Whilst TS Eliot rotates in his sarcophagus, plans for an eco town of 5000 new homes to the South of Yeovil have been taking shape. East Coker, a pretty little village (of which Somerset and Dorset have quite a few), is on the edge of the development area and claims Eliot as one of its sons - and, more recently, as poster boy for the East Coker Preservation campaign.
Last year, the 5000 was cut to 3700 homes, after the new government scrapped regional planning authorities, and let local councils have a bit more freedom in choosing housing targets. Even on that basis, Yeovil still qualified for government funding to look at the feasibility of an 'eco town', a low-carbon housing development.
But is this still on the cards? The leader of South Somerset District Council, Ric Pallister (who until recently was in charge of Housing) recently met with the government over planning issues. I wonder if the local campaign, with some fairly high profile supporters, has gained the ear of one or two in high office - Cllr Pallister is now quoted this week in our local paper supporting a form of 'green belt' protection around the permeter of Yeovil: "It is a watered down green belt. This is something we have not been able to do before. My opinion is that a figure of between 2000 and 2500 homes is possible for the south side. That would leave us with between 1200 and 1500 homes to put somewhere else. We could put some into existing develpopments, and some incremental development to the North and East of Yeovil."
This is a sizeable revision. Only a few months ago, SSDC had decided on the 'preferred option' of expanding Yeovil to the South. But now something seems to have given: either SSDC have had second thoughts about their 'preferred option', or they've had second thoughts about the eco town - (I can't see how a development of 2000 could be planned in the way the eco town envisages). All this in the context of a big national debate over new planning laws, including the status of green belt land.
I can fully understand the campaign to protect East Coker from housing developments, but here is what an amended proposal could mean:
- increased cramming of houses into the 3 new sites around the W, N and E of Yeovil. Each is planned for 700-ish homes, this sounds like they could get pushed to nearer 1000. And will there be any extra facilities for those communities? Too late, the legal agreements are signed and sealed, only one of the three estates looks like it has adequate facilities (Brimsmore) but that's been the victim of countless hold-ups. And we also now know that many of these homes will be too small. That's all the more likely if they are being shoehorned into existing developments.
- 2000 homes isn't a 'town', it's just a medium sized new estate. So bang would go the chance of designing and delivering any kind of sizeable and well-resourced hub.
(note of caution: this is an 'opinion' only, but it is the opinion of the council leader, so that's pretty significant.)
East Coker can speak up for itself, but who wll speak up for the new developments? It may be that all the population and housing projections are wrong, that the divorce and immigration rates drop (meaning we need less homes) but this is currently 8000 people we're talking about. Do we want to give them somewhere decent to live, or just find the place where least people will notice them? Say what you like about the siting of the new development, but at least it was ambitious, and paid some attention to the quality of life in the new development, not just getting as many properties into as small a space as possible.
South Somerset District Council is due to discuss some of this in October. Consultation
on the longer-term strategy is still ongoing, and due to be finalised next year. There is clearly some wiggle room still to be had. Watch this space.