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.