Santa's Grotto Frome faces eviction because of planning permission row
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A Santa Claus is facing eviction from his Christmas Grotto - in a row with the council over planning permission.
'Santa's Grotto Frome' has provided families and children a meeting with Father Christmas, Mrs Claus and the elves for six years. They set up at a new site this year, which consists of two small wooden buildings located within Critchill Manor Estate in the Somerset town. But they say Somerset Council has threatened 'enforcement' to take the buildings down.
They applied for planning permission in April which was rejected by the council in July due to 'sustainability concerns' over the lack of public transport. They said planning officers at Somerset Council have rejected the planning permission on the basis that the grotto is in a rural location with no public transport links - meaning people would have to rely on private cars to get there, which is against 'planning policy'.
The application itself does have the backing of the local parish council and local councillors. The grotto buildings were built onsite despite not obtaining planning permission, and a follow-up application on the decision will be voted on by Somerset Council this week. If this is not successful, they then have one last appeal opportunity.
Craig Gillett, 61, who is Santa at the Grotto alongside his sister who plays Mrs Claus, said: "It is so frustrating. We try and give back to the community for their support - it's all about giving some fun and joy in people's lives at the moment. There is so much bad and sad news on all the time - to have children's innocent faces beaming at you, looking at this character that brings so much happiness. To have that taken away is heartbreaking."
Santa's Grotto Frome consists of Craig, his sister Clare Perry, 59, as well as Gordon Perry, 57, Craig's brother-in-law. The family were searching for a new site this year when they were approached by landowners of the 186-acres Critchill Manor Estate.
Santa's Grotto Frome is not the only community business operating on the space, however, as it is also home to numerous other trades including a cafe and the local Frome Youth football team.
Craig said: "There is trading already on the existing site. The football team alone regularly have over 300 cars there supporting their teams and events. "The council state our Grotto is not sustainable because there is no public transport to get to the site - but you wouldn't go on a bus to a golf club. Our previous site had no bus route.
"We have a booking system through a ticket source, so have a mix of two families per 20 minute sessions. That is roughly six cars an hour, compared to the amount of regular cars already permitted to site. Our six little cars have very little, if any, impact whatsoever especially as some will be electric."
Craig explained they were informed by the landowner to apply for planning permission due to complaints about previous projects from a local source - so to get planning permission was the 'best route to follow'. Craig states their location is quiet, out of the way and "hurts no one, but not remote as the council describes"- and they took out a £20,000 loan to pay for the buildings.
He said: "So we have set up a spot that used to be a camping field where they hosted all sorts of activities - there was already remit there for that. We erected two wooden buildings - that people can have in their back garden without planning permission.
"They are nice quality wooden units that go into the background itself - they are not an eyesore. It is an ideal position for us, we are not hurting anybody or encroaching on the field. This case has not even gone to the committee. We didn't think it would take this long and we had to put them up in our commitment to the families who support Santa's Grotto Frome, its taken six months to set up".
The grotto is fully booked every weekend until Christmas. Craig argues their business supports local community in more ways than one.
He explained: "We provide a local service for local families. We support local business and employ local people as our elves at a time when people need a little extra. We have visitors from all over the country - people come from London and Bournemouth to visit, and they bring trade to the community too. We hold free sessions for vulnerable children, people in care homes. We had a little girl who was diagnosed with cancer, she fought through and is coming back for free visits as an honorary elf!"
Despite the planning permission concerns, the team still wish to inform their following that they are still open for trading. Craig added: "We need to assure people we are open and trading for this Christmas."
A spokesperson for Somerset Council stated: "The council’s enforcement team are aware of the unauthorised development and are awaiting the planning committee’s decision on the application before determining whether or not any further action is required."
To find out more about Santa's Grotto Frome, visit: https://www.facebook.com/SantasGrottoFrome