Paul Arnott www.exmouthjournal.co.uk
The older you get, the more you understand that to enable real change in your community, it has to be done by the book and on the record. Because if you let slip one inadvertent, tiny technical mistake, or even make an ill-chosen public utterance, you can damage your cause.
This is relevant now because East Devon District Council has just closed a two-month consultation period for its Local Plan, a document setting out where domestic and business development is permitted between the adoption of the plan, likely in 2024, and 2040.
For a council leader there are twin perils. If you speak out too vociferously prior to public consultation, a city lawyer for a disappointed developer or landowner will later go to the Inspector (who ultimately approves the plan) and cry “pre-determination” and an attempt to influence an objective consultation. At which point three years of work can be thrown out.
So, you have to keep your powder dry until the consultation is over. The other peril is that your silence can be taken for approval. Hopefully, in most quarters local people who follow district affairs will have understood my caution not to grandstand on this.
Now that the consultation is closed, I can say that I was of course very aware that a number of proposed sites in the Local Plan consultation would be contested by local communities. But these sites had been submitted by landowners and developers and it is not the role of a council to pre-determine which to include going forward to be consulted on so long as our officers recommend that they have met the basic criteria for lawful development.
I was also aware that you can’t try to dodge confronting these challenges by playing games, as the Conservatives’ at East Devon did by attempting to throw out the whole consultation process at the eleventh hour. That would only have made our precious area more vulnerable to speculative developers who could argue that as an authority we were not proceeding in a timely manner. Why would the Conservatives have wanted that, you may well ask?
However, last February our council took care to speak in strong terms directly to government about the central flaw in our national planning processes. Careful to ensure this had the formal, cross-party consent of our whole Strategic Planning Committee, we wrote in politically neutral terms to Michael Gove to challenge the Standard Method for Calculating Housing Need.
We wrote that the current housing need figure for East Devon “can only be met through harming our attractive landscape areas including two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB’s) and areas where development has been shown to have a significant detrimental impact on designated wildlife habitats, over 90% of East Devon.”
The previous Conservative administrations in East Devon had fallen under the spell of landowners and developers (one of whom now provides funding for a local MP) and had publicly proclaimed a “Build, build, build” strategy. We told Mr Gove of the consequence: the district’s number of homes built per year grew from around 700 a year less than 10 years ago to well over a 1000 in 2019.
Because of local Conservatives choices a decade ago, this unsustainably high baseline set the maths for the housing need numbers today, even though we were now entering territory in many areas of East Devon where this was highly undesirable. So, we asked Mr Gove to allocate new housing based on future needs and aspirations to protect the environment rather than based on the past trends.
We didn’t shout this from the rooftops last February; we just did it. As result, Mr Gove has called these processes in, hinting at potential reforms to number setting. He now needs to enshrine this in legislation uninfluenced by the builders’ lobbyists. We are watching very closely indeed.