I came away from the Neighbourhood Plan meeting in the week feeling thoroughly deflated and despairing for local democracy. I am beginning to feel the helplessness that people have expressed in Scotland and are beginning to do so in towns across Britain. There doesn’t need to be change but, if those who already have the authority are not reflecting the views of the electorate…why not?
In front of an audience which left people standing at the back Jeffrey Phillips chaired the meeting and the centre piece was a presentation from Darren Archer. Darren repeated the story of how the District Council’s Local Plan had been rejected at the first hurdle. The Inspector noticed that the housing need had not been assessed and so he advised against continuing. We have professional planners at our District Council and they failed to carry out an exercise to identify how many houses we needed to build, of what sort. Instead they used population growth statistics and went for a number of houses which was lower than the population figures suggested. It’s not as if there wasn’t enough time. It’s certainly not about money – around £129k was set aside for the Local Plan a couple of years ago.
The consequence of that failure is that the builders can now argue that, as long as they are sustainable, developments must be approved because there is a shortage of housing supply in Derbyshire Dales. What we are realising now is that once the Local Plan protective dam breaks everybody is under water. The first appeal, for Willow Meadow Farm, resulted in the District Council’s planning refusal being overturned on the basis of housing shortage and this cost at least £30,000 to defend. Our Planning Officer’s interpretation is that this means that every objection is likely to be sustained and that we shouldn’t spend taxpayer’s money defending any more. This is the same Planning Officer who failed to oversee the process and offer the right advice to members in the first place! And here is my first gripe…the future of Ashbourne and other towns in the Dales is being dictated by an unelected group of Planners whose wages are paid for by all of us.
Unfortunately, after their initial error they are still expressing an opinion to the District Councillors. The failure of the Willow Meadow Farm development is not a legal precedent that will automatically be repeated elsewhere. There is no doubt that any argument on housing numbers will fail but, as Darren Archer pointed out, in the absence of a Local Plan the National Planning Policy Framework is the next level up. Approximately one in three appeals, where no Local Plan exists, are successful. The NPPF spells out the requirements for sustainability – economic, social and environmental. Even on these grounds there is a clear basis for appeal (we are still reliant on the judgement of another unelected Inspector). The applications being submitted do not address the issues associated with the developments. They should be gone through with a fine tooth comb. The developers are getting off lightly with so many cut-and-paste errors in their applications which in any workplace would undermine confidence in the whole document – it would be just returned unread with a terse Post-It telling the writer to stop wasting everyone’s time. They refer to long-closed schools, long-closed pubs, supermarkets and even tube travel and yet no-one is batting an eyelid. This is shocking, anyone who wants to extend their own home will know the scrutiny that is involved but it seems that for big construction companies they have special exemption to just photocopy the last one they did.
Although the number of houses may not affect everyone initially – I think many people are thinking that this is about disruption from building sites – population growth definitely will. Last week the outline planning application for the airfield development of over 300 houses was approved. In it the developers proposed that Osmaston School will deal with the additional 73 students and the builder is offering £823k to pay for them. This sounds ok except 73 pupils means three new classrooms and probably 50 additional cars in the village every morning and evening. Catering is in the neighbouring church hall and the kitchens will need to be reviewed as well as the capacity of the hall. If we are looking at this proportionately all of the other developments are planning on Hilltop providing schooling for their primary school kids. This must be in the order of 150 extra pupils, six new classrooms and chaos on the roads around the school. No-one has checked whether there is physically the land to build those classrooms and, inevitably, it will result in a reduction of space for children to play.
The applications each look at traffic and look at the impact of their application in isolation. What no one has to do is look at the combined impact of all the applications together. The Southern crescent bordering the town will potentially have 1000 extra houses on it. Can the junction at the bottom of Derby Road and even Springfield Road really support that traffic? We don’t know because no-one has asked and, because the District Council (on the advice of its Planners) has abrogated its responsibility we are all going to be affected by an Ashbourne which is potentially a third bigger than it is today.
So how are there no safeguards against this madness? The Local Plan is a great big wall to stop this kind of thing happening and the lack of a Local Plan to stop some applications ever being submitted is critical. The second weakness is that Members of the Council – there are sixteen who vote on Southern Area Planning decisions – have to rely on the advice they are given by the Planners. This is because the Planning applications are enormous and full of legal references. They are like great big letters from lawyers which are designed to sound unarguable and binding. The Planning Officers provide a quite detailed overview of the application to the Members and then there is a hearing which may last an hour or so. Herein lies another problem with the current system. Members of the public who have a view are only given three minutes at the start to make their case. Three minutes is an incredibly short time to make any real point. Members of the Council are not professionals and expecting to give proper time to something of this magnitude in only an hour is ridiculous. The Houses of Parliament will spend days debating issues with far less impact on Ashbourne. By definition they are forced to rely heavily on the opinion of the unaccountable Planning Officers. And then the topic is put to the vote. Ashbourne has four Members on the committee but 12 represent other wards with exactly the same threats. A vote for an Ashbourne development potentially alleviates the need for a housing development elsewhere – let’s face it, we’d all vote for a thousand houses in Matlock right now if we thought it would mean we could keep our green fields and character. We’ll go through the same rigmarole when we get into the detailed planning proposals as all the promised affordable housing gets discarded in exchange for Section 106 money and changes to business use clauses emerge.
It is shocking that we have no way of fighting this process which is so heavily reliant on a strong Planning Department. The Planners were invited to the Neighbourhood Plan meeting but declined as they felt that it was inappropriate to attend a “community meeting”. I want to congratulate Councillors Tom Donnelly and Tony Millward BEM for coming along and explaining the challenges they face.
I need to be clear – I am neither NIMBY nor xenophobe. Ashbourne does need to have more housing. We need to help the next generation and support the growth of our industry. I don’t mind it being built alongside my house as long as it respects its neighbours in the design and I think there are many ways that this can be achieved. However, through Eric Pickles, Grant Shapps, Patrick McLoughlin, Derbyshire County Council and Derbyshire Dales District Council the process is broken (and it is broken all over the country). I wrote to our MP Patrick McLoughlin a few months ago and he replied promptly that he couldn’t intervene on Planning decisions but he had spoken to Eric Pickles about it and was up to speed with Lewis Rose. I want to be told why I am a fool or action not an update on our MP’s diary – I also want an update without having to ask for one. We are lacking the common sense of a leader to say Stop! In every other walk of life that is what true leaders do – rather than carry on with a farce creating more and more damage they take a little pain in the short term to get it right in the longer term. I want conviction representatives like Darren Archer, Lucy Green, Tom Donnelly and Tony Millward who won’t just roll over and take the punishment.
This is why Alex Salmond struck a chord in Scotland and why the laughable UKIP are making such ground in England. It isn’t because anyone thinks they know the way to a wonderful tomorrow but rather that the obvious risk in supporting them is worth it because they may be able to restore some sense of dignity and direction today. They make mistakes but at least they strive. I didn’t really get it until now.