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.

A threat to the South Downs

The Growth and Infrastructure Bill currently going through Parliament represents a real threat to the future protection of the South Downs National Park.  Not only does the Bill propose giving the Secretary of State the ability to claw back decision making from local planning authorities (clause 1) thus undermining the principle of Localism, it potentially allows large business and commercial developments to sidestep the local democractic process too (clause 21).  On top of this, clause 7 proposes removing the Secretary of State’s duty to have regard to National Park purposes with regards to telecommunications apparatus.

The Bill’s purpose is supposedly designed to cut through red tape, to speed up planning and remove its blockage to economic growth.  Yet nowhere is there any evidence to justify this position and none was provided during the Bill’s second reading in the House of Commons.  And as the Campaign for National Parks points out, the hold up to rolling out faster broadband has nothing to do with planning, but concerns about Government funding breaching EU rules on state subsidy.

All in all this could be an unmitigated disaster for the South Downs and it could threaten local democracy and accountability too.

Clause 1, could result in the National Park Authority, or indeed neighbouring planning authorities, from preventing damaging development impacting on the Park.  If the Secretary of State doesn’t like decisions being made by a planning authority, he could deem it to be failing (although no definition is given in the Bill, leaving it open to interpretation) and thus take their powers away from them.  He could then allow developments to proceed.

Clause 7, is also worrying as in a sensitive and open landscape such as the South Downs, telecommunications masts can be very intrusive.  Yet now, the National Park Authority could be powerless to stop them, unless they are proposed in a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  The Campaign for National Parks is also very concerned at the precedent that this might set for Government to set aside its duty to have regard to national park purposes for other developments or issues.  Currently, operators have to at least liaise with the local planning authority but the Bill as currently drafted allows the local system to be bypassed completely.

Clause 21 allows business and commercial projects to be put on the major-infrastructure fast-track process, bypassing local democracy.  It is not clear what projects are included in this rather vague category and whether it includes major retail and leisure developments.  Given the large and extensive settlements right up against the National Park’s boundary and the presence of several market towns within the National Park, this could create extra pressure for damaging developments in the South Downs.

Other clauses within the Bill are also worrying and the full debate can be read here which outlines MPs’ concerns in more detail.

All in all with the lack of evidence to back up their claims and the sweeping centralisation of powers, this could be a tipping point for local planning.  The new powers favouring big companies promoting large developments makes it feel like we’re heading back to the 1980s.  Our towns and countryside are still suffering from the deregulation of planning back then and all the damage that it caused.  The Network is urging its members to write to their local MP(s) to raise their concerns about this Bill and to ask them to seek amendments to the Bill, or to oppose it.

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

 

New Park Authority member appointed

Earlier this month Diana Kershaw was appointed by the Secretary of State for the Environment as a new Member of the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA).  She is one of the 7 national members on the SDNPA and replaces Susan Warren who stood down at the end of 2011.

Diana Kershaw has worked as a local authority transport and town planner, primarily in East London and was Head of Planning for Newham Council where she led the Stratford development initiatives. Following ten years as Director of Planning Transport and Development at Bristol City Council she worked for a business-led initiative looking at the future of the Bristol/Bath region. She has been a member of boards of the South West Regional Development Agency, business link, a primary care trust, a theatre company, the SW National Trust region, and was a member of Exmoor National Park Authority for seven years.

The Network wishes her all the best and hopes that with her experience she will make a useful contribution to the South Downs National Park, particularly as the Park Authority looks to develop its Core Strategy over the next few years.