Hopkins, 69, a property tycoon worth more than £38 million, amassed his fortune from his companies Hopkins Developments and Hopkins Concrete.
He won a High Court battle with his ex-wife Caroline in 2015 after she claimed she was owed £2 million but received a tenth of that because she signed a post-nuptial agreement.
Hopkins bought luxurious Compton Castle, more than five miles away from the proposed new town, for £6.5 million in October 2015. South West Strategic Developments’ proposals were put forward as part of a local review into tackling the housing shortage. The proposal claims the scheme could create up to 19,000 jobs.
The new settlement would be situated near the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton ‘so as to harness the potential for economic development focused on the airfield’. The plans mistakenly refer to the air base as an RAF station.
Plans also include building a new university or college to support ‘technology-based businesses’.
Grass Roots, the planning consultancy working on behalf of South West Strategic, said the plans are at a very early stage.
Lord Howard lives between London and Kent, both well over 100 miles from the planned town.
Controversial path to a pot of gold
Lord Howard, 76, stood down as an MP in 2010, but clearly had no intention of taking things easy. As well as his duties as a peer, he has taken on a handful of nonexecutive director roles at controversial companies.
He makes £75,000 a year as a director of Watchstone Group, the company created out of the ashes of troubled technology business Quindell.
The Serious Fraud Office opened an investigation into Quindell in 2015 over alleged accounting irregularities that happened before Lord Howard was brought on board to help clean it up. He promised to banish the ‘shadow’ that was hanging over Quindell, which is still under investigation.
Howard is also chairman of Soma Oil & Gas, a Somalian oil explorer that is not listed on the stock market, in which he has a 3.9 per cent stake.
The Serious Fraud Office dropped a probe into alleged bribery at that company in 2016, saying there was ‘insufficient evidence to provide a realistic [prospect of] conviction’. Soma, which is majority-owned by the Russia’s billionaire Djaparidze family, denied any wrongdoing.
Howard remains a paid consultant to Vancouver-based miners Entrée Resources after stepping down as chairman and is on the advisory board of Tanzanian gas firm Orca Exploration. He was also a director of Global Switch, the London-based data centres giant which is now controlled by Chinese investors.