There is a germ of an opportunity afoot. There is also a risk of us all getting what we don’t want if we become too intransigent. Whether we like it or not we are going to end up with around 400 new homes being built in Ashbourne. The national plan dictates how many each county council needs to provide and each district council gets its instruction. No council which wants to get re-elected is going to volunteer to take more than its share.
In Ashbourne we are in danger of carrying on a fight which has already been lost. We are taking the stance that we never wanted them and therefore we don’t care where they are or what they look like. Everyone is a NIMBY, it’s just there are fewer of them around the airfield. By just saying no to everything we are at the planner’s and Derbyshire Dales District Council’s mercy. There are hundreds of millions of pounds of money involved in these decisions. There could be legal challenges which a public body cannot afford to defend or justify the expense. There will be developers who know what to say, and when to say it, to get a “yes” from planning authorities. They know how to play the game of researching the Airfield as a housing development and finding out that it was infeasible and so all the lower priorities come back into play. This is already in play with the PR exercise that the airfield isn’t really brownfield and that it is so large you could fit thousands of houses on it.
Most importantly of all there are people in Ashbourne who desperately need accommodation. There are people who would contribute to our economy and our community who really want to come but can’t find a house. They must wonder what on earth we are all doing! We now need to now turn our attention, quickly, to making the most of the 400 new houses and stop fighting old wars.
On the positive side of the developments:
- How are we going to make sure that our next generation get the houses they can afford and would like to live in?
- What can we do to make sure that we solve some of the town’s problems at the same time?
- What kind of people do we want to attract into this housing and how are we going to integrate them into our community?
- What additional facilities are we going to need to make it better?
On the negative side:
- How can we do this in a way that respects and protects the legitimate concerns of property owners who could lose quality of life or property value?
- How can we ensure that the developers are forced to stick to their plans?
I am convinced that there is a solution to this that we will all look back on and appreciate. I think it rests on the fact that Ashbourne is a hilly town. I think that an alternative could be that we could end up with using all the sites mentioned in the original plan and end up with something positive for all concerned and a framework for the next 400.
Take the example of ASH3 – the land accessible off Wyaston Lane and running between the Shires Estate and the bypass. All the plans I have seen build along the top edge of the land backing on to the Shires estate and all the property owners there are concerned because they will have their view over the fields and golf course spoiled which in turn will affect the value of their property. Instead of building 234 houses there why not build 120 further down the slope so that the view is not obstructed? You could have all the benefits put forward for the site without the negatives. Effectively this is what is already being done with ASH4 – where the site as a whole can house over 160 homes but only 80 are being built in the bottom portion of the site. The same could be done with the other sites – a smaller number more sensitively placed and using each to best advantage. The airfield, for example, could be ideally placed for a development of executive larger homes. The owners are more likely to have multiple cars, use private schooling, are less likely to use the town amenities, would tend to buy the “barn” conversions locally and more of the budget could be afforded to solve the smell around the Yeldersley area and required landscaping. We have been concentrating on one large block of development rather than spreading the load whereas for years we have accepted smaller blocks of development without concern.
The second point is about getting the goodness out of the development for the town. We should make out a shopping list of what we want and assigning them to each developer as a tariff for getting the planning go ahead. We do need to learn the lesson of the Cedar House Developments fiasco and ensure that there is additional payment for any variation to the original terms of the planning and that the non-housing developments required are phased. For example, the executive housing development would need to fund the road amendments required to give access off the A52 ( which should be less extensive given the smaller development) before they start building houses. They would also be responsible for improving the air quality and water pollution in the area before being able to sell a single house.
For at least one of the developments we need to ensure they are for affordable housing and that there is a scheme in place to ensure there can be no buy-to-let landlords. Ideally the development closest to the centre of town would seem the most appropriate. There should be a registration scheme being put in place now to ensure there is some sort of residency assessment to prioritise local people. There should also be covenants which ensure the occupant will not sell the house within ten years of purchase or it reverts to some sort of Housing Association.
Another of the developments would be required to provide extensive car parking (if we can’t get Cedar House to provide 400 places alongside their footpath) close to the town centre.
All of these improvements will cost money and the developers will argue that they can’t afford to do this because it will make the houses unaffordable. There is already a premium paid for houses in some locations – Bakewell is more expensive than Matlock. They are more expensive because they are deemed to have a better quality of life and better facilities. If we don’t demand these improvements we will end up having to pay for them ourselves (like the council had to pay for a temporary footpath because Cedar House didn’t deliver on their promise) or our quality of life will be reduced with all resources being shared by more people.
We need to be determined and united in making sure the developers pay the proper price for doing business in Ashbourne. And in return we will be a fair town to do business with. We need a team approach and it will require each party to give a little:
- The developers will need to be given enough leeway to make the proposition attractive. They also need to be encouraged to think creatively and to bring their expertise more into play. Unfortunately they need to accept that their track record of actually delivering what they signed up to in Ashbourne is a poor one and that going forward we won’t tolerate it. This is crucial because what we have seen is that the type of development is sold to us as bringing the type of people and businesses that we want to the town. Once it is in place and it fails to do so (because the developer made a mistake in their assumptions) the only alternative is to change the planning restrictions it seems. This will allow the development to succeed but attract precisely the sort of people and businesses we wanted to exclude in the first place and so the town loses.
- The Planners need to stop pretending there is a science behind what they do. Many of their decisions are just based on opinion (if this was not the case why would costly planning applications which fail ever be submitted). The Local Plan is extremely vague and just quoting numbers of vague subsections is a justification not an explanation of policy decisions. The ridiculous decisions about the Heritage Area have to stop. Derbyshire Dales Planning Department are clearly not in touch with Ashbourne opinion and need to cut through the pressure from well known retailers and businesses. Less of the Coffee Stop persecution and more of the Cedar House footpath enforcement. Personally I would like to be rid of the “recommendation” stage in local Government consultations. I have read the supporting evidence in two of the DDDC ones so far and have been able to challenge the underlying data and conclusions in both. The process jumps from statements of fact, interspersed with opinion paraded as fact, to very specific conclusions with no joining up. This isn’t surprising because the authors don’t live in the place where the consultation affects and don’t do this job day after day. By definition consultations will happen rarely. Recommendations therefore don’t usually stand up to much scrutiny and anger people who are affected unnecessarily. Councillors don’t have the expertise or the time to know how poorly qualified on the subject their advisors are and so are bound to take the opinion unless people challenge it. QED if no-one challenges, bad decisions get made and sadly some topics are of limited interest or their significance is not recognised. The most important parts of the process which planners can offer are rigorous diligence, contractual and legal expertise and enforcement.
- But finally, the third part of the team is us. We have to give a clear brief to everyone about what we do want and we need to be more strategic in our thinking. We need to educate ourselves so that we make an informed rather than a bigoted opinion on issues like affordable housing, our young people and the local economy. Saying no to everything is easy but if we do so we will get fewer resources and be a less attractive recipient of inward business investment. The town will shrink and there will be an even greater negative impact on our high street. Many of our children are moving away from the town to go to university or for employment and never returning because they don’t see prospects here. Too often we are represented by the unelected “elders” of the town, senior figures who proclaim undying love for the town they once lived in – or the people who shout the loudest. The picture they paint of an Ashbourne in the future is too often unrealistic, unattractive or outdated. There are some young, articulate and passionate voices with excellent skills who remain unheard because they don’t have a platform. The only place where this kind of debate seems to happen these days is the Ashbourne Partnership and perhaps now would be a good time to release their shackles and develop their role and funding.
In principle the Neighbourhood Plan is a way of developing consensus but, unless this is truly representative, the real risk is that this could also fossilise the Town for over a decade. By saying no to everything we could shoot ourselves in the foot by ensuring we miss the opportunity of the occasional very important yes.