By this time a few people will have attended one of the Neighbourhood Plan workshops. I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did. For those who didn’t make it I would heartily recommend going along to any future running a. Whether or not you want to engage in the Neighbourhood Plan process, the exercise which was led by the team was enlightening.
We take the planning process for granted. We assume that our Councillors and the Derbyshire Dales Planning department know what they are doing and they will make the right decisions on our behalf. What we don’t realise is just how much subjectivity is involved in the process. At the moment we are at the mercy of Sustainability as the only tissue paper standing between a building free-for-all and retaining some form of community with Ashbourne’s values and a place where the next generation may want to live.
In the absence of a Local Plan, since Derbyshire Dales’ attempt was sent back to the drawing board by the Inspector, we are wholly reliant on the much more strategic National Planning Policy Framework. It places an emphasis on all development having to demonstrate sustainability in three areas – economic, environmental and social. This means that developers should put forward plans which demonstrate a recognition of this in their designs. Of course there is a danger that this all gets bogged down in a theoretical and semantic debate. Developers can pay consultants to cut and paste sections from previously approved applications and it will be very difficult to apply any consistent argument against them. Right now a whole series of outline planning applications are going through without any real scrutiny. The developers argue that they are sustainable and in the absence of a Local Plan the District Council is forced to accept them.
This is where the Neighbourhood Plan team are looking to adopt Building for Life – an industry standard for new housing development which has been created by academics, forward thinking developers, the Design Council and the Home Builders’ Federation. With those people behind the scheme it should carry credibility. Their ethos is very difficult to argue with – “housing should be attractive, functional and sustainable”. Their guide then spells out a scoring mechanism for evaluating applications. It allows builders to work with communities to develop housing which meets the criteria and gives communities a way of telling the builders what they want.
At the Neighbourhood Plan workshops we walked through some examples – one current planning application and another scenario of Darren Archer’s making. Applications are evaluated against 12 criteria and scored green, amber or red depending on the degree of compliance. Remember, permission is already being awarded but the detailed planning permission is still to be discussed – we are going to get a lot of new houses but this is about making sure they are of the right sort and add value to our community. The Building For Life Framework gives a fair and objective set of criteria to defuse the tensions. The hardest thing is to cast prejudices aside and try and think objectively.
Take for example the questions about infrastructure. The question in the Building For Life framework is entitled Facilities and Services. It asks “does the development provide (or is close to) community facilities, such as shops, schools, workplaces, parks, play areas, pubs or cafes”. It is shocking how none of the plans that we have seen actually answer the question. Schooling is absolutely fundamental to new residents in the town. School places are actually the responsibility of the County Council rather than the District Council planning department. The builders don’t have to provide the school places but it is surely their responsibility to create places to live where this has been thought through. House prices are influenced by the quality of local schools and this could help to sell the completed houses.
It is worth considering some of the previous Ashbourne developments to see the importance of considering Facilities and Services. For example, the Shires estate has no provision of shops, cafes, workplaces etc. This doesn’t necessarily make it a bad development but would it have been better if this had been thought through? A play area could certainly have made the estate a better place for families – all the other developments in the town have play areas and open green spaces. A shop towards the bottom of the estate would have made the estate more feasible for older residents without affecting the trade of the nearby independent retailers.With the closure of the Black Sheep there is a lengthy, hilly walk to the nearest pub. Some of the submissions have suggested that the Plough is still open and none of them mention the severe gradient to actually get back from it! This last point highlights what must change. The lack of scrutiny of even an outline planning permission is unacceptable. The recent planning permissions have been based on out-of-date lazy internet searches and cutting and pasting from old documents and they have been approved despite references to non-existent pubs, supermarkets, schools and even Tube transport!
Right now the rating on the question about Facilities and Services in all the recent housing planning applications would have to be red. This isn’t because the sites are bad. Rather it is typically because there isn’t enough information in the application or the information is incorrect. A red wouldn’t stop the application but it would make the developer think about how they explain their solution or even adapt their plan. Better still, the existence of a marking scheme for the developers in advance would mean they could make their ideas clear from the start. They could go and talk to local head teachers, employers, transport companies, prospective neighbours, young people and older people and put forward something far more compelling which we would be foolish to refuse. This must be better than the current method of scrutiny which is unnecessarily aggressive and divisive.
Personally I am really disappointed that Derbyshire Dales housing plans seem to be bogged down in legal debate rather than aspiring to create great places to live. It is causing uncertainty and fear which doesn’t help anyone. If Building For Life can appear as a white knight in the absence of a Local Plan it can only be a good thing because if we don’t get a grip soon we are going to end up with a vast swathe of unwelcoming, characterless, dangerous, car-centric commuter homes. If you get the chance, read the material and attend one of the workshops. You might just change your views.