Thursday, July 11, 2013

South Somerset Local Plan: Advantage East Coker

Update: BBC report here, report from Western Gazette here

Update 2 (29/7): SSDC has voted to suspend the plan for 6 months, pending further work

A little local difficulty: South Somerset District Council (SSDC) has been working for years on its Local Plan, covering development in the district up to 2028 in things like housing, jobs, environment etc.

The centrepiece of the Plan is a Sustainable Urban Extension (SUE) to the South of Yeovil, of 2500 homes including a secondary school, health centre (and possibly a site for a church), and land for employment and community use. This has been hotly contested by East Coker, a village to the S of Yeovil, whose expensive views/rural tranquility and quality of life (depending on how you look at it) are seen to be at stake.

The plan has recently been going through a public enquiry with a government planning inspector. This is the crucial hurdle - if he declares the plan 'sound', it has legal force and becomes the basis for local planning and development for the next 15 years. If he declares it 'unsound', then we fall into the untested hands of the NPPF (National Policy Planning Framework), with its presumption that planning permission will be granted on new developments, and is effectively a government sanctioned development free-for-all, with added spin-offs for the legal profession in deciding what the broad principles of the NPPF actually mean.

The inspector has just released his interim findings, and they are grim reading for SSDC. He has three major concerns - one is a technical issue about employment land in some of our larger villages, one about the growth of Ilminster (on both he judges the plan currently 'unsound'), and the biggie is about the SUE. Though he supports the principle of a 'sustainable' large estate (i.e. one which has most of its required facilities and employment land on site rather than off-site), there is a catalogue of weaknesses in the evidence for where it should go. SSDC had used a scoring system covering several key factors (travel, employment, access to services, health and wellbeing etc.) to compare alternative sites: the inspectors report argues that they have consistently over-egged the South Yeovil option, and that in reality there is much less to choose between alternative sites than SSDC have claimed.

There is so much remedial work to do on the Plan that the inspector also questions whether a 6 month 'time out' would actually give the council time to rewrite a 'sound' Plan, but if they don't revise it, it seems likely to be thrown out anyway. And then we are through the looking glass. To use a tennis metaphor, the first serve has gone out, and there's a serious danger of a double fault.

The council have responded in a remarkably upbeat way, noting that large swathes of the Plan are seen as ok (including projected housing totals, which have been a persistent bone of contention, and a repeated focus of lobbying).

I really do hope they can get this together: whilst I imagine the report has gone down well in East Coker - and vindicates their consistent and detailed lobbying  - it's not good news for the rest of the District. At least with SSDC in control of the planning process, there are people who are accountable to the community and have something resembling its best interests at heart, even if they don't always deliver on that. Whilst we have some smaller local developers who want to work with the community, (the estate I live on was put together by a local developer and works really well), that's not a reputation shared with the likes of Persimmon and Barratts.

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