Tens of thousands of pounds from wealthy individuals and companies connected to Newmarket’s horse racing industry have been paid into the local Conservative Party branch of Business minister Matt Hancock, who opposed a controversial housing development the racing community believes will jeopardise the town’s international reputation.
The Tory minister, who used to work for the Chancellor, George Osborne, lobbied and wrote personal letters to Eric Pickles, the Local Government Secretary, asking him to reject a 400-home development planned for the north east of the Suffolk town. Owners of some of Newmarket’s renowned stud farms and training yards, who are among Britain’s wealthiest people, have fought the proposed project at Hatchfield Farm, claiming it will damage Europe’s largest horse training centre.
International owners such as Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum, owner of the Godolphin management team, threatened to pull out of Newmarket if the development on land owned by Lord Derby went ahead. Flat racing’s aristocracy, including the Queen’s trainer, Sir Michael Stoute, have almost universally voiced concern about further housing in the town.
After years of legal wrangles, appeals and revisions which scaled the Hatchfield project down from its original 1,200 homes, the Tory-controlled Forest Heath District Council passed the project last month by a 10 to five majority.
Just over a week later Mr Pickles announced that he was “calling in” the development to review their decision.
Mr Hancock, who has been against the development on Lord Derby’s land since he was first elected to parliament in 2010, described the decision taken by his government colleague as “positive news for Newmarket and the racing industry as a whole”.
However the decision flies in the face of current government policy, with the new Housing and Planning minister, Brandon Lewis, saying the government had “got Britain building again” and that his department would “pull out all the stops to help Britain’s housing industry”.
Simon Cole, an independent on the district council, said: “The contacts between Matt Hancock and Eric Pickles and letter the MP sent to the Secretary of State were mentioned ahead of the vote. So before we even sat down to make the decision, we knew someone else would be making it for us.”
Mr Cole said: “Newmarket is a town of have and have-nots. And it is being strangled by the very industry that feeds it. People who have money like to secure their interests through politics and they donate accordingly. A democratic decision was taken by an elected council, and a lot of Tory voters are shocked that Matt Hancock has nailed his colours to the mast of the horse racing industry.”
Mr Pickles’ department confirmed receipt of a letter about Hatchfield from Mr Hancock, but said any decision to reveal its content rested with Mr Hancock.
Organisations opposed to the housing project include the British Horseracing Authority, Newmarket’s Horseman Group, the Racehorse Owners Association and the Jockey Club.
Tattersalls, the oldest bloodstock auctioneer in the world and the largest thoroughbred sales house in Europe, also opposes Hatchfield, claiming it would create higher traffic volumes and was “too great a change” for a town heavily reliant on horse racing and breeding.
Since 2010, Tattersalls, which has its headquarters in Newmarket, has donated more than £50,000 to the West Suffolk Conservative constituency party. The donations include £10,000 in February 2011, £5,000 in March 2011 and £6,000 in May 2011.
Tattersalls’ marketing director, Jimmy George, said: “Yes, we’ve made donations over many years in support of our local MP, Matt Hancock, and before him Richard Spring. They’ve worked hard on behalf of the constituency and for the horse racing industry which is hugely important to us and to the community of Newmarket. And the donations reflect that.”
Asked about the council vote and Mr Hancock’s personal appeals to Eric Pickles, and whether or not Tattersalls had helped influence the decision to call in the development, Mr George said: “Look, you need to speak to Matthew Hancock on stuff like that. That is not for me to speculate. Those are matters I do not want to get involved in.”
Other wealthy stud farm owners in Newmarket have contributed to the West Suffolk Tory party over the past three years. They include the billionaire Kirsten Rausing, owner of the Lanwades stud farm in Newmarket. She is listed in the Commons Register of Members’ Interests as donating £5,000 to Mr Hancock’s constituency party in March 2011.
The Cheveley Park stud, owned by David Thompson, the co-founder of Hillsdown Holdings, one of the UK’s largest food businesses, also donated £10,000 to the local Tory party in May 2011.
Other stud-farm owners who have given similar donations include Bill Gredley, who gave £10,000, also in 2011.
William Gittus, managing director of the Jockey Club, said Mr Hancock had been “representing” the industry and the town. “The industry [horse racing and breeding] employs 8,500 living within a 25-mile radius. The annual growth value added is £208m. Planning laws protect the horse racing industry’s assets. This is one of the reasons why Newmarket is still the powerhouse it is today.”
Officials at the Business Department were asked if Mr Hancock wanted to comment on his contacts with Mr Pickles and the donations to his constituency party. Although initially stating that this was a constituency party matter, a spokesperson later said: “Matthew has been a strong supporter of racing since before he was MP. In representing Newmarket – racing’s global headquarters – of course he sticks up for the racing industry, and the 9,000 jobs it creates nearby.”