An open letter to Michael Gove

An open letter to Michael Gove, Secretary of State  for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, from a Correspondent:

Dear Secretary of State, 

Amongst your many new responsibilities you have been given the unenviable task of building 300,000 homes a year with the remit that voters in Tory constituencies continue to vote Tory and not liberal democrat. Also, are you aware that in my part of the world it was an independent who was runner-up twice to the conservative in the last national elections and my local council Independent led?

 This is in response to the previous local Tory regime who “built, built, built”.

You will never reconcile your goals until we, who live in these constituencies, trust that there is democracy and openness in planning, the planning system itself, those who administer it and then those who vote on the planning applications. An Englishman’s home is his castle, large sums of money are invested. There must be a democratic process if any development occurs nearby. The answer is not to seriously curtail local input. 

I am very pleased that the government now is considering that the 1.1 million homes awarded planning permission, but not yet built, may be subject to a land tax. This will ease the housebuilding problem. I believe that this issue was the main cause of the shortage of housing, not the present planning system. The present system is by no means perfect but the suggested changes of Robert Jenrick were not the answer. 

To add to your problems we in Devon and Cornwall have the added difficulty of seeing many of our permanent dwellings bought as second homes and holiday lets. This results in a lack of affordable homes for our local youngsters, inflated house prices, no long term rentals available and serious loss of community. No widow should have to buy a flat for her daughter who can afford to rent but there are no long term rentals available. As she said “I can’t have my daughter homeless”. 

I cannot understand why a dwelling built as a Holiday Let needs planning permission to become a permanent dwelling and yet a permanent dwelling can become a second home without any planning restrictions. Surely this is now the time to change this.

To many of us it is immoral that “The Times” could report that in the last decade more homes became second homes than were built. Grade 1 agricultural land has been sacrificed for a new town in our district which is unacceptable. To add insult to injury the town of circa 5,000 population which was started 10 years ago still lacks a viable town centre with shops.

Why don’t we  trust the planning system? 

Is it that the National Planning Framework is fundamentally flawed? I accept that sustainable development is at the heart of the NPPF but there are safeguards in place to improve the environment and our heritage. The problem relates to the many ambiguous words in the NPPF such as:

“significant; in the best interests; give weight to; harm; conserve and enhance”

This gives tremendous powers to the planners and councillors. A balance has to be struck and weight given between the different policies by the planners but the experience in East Devon is that the deciding factor is always “economic benefit” or “housing need” (in spite of a 5 year land supply).

 For example there was an application for 2 houses in the conservation area of a saxon village, adjacent to 10 listed buildings and 45 metres from the Grade 1 listed church.  This site of great heritage significance was validated with no Historic Impact Assessment as required in the NPPF. The officers were repeatedly made aware of the extreme importance of the site by Historic England’s three comments on the planning portal. Of particular concern was that the orientation of the proposed buildings were at right angles to the historic landscape. These comments were simply brushed aside. The application was contrary to many of the newly adopted local neighbourhood plan policies -number of bedrooms specified in NP; materials; density; design; respecting heritage assets. This contentious application was decided by officers under delegated power and approved. The reason given was the need for housing although East Devon at that time had a 5 year land supply.

So, what about democracy and the planning process? Many towns and villages in East Devon have an adopted Neighbourhood Plan which is a very democratic way of finding locals’ views on issues in their neighbourhood and then voting on them. Some councils and developers also consult on proposed planning matters.

Why then is it widely thought to be a charade? Following a consultation regarding the proposed location of a school it is amazing that Devon County Council still put forward a planning application for a 150 housing development and school in Ottery St. Mary which was contrary to a) the Ottery St Mary Neighbourhood Plan and b) contrary to the result of their own DCC consultation. But of course their reasoning was:

“this needs to be balanced against the benefits of the solution proposed” 

and

“however, in general planning is concerned with land use in the public interest. “

Developers are encouraged to consult. This is exactly what Burrington Estates did in Clyst St. Mary. The first public consultation included, amongst many other dwellings,  14 traditional houses adjoining the houses next to the site. This was supported by the majority of the community.

When the outline hybrid Planning Application was submitted to East Devon Planners these had increased to almost 60 flats which, after objections, have now been reduced to four blocks of 40 flats. Quite an increase as these flats will now overlook the pre-existing houses. In addition 39 more homes have received outline planning permission since the consultation.  

As another correspondent wrote:

“ What this community was originally shown and found acceptable at a Public Consultation bears no resemblance to what is now being proposed!”

Yes, the developers think the present planning system needs revision. Yes, the public also thinks the planning system needs revision. But you must remember that if you wish people to vote conservative you must provide convincing arguments. The 300,000 houses a year target has been question many times. Please tell us in detail where this number comes from. Do something about second homes. Make sure the land is released which has planning permission and developers are sitting on. Make sure our environment and heritage is not sacrificed for the nebulous “economic benefit”, “public interest” or “exceptional circumstances”.

2 thoughts on “An open letter to Michael Gove

  1. You forgot to mention the developer’s promise of the minimum number of affordable homes, broken at a later date as it would make the project financially unviable – something that didn’t occur to them at the application stage.

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  2. Could not agree more. Through experience, I came to have particular contempt for EDDC’s Planners but I have no reason to think them very atypical. They would decide what they wanted to happen with minimal regard for how acceptable it might be to local people. A good deal more concern would often be shown for the wishes of the developers they dealt with daily.
    From that point, instead of reacting fairly and objectively to any opposing facts or arguments, they would simply work to defeat the slightest apparent questioning of their expertise and superior judgement. Not too overtly, of course. Usually by the manipulation of complicated rules and the exploitation of their advisory role to our elected decision-makers. That said, sometimes the latter seemed rather to welcome official advice, even of doubtful quality, if it offered them a more easily defended decision.

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