Pick ‘n’ Mix Localism

Last week the Government announced that it is changing the balance in planning to give greater weight to local concerns on wind farms.  On the surface this seems a good thing: giving people a greater say in how their area changes.  This is from a Government that has promised much on localism and then done exactly the opposite.  So have we turned a corner, and is localism at long last now being placed at the heart of planning?

In short, no. Recently, the Government changed the planning rules around converting empty office space into new homes so that developers need no longer apply for planning permission, i.e. it has taken power away from local communities.  This has been hotly contested by some Councils and threatens to undermine their attempts to retain enough employment land to provide local jobs for residents.

This comes on the back of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which gives a presumption in favour of ‘sustainable development’ and with its requirement over housing provision is actually making it harder for local people to determine how their area develops.  Combine this with the NPPF’s unrealistic time-frame for local planning authorities to adopt Local Plans and this is seem by many as a real threat to local planning control.  It is getting so bad that some people are beginning to wonder whether we would have been better off keeping regional planning!

On top of this the Growth & Infrastructure Act has further relaxed (and centralised) planning control, particularly around masts and telecommunications, while politicians talk of kick-starting the national economy with new infrastructure investment.  No doubt there are arguments for and against such investment, but if the Government is really committed to localism it has got to do more than allowing local communities to create Neighbourhood Plans and tweaking the rules around wind farms.

The South Downs is under pressure to accept several major developments within its borders and there are fears, such as around St Cuthmans, that national policy on education or economic development will ride roughshod over the need to protect the National Park.  The National Park Authority needs the power to determine these applications and prioritise conservation and enhancement of the National Park’s special qualities.  Otherwise, we risk degrading an important natural asset in the pursuit of short term economic gain, which could end up costing us more in the long term.  

Unless the Government is going to give local people the power to decide on new road schemes, shale gas extraction (fracking – already raising its head at Fernhurst) and a whole range of other large scale developments, particularly on housing numbers, its decision to change the rules on wind farms looks out of step with its centralising approach to planning.  Rather than a realisation that it has got the balance wrong and needs to redress this, the change in approach to wind farms appears little more than a political sop.

A School Too Far?

Recently, one of the most tranquil parts of the South Downs National Park has generated quite a lot of noise far beyond its boundaries.  Previously, St Cuthman’s, a special needs school for around 100 pupils that closed in 2004, was little known except amongst the local community.  However, all that changed a few weeks ago after a local councillor made racist comments to a national newspaper, for which he has since apologised, in relation to the Durand Academy’s proposals for the site.

On the one hand, it has created a vigorous debate, more centred on class inequalities and educational opportunities than the planning issues which should ultimately determine whether this site is developed or not.  However, on the other hand concerns about the environmental impact of the proposals have at long last started to be aired.

The Durand Academy’s aspiration, on the surface, has much to commend it – giving inner city teenagers a chance to excel in a different environment.  However, the concerns arise because of the choice of location for its weekday boarding school along with the size of its proposals.  At over 600 pupils, the proposed school would be six times bigger than what was previously there, with a considerable amount of new build, primarily six new 3-storey accomodation blocks and two new school buildings.

To start with, St Cuthman’s is located in the north-eastern corner of the parish of Stedham with Iping, close to Woolbeding and Redford parish.  This is one of the most tranquil and innaccessible parts of the South Downs National Park and is lightly populated.  It is close to the Woolbeding and Pound Common Site of Special Scientific Interest, and the National Trust which has significant landholdings in the area is concerned that this development would lead to a suburbanisation of the landscape.

The site is only accessible via narrow country lanes, unsuited to large coaches, HGV construction traffic and the on-going servicing of the site.  It is also far from a railway station, with poor access to the strategic road network.

There are also concerns about the impact on Wispers, a grade II listed building, and the walled garden which would have a refectory built in it.

Durand’s consultants claim to have searched far and wide for a suitable site, and that St Cuthman’s came out top by a considerable margin according to their criteria.  However, a closer look at their alternative sites report shows some rather bizarre scoring for St Cuthman’s.  To start with it scores 10 out of 10 on road access, yet is only accessible via small country lanes, while other properties closer to the motorway network scored lower.  The same is true for planning.  While it might be true that the site currently is allocated for educational uses, this is not a modest expansion, more like a new major development and as such it is innappropriate in a National Park.  Yet this does not seem to have been considered for St Cuthman’s, while planning difficulties for other sites were played up.

It is clear that this proposal will be a test of the South Downs National Park Authority’s (SDNPA) resolve to conserve and enhance the South Downs and the effectiveness of the Government’s National Policy Planning Framework to safeguard nationally designated landscapes.  Unlike the King Edward VII hospital redevelopment, where the SDNPA’s hands were tied by previous permissions from Chichester District Council, there is no precedent with this site, other than its previous use.  However, given the substantial nature of this proposal, it should be treated as a major new development.

No doubt there will be high level political pressure for this to be approved, but the SDNPA must stand firm and rise above the politics to put the National Park first.  Local people who, to date, have largely led the opposition to this development have set up a petition calling on the SDNPA to reject the proposals.  However, it is not just locals who will be following this proposal closely, but people right across the Park, not least the many who campaigned so vigorously to make this a National Park in the first place.

Rampion improvements, but are they enough?

This week, E.ON has been sending out letters outlining the changes to its Rampion wind farm proposals and how people can continue to be involved with the process.

The good news is that E.ON has listened to concerns about the impact of the proposals on the Heritage Coast.  To address this they have reduced the size of the maximum area of the wind farm by 24% (mainly in the east) and the maximum number of turbines has been reduced to 175.  Most importantly, the field of view of the wind farm from the Heritage Coast has reduced by over a third, from 31 degrees to 20 degrees.

E.ON has also made changes in the marine area to reduce the impact on fishing, shipping, marine ecology and the wave climate (for surfers).

Onshore, there are some minor tweaks to the underground cable route and its installation but it is still taking a very long route through the South Downs National Park.  E.ON has also committed to develop a communications strategy so people will be aware of any closures or diversions to rights of way.

Whether these measures overcome various concerns remains to be seen and further improvements might still be possible, particularly with regard to the impact on the Heritage Coast, if E.ON is able to provide a capacity of 700 MW without using the full area.

For now, people have until 11 May, 2013 to register their interest with the Planning Inspectorate if they wish to comment on the application.  They can also view the application documents online or at various local locations.

Making tracks

The recent announcement that the Government is investing £12 million to support cycling in National Parks is good news indeed.  All too often over the years, politicians have said how important walking and cycling are, yet have consistently failed to back the fine words with hard cash.

This increased investment comes at a time when there has been a resurgence in cycling over a number of years, but which has really taken off with the success of Bradley Wiggins and our other Olympians last summer.  Not only will it be good for public health and the environment, investing in cycling in the National Parks will be good for the local economy too.

Already in the South Downs National Park, there are a number of initiatives looking at the feasibility of improving cycling.  One of these is SHORTcut (Sussex and Hampshire Off Road Road Track) which is a local registered charity which has been established to promote and develop a new Greenway track for walkers, cyclists and horse riders.

It’s looking at a route along the old railway line from Petersfield Train station to Midhurst.  The track would be almost completely off road and ideal for children and families to use.

Further east, Brighton & Hove City Council is looking to improve links to Stanmer Park and ultimately to Ditchling Beacon along Ditchling Road.

While all of these projects are in their early stages, they offer a real opportunity to significantly increase access to and within the National Park for families wanting to leave their cars at home.  They can also become attractions in their own right as can be seen by the success of the Monsal Trail in the Peak District.  Closer to home the popularity of Centurion Way and the Cuckoo Trail highlight the demand that there is for better cycle facilities.  Hopefully, these are just the beginning.

We must seize this opportunity with both hands.  At the moment cycle provision is ad-hoc and fragmented.  Getting a few projects off the ground to show hows things could be might be the catalyst that is needed to inspire further improvements.  The more these can be linked up, the more popular and viable they will become.  Let’s hope the Park Authority is both bold and ambitious in helping to take this forward.

A Sign of the Times

In celebration of the Queen’s diamond jubilee, a giant ‘E’, 100 metres tall has been fashioned out of trees in the National Park.  Situated on the north facing slope of the South Downs above the village of Firle in East Sussex, it’s similar to the giant ‘V’ created to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee at Streat.

Initially the idea was to plant trees in the shape of an ‘E’ but this caused a lot of concern as it would have damaged important and rare chalk grassland.  So instead, scrub and woodland has been cleared to reveal an ‘E’ made up of untouched trees.

The removed woodland had developed from scrub and a lack of management of the area.  Its clearance will lead to a re-establishement of chalk grassland, which today covers less than 5% of the South Downs, and is to be welcomed.

There may be differing views as to the value of carrying out such a project and whether we should be creating artificial shapes, albeit out of natural materials, in prominent locations on the Downs.  There is also a risk that ravers might be attracted to the site given its symbolism and the passion for partying in the area.

Whatever the concerns, we shall have to wait and see how it develops.  One thing for sure is that it shows what can be done with a bit of passion and goodwill.  All the work has been done by volunteers and with help from local firms.

The ‘E’ will be officially ‘opened’ by a member of the royal family in the spring.

On the bus

Paul’s bus with some of the crowd

Last week in Lewes, saw the launch of a bus with a difference.  Named after Paul Millmore, long time South Downs campaigner and Network member, the gleaming hybrid bus, with fuel consumption 30-35% less than a standard bus, was launched by Norman Baker, MP for Lewes and Under-Secretary of State for Transport.

Helping with unveiling the bus name was Bridget Millmore, Paul’s widow, and Roger French, managing director of Brighton & Hove Bus Company.  Watching was the Mayor of Lewes, Councillor Michael Chartier, along with a crowd of over 70.

Roger French, Bridget Millmore and Norman buy cialis online Baker MP unveil Paul’s name

Brighton & Hove Buses has a popular tradition of naming its buses after someone (who has died) with a strong local connection and who has made a significant contribution to the area in some way or another.  After his death earlier this year, Paul’s name was put forward.  It was accepted in recognition of the huge role he played in the National Park campaign and conservation generally, his love of Lewes, and his active contribution to community life.

Appropriately, the bus is being brought into service on the 28 route from Brighton to Lewes, which passes through the National Park and Lewes.  It is a fitting tribute to a person who gave so much and with so much passion.

So don’t be shocked if you see Paul back on the streets of Lewes.  Maybe you’ll even be lucky enough to take a trip with him through the National Park.

Will Anyone Notice?

A couple of weeks ago, a consultation was quietly started on the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of the revocation of the South East Plan.  Enough to send most people off in a stupor before they’ve finished the headline!

Current Government policy is to simplify planning by stripping away regional governance and plans, and by the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).  Therefore this is just another step along that path.  Given it is going to happen, does it matter?  Will it make any difference?

These are the questions that the SEA is looking to assess, to see whether the Plan should be revoked in total or whether particular policies should be kept in place, even if only temporarily.

The South Downs are in an odd position as when the South East Plan was written the area was not yet confirmed as a National Park and so did not have a proper policy as the New Forest did.  Instead it was covered by the policy on Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).  However, since the AONB policy no longer applies to the South Downs, it now being a National Park, it is harder to make a case that it would be any better or worse off with or without the South East Plan.

Where there might be concern about the loss of the South East Plan is in the New Forest and the remaining 9 AONBs in the South East.  Here the Plan was strong on the concept of ‘conserving and enhancing’ these landscapes and on ‘having regard to their setting’, the latter an important point picked out by the Inspector as justification for having regional policies on nationally important landscapes.

The critical test is whether these policies are covered by the NPPF.  This does indeed have policies on landscape and specific mention of National Parks and AONBs.  While it does talk of ‘conserving and enhancing’ and ‘protecting and enhancing’ ‘valued landscapes’ in paras 109 and 156, in para 115 when it talks of nationally important landscapes it only talks of ‘conserving’ them; ‘enhancement’ is not mentioned.  Therefore there is a certain ambiguity as to whether ‘enhancement’ of National Parks and AONBs still has the same priority under the NPPF as under the South East Plan.

In addition, there is no mention of the importance of the setting of nationally designated landscapes.  The only time setting is considered important is for heritage assets.  Therefore, this would suggest that the region’s nationally important landscapes would be worse off without the South East Plan.

While the SEA does pick up a minor policy difference between the mean low water mark and mean high water mark for AONBs, it is silent on these other issues.  This is of concern and hopefully people will respond to the consultation if only to make this point.  As to whether it will be noticed or not will depend on development pressures around the edges of our nationally important landscapes and the weight given to protecting the environment.  Only time will tell…

The consultation ends on Thursday 6 December, 2012.  You can send comments to:

Email: SEAConsultation@communities.gsi.gov.uk

Post: Environmental Assessment Team, Department of Communities and Local Government, Zone 1/J6, Eland House, Bressenden Place, London, SW1E 5DU