Planning or Spinning our way to 376 new houses in Ashbourne?

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

There was a meeting of the Local Plan Advisory committee held in the QEGS School Hall this week to review the recommendations of the Planning Officers and the results of consultation. The turnout was enormous and in keeping with all recent meetings on planning issues.

In August I expressed a fear that the consultation would be divisive and I am pleased to say that, from an Ashbourne point of view, I was wrong. The relationship between our town and the District Council however has never been poorer.

The four sites for consideration were outlined in the Summer – the airfield and then three sites of greenfield land to the south of the town. Although the airfield would accommodate all the new housing in one site, any other approach would involve at least two of the other sites.

The process being followed by DDDC initially involved the Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment. The four sites mentioned above were identified according to the following criteria:

  • Sites immediately abutting the Settlement Framework boundaries or existing development.
  • Sites with a capacity of at least 5 dwellings
  • Sites capable of being integrated into the existing settlement pattern
  • Sites which can be assimilated into the local landscape without undue detriment
  • Sites where the existing use is no longer viable or no longer required.

I think the rot in the process started here. I would take some convincing that whoever ran this part of the process did anything more than use Google Earth to find big plots of land close to Ashbourne and then eliminate the Rec. It is embarrassing that our amateurs found one more site which met the criteria in the SHLAA opinion and a further 5 which apparently don’t. I think that the criteria associated with how well a site can be assimilated into the local landscape is entirely subjective and should not be left to a planner. It astonishes me that whoever made this initial bungle is not held to account.

Because of this incompetence we could only have consultation on four of the five sites. Ashbourne was absolutely overwhelming in its message to DDDC. We then finally saw the recommendation in a report ostensibly by the Director of Planning and Housing but with the contact details of Mike Hase, Planning Policy Manager. It was dated 28th November for a meeting on…you guessed it 28th November. Its summary of the consultation outcome is humiliatingly poor. On the night I understand there were some excellent speeches from, amongst others, Andrew Lewer. I hope these are followed up with action rather than just playing to the crowd.

Its first misleading inference is that there were 735 responses of which 96 objected to development in Ashbourne and, according to DDDC’s report, 601 of them supported development in Ashbourne. This can only come from responses which objected to greenfield development but reluctantly would accept brownfield development. As an example from the report:

An objection to Ashbourne looks like this: “Against the proposal to build 400 new houses in the Ashbourne area. I understand that this proposal is vital for growth, and sustainability however I cannot see how a further 400 houses will keep this balance”

General Ashbourne Support looks like “Strong support for Brownfield development”…..hmmm really? Anyone but the most biassed would know the sentiment is brownfield is preferable to greenfield.

Most astonishingly of all, under “general Ashbourne observations”, not objections, come “why do we need 400 houses when apparently over 300 have been built?”, There are many people unemployed, bringing more people into the town would only bring the unemployment figures down”, and “Ashbourne is a tourist town, if you add more residents rush hour will become much worse”.

We had further examples of spurious information which hinted at some kind of skewing of public opinion. There was no mention on the online form for public consultation of this but the report states that, by analysing the postcodes given by respondents, they found that 69% of respondents were from properties close to the affected sites. This is amateur stuff which anyone with an ounce of knowledge of statistics could tear apart. What does “close to the development” mean? Does this infer that, given we are all so in favour of Ashbourne development, those living nearest the sites are more in favour than anyone else? It is laughable if it didn’t matter so much to our town.

And there is more – There is a footnote attached to the table which indicates that of the 735 responses made in writing, “477 were made using the same circular letter which indicated opposition to development of greenfield sites around Ashbourne, and if development was really necessary support for residential development on Ashbourne airfield”. This refers to the admirable efforts of Peter Fox and AshbourneAware to keep people informed and to get their views across. I think it is unacceptable for the report author to make an inference without making any explanation of why it felt it was relevant. The report really can’t make it’s mind up – presumably, given the number, these are in its figures of supporters for Ashbourne development. As with the investigation of postcodes I find it astonishing that this comment is permitted in an official report. If there is a rule which says each submission must be written in a different way I didn’t see it. These are as legitimate as any other response.

Alarm bells should be ringing everywhere – there is no reason to misrepresent the views in this way other than to try and spin what is coming next and sure enough, the Planning Officer doesn’t disappoint.

The final process is to prioritise the sites according to another set of criteria – this time there are 14 questions which scores have been given against.

1. Previously developed in whole or part

2. Ecological and environmental constraints

3. Historic constraints

4. Site access and highway impact

5. Access public transport

6. Access to services and facilities

7. Flood risk

8. Landscape setting – Airfield scored 3 while the greenfield sites scored 2 (bearing in mind the greenfield sites had already supposedly passed this hurdle)

9. Infrastructure constraints

10. Infrastructure enhancement

11. Housing needs

12. Bad neighbour constraints.

13. Ownership constraints

14. Timeframe for delivery. This was a crucial one but the planning officer claimed the airfield could not be delivered in the next five years whereas the greenfield sites could – until, of course, the owners of the land and an expert stood up and told him otherwise.

What is obvious is that the consultation was a waste of time. The report ignored all the findings and drew a conclusion that two of the greenfield sites should be priority 1 and the airfield only as priority 2. This was based on a decision by the development officer that priority 1 constituted those sites scoring 3 or above on questions 2, 4, 7, 9, 12, and which are deliverable within 5 years. The key issue was the need to develop in the next 5 years – again this was not in the original consultation and the Planning Officer was humiliated again. His argument appeared to be based on the need to do the airfield in one tranche whereas the greenfield sites could be done in smaller bites. I am seeking clarification on this.

I fear that this is all going through the motions. The priorities mean nothing when the housing companies come knocking at the door in Matlock offering money to spend on infrastructure. To me there is a clear agenda in the way the report was written. We paid for this report through our rates and we should demand our money back for the superficial, inaccurate and biassed tripe we got in return. If the people we are paying to plan are incompetent we should also ask their superiors to take action. If a report was published at National Government level which proved to be based on poor investigation and false assumptions heads would rightly roll. To be clear, those who have read my previous blogs on the subject will know I am moderate on my views on housing in Ashbourne – I see the need but I believe in a democratic process. I want the right decision not the easy decision and I don’t like bullies or people hiding behind job titles. I really believe that we can end up with meeting everyone’s objectives and a better town. Derbyshire Dales District Council is under pressure at the moment, as everyone else is in the current economic climate, but this is the wrong way to respond to it.

Thankfully Ashbourne is more united as a result of this process and the expertise has been unearthed to ensure progress is not as quick as DDDC may like in areas which are entirely unsuitable. If our planners and our District Councillors are incapable of doing their job maybe we have to, reluctantly,  do it for them.

About justaukcook

/kʊk/ Not a chef, not an epicure, not a foodie. Just one who likes to prepare food – What really happens in the kitchen and on the high street is what I write about. Follow me on Twitter @Justaukcook and on
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