This week has been an extraordinarily important week for the whole of East Devon.
EDDC’s headquarters in Sidmouth hosted the hearing sessions for the Examination in Public of the Local Plan before Planning Inspector, Anthony Thickett. His role is to listen to evidence from all parties as to whether East Devon’s Local Plan is worthy of being found sound.
The importance of the Plan should not be underestimated. For years, East Devon has found itself floundering in a planning vacuum, reliant on the vagaries of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to drive planning, so that development is currently happening right across the district in inappropriate locations that were not of the choosing of the electorate nor, on some occasions of the District Council itself.
In my own ward, three sites in Gittisham and Feniton (a total of 382 houses) are in the process of development.
Much has been written about the parlous state of planning under the previous and current Government which has allowed insufficient time for district councils to put a plan in place, but this week all that was put to one side as participants thrashed out the finer points of East Devon’s plan.
The Housing session focused on the very high levels of housing suggested … 950 houses per year proposed by EDDC (whose only masters are the electorate) against the ludicrous levels of housing proposed by the developers (whose only masters are their shareholders).
Part of the discussion in the Hearing session was on Strategy 27, which lists the most sustainable villages in East Devon (including Feniton) and proposes that development should happen only within their built-up area boundary (BUAB) and any development outside the BUAB should be decided according to a community-led Neighbourhood Plan (NP).
Feniton has been working on its NP for the best part of a year now, engaging in public consultation events and leafleting every household in the parish. Neighbourhood Plans are enshrined in the Localism Act of 2011 and are designed to allow communities to have their say about how they develop, not just in the matter of housing, but about every aspect of community life.
Discussions on housing numbers waged back and forth for an entire day and I had the distinct feeling of déjà vu. The same developers who argued for higher housing numbers in March 2014 at the first housing session for the Local Plan were back to exercise the same arguments.
It was all so predictable.
The session heard seemingly endless representations from developers who had options on various parcels of land to the effect that their site was in the most sustainable location in East Devon. We heard from the Crown Estates which has land in Axminster. Their representative expounded at length on four separate occasions that his site should go forward.
Land at Uplyme was put forward to help the good people in Lyme Regis on to the housing ladder.
Feniton was not named at all, but developers with interests in Feniton rounded on Strategy 27 saying villages where Neighbourhood Plans are being carried out will just “pull up the drawbridge” and refuse any further development.
The excellent Dr Margaret Hall of East Devon CPRE flew in at this point saying she knew of several Neighbourhood Plans where development was considered to be vital for the community.
Indeed, the whole point is that communities want to be in charge of where that development should happen and not have landowners and developers calling the shots.
Brickbats to Natural England
Natural England took up an immense amount of time arguing at every turn about horseshoe bats, Pebblebed heaths and how they hadn’t been consulted on planning applications. Several of us sat there with our mouths agape and eyes agog at such a misrepresentation of the reality of planning in East Devon.
Trying to get Natural England to comment on the major planning application at Hayne Lane in Gittisham was something of a marathon. The site will have an effect on the setting of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and therefore merited comment from a consultee such as Natural England. After numerous phone calls, they finally agreed to comment last year having argued that they didn’t have time to comment on any applications unless they were actually within the AONB.
As one onlooker to proceedings pointed out they did not expect Natural England to be the stumbling block and nor, they thought, did the officers present. Meanwhile, one Government department is telling us to stop putting barriers up to planning and another is stopping us creating the blueprint for development because of bird protection and access for dog walkers!
The Planning Inspector was quite concerned that Natural England hadn’t been involved as a consultee in the entire process of drawing up the Local Plan. As he closed the hearing sessions, he suggested that Natural England’s representative, Laura Horner, shut herself in a darkened room with planners to resolve her concerns. He also asked for a detailed report from planners proving that EDDC has a 5-year land supply.