Thanks to the correspondent who sent in two related pieces of news: firstly, that South Somerset’s Local Plan has just been declared sound: and secondly, that the Conservative parliamentary candidate has adopted a stance that would get him elected here!
‘SOMERSET: District reaches ‘major milestone’ in Local Plan process
BUT CONSERVATIVE PARLIAMENTARY CANDIDATE QUESTIONS WHETHER HIGH HOUSING FIGURES ARE NEEDED
SOUTH Somerset District Council’s Local Plan, which will act as a guideline for development up until 2028, has been deemed “sound” by a government inspector, subject to a series of modifications.
The council’s received the inspector David Hogger’s report on the Local Plan (2006-2028) on January 8th, marking a “significant point” in the process of formally adopting the plan.
The necessary modifications listed in the report are the same as those consulted upon by the council in March and November 2014, and the document can be read in full online at http://bit.ly/17GNjCz
The report ratifies the council’s objectives to deliver 15,950 homes and 11,250 jobs by 2028, and confirms the council’s ambition for how towns, villages and rural areas will grow and change. It also endorses the policies against which the council will judge planning applications for homes, businesses, community facilities and infrastructure provision across the district.
The next step is for the council to make the proposed changes and present the final Local Plan to a meeting of full council on March 5th. Councillors will be asked to approve and adopt the plan and allow the policies to come into full effect.
Councillor Tim Carroll, deputy leader and portfolio holder for Finance and Spatial Planning, whose responsibilities include the Local Plan, emphasised the importance of the conclusions in the Inspector’s Report.
He commented: “This is a major milestone for the council. The overall conclusion of the inspector is that the SSDC Local Plan and the 12 modifications that were incorporated during the process are sound and therefore the plan itself is capable of adoption without any further change.
“It has been a lengthy process and I would pay tribute to everyone’s hard work over the last few years. We have reacted positively to the inspector’s requests to make changes and it is pleasing that these have now been confirmed. These changes have been fully debated and subject to extensive consultation.
“The plan focuses on bringing much needed homes and jobs to the district in the right number and place and having the formal sign-off by the Inspector puts the council in a stronger position to make better decisions about the future of South Somerset and to resist inappropriate or speculative applications. We will now move quickly to formally adopt the plan and that date has now been set for March 5th for a meeting of all councillors”.
Despite the inspector finding the Local Plan “sound”, Conservative parliamentary candidate for the Yeovil constituency, Marcus Fysh, has questioned the process the council has followed over the past eight years to reach this point.
He said he has “mixed feelings” about the report, as many good things are at risk from the bad, and claimed the proposed housing figure was too high, which he fears will “do a huge disservice to our district”.
‘Not as simple as it seems’
Mr Fysh commented: “It’s now about eight years and over £2.8million of public money which have been spent by South Somerset District Council attempting to make and adopt a Local Plan, a document with power in law to direct how much housing should be built and where it will go in our area.
“Having found the initial plan submitted in 2013 unsound, the planning inspector sent to our area by the Planning Inspectorate to assess the proposals has now issued his decision on a plan revised and resubmitted by South Somerset District Council last year.
“In that decision he has found the amended plan sound, although the decision has some peculiar reasoning and assertions that suggest he may not have properly applied his mind, which may tempt opponents of the plan to challenge it, and it is not as simple a matter as it seems.
“A lot appears to have been left to the concept of ‘early review’, in which the housing figures will be looked at bi-annually.
“And that gets to the nub of the problem with this plan and the process the council has followed to get to this stage: sadly, it may not be the last we hear about controversial planning decisions in our area.
“It is true that an adopted plan should give certainty to residents and developers alike, and on the face of it we should welcome that the inspector has not sent the district council right back to the drawing board.
“But the housing figure is a key problem. The council has been obsessed with keeping the overall housing requirement high, despite good evidence that it is too high, to the extent that many aspects of the plan have changed over the years, but the one thing that strangely has not, has been the 15,950 house building figure they have ‘aspired’ to over 20 years. Some say it is because they get extra revenue as a ‘New Homes Bonus’, which allows them to avoid cutting their spending cloth to suit in other areas (this amounted to £3million last year).
“Somehow they seem to have persuaded the inspector, against the evidence and legal precedent, to keep this number, which I fear will do a huge disservice to our district in the medium term.
“The problem is that the housing figure means that over 1,000 new houses per annum will need to be built in the district in each of the next five years if the district is not to be adjudged at planning appeals as not having met its target. Were the target not met, in planning law the Local Plan would be regarded as not up to date and would not apply at appeal hearings, therefore it would be ‘open season’ for developers again.
“There is only one year in the last 20 in which more than 1,000 houses were built, when the district grabbed money on offer from Gordon Brown and fast tracked developments with a mixed record at at Wyndham Park and Wincanton. The rest of the time the district has built around 500 houses per year, which gives an idea just how far short we could fall behind.
“So, it is with mixed feelings that I look at the inspector’s report. A lot of the good things in the plan are sadly at risk from the bad things. I am not against all development, but it has to be in the right place and have the right infrastructure and facilities.
“In Chard, for example, we want to get the regeneration scheme in place and not overload the roads through the town, and the plan looks to do that, but this will not apply if the district’s housing target is missed.
“In Ilminster we want development to complement the existing town, not turn the town into an over-built dormitory. Over-development is a risk if the housing target is missed, a recipe for even more unhappiness on all sides of the town’s development issues.
“Crewkerne and Wincanton have been told they may get more housing, depending on early review by the council, and would lose control if the housing target is missed.
“And Yeovil, which needs to get more people living downtown to regenerate and support its businesses, shops and restaurants, but doesn’t on the real numbers require yet more big urban extensions, faces yet more bolt-on green field developments that do little to upgrade the town’s infrastructure. That process would just accelerate and be even less controlled if the house build target is not met, with consequent problems for school places, traffic and health care availability.
“South Petherton faces similar pressures that could get even worse.
“One thing is clear to me; the old thinking about development in our area is stale. A huge opportunity has been missed locally to plan for development in many areas that will solve problems rather than create them.
“I do hope later this year local Conservative councillors may be in a position to review these matters and put proper solutions in place, in control of the district council. To do that we need to vote for them though. I will certainly give them my full support.” ‘