SHDC's Next Local Plan

The government's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), published in draft in 2011 and in final form in 2012, requires us to have in place a wide-ranging plan for the district for the next fifteen years.  The NPPF emphasises the need for the best possible local consultation in the preparation of the plan.

SHDC's progress is set out here.  Meanwhile, the Society has floated its own idea of a vision for the district and of some of the measures it thinks will be needed. They can be seen here and comments on them are cordially invited - please feel free to contribute to the debate.

As a first consultation, SHDC published on 9 May 2014 'Our Plan'.  Responses were required by 20 June. This was the Society's submission:

South Hams Society's comments on the April 2014 Consultation Document for the South
Hams Local Plan

The consultation document presents the plan in 7 pages; a map of the South Hams District, a foreword by Mr Tucker, the leader of the Council, a diagram outlining the plan's major contents, a timetable, two pages containing simple statistics and objectives and an invitation for readers to comment.

Such a simple minded consultation document could have been produced with a few days work at any time in the last two years since the National Planning Policy Frame (NPPF), required it.

The child-like graphics and statements of the plan's contents are pitched at such an outline level that it provides no guidance to make meaningful comments. A reader can only agree that the plan should indeed cover the areas suggested.

No doubt the document will generate some response but as most of the context and references required for the local plan are missing much of the response will be wide of the mark, lacking in relevance or practical use.

Mr Tucker in the foreword complains that 'Unfortunately most people only get involved at a much later stage'. This was certainly the case with the previous District plan, the LDF, and many complaints about lack of consultation were received at the public hearings. The process currently proposed will only perpetuate this problem.

The timetable shows that this is the single consultation document to be provided before the final draft is produced for examination by the planning inspectors. As the current document is ineffective and as there will be little opportunity for any significant change to the final draft there will be no effective consultation.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that 'work with local communities, stakeholders and partners takes place in July and August, i.e. when many are away on holiday.

What is needed is a more detailed consultation document midway between this outline stage and the final consultation. The aim must be to present a draft of proposals which can provide 'material issues' when neighbourhood plans and planning applications are considered for approval.

This is the only way for Mr Tucker to achieve his objective of 'trying to engage more people earlier in the process'. Enable people to comment by providing concrete proposals to support or oppose at a point when there is time for their responses to be considered for the plan.

The newsletter proposed are a useful way of updating people but will stimulate responses only if they contain concrete and specific proposals. And in addition stakeholders will need to see the complete detailed consultation document to enable them to comment usefully.

In inviting the public to contribute, the council should include in this new consultation document the main points of all evidence it already has. For instance, an SHMNA has been carried out. There is little point in soliciting opinions on housing provision which are made in ignorance of the SHMNA.

It happens that the SHMNA gives wildly variable evidence. The ONS demographic forecast an ageing population with slow growth. The South Hams becomes a major retirement and tourist centre for the UK and there is little other industry. But the economic forecasts were for fast growth of employment with increases in the working population and the young.

Depending upon which is adopted, the two scenarios have profound implications for the plan - vastly different numbers and types of new dwellings, schools, employment sites, health care provision and infrastructure.

The consultation for the local plan should not conceal this dilemma. It should present the pressures the Council is under from central government but also ask How many new houses do parishes and towns want? How much appetite is there for market, as opposed to affordable, houses? What would help to keep housing within reach of young families?'

Another important topic is the protection to be afforded to the natural environment. The existing document contains simple references to 'Designated and protected landscapes' and 'protecting and enhancing our natural landscapes' but no further detail at all.

On the South Devon AONB which covers about a third of the District, for instance, Nick Boles, the Planning Minister, has made it clear that the local plan should say what is meant by 'great weight', 'major development' and 'public interest' in paragraphs 115 and 115 of the NPPF.* Other examples where the content of the local plan must supplement the NPPF could be cited.

One benefit of SHDC being so late in its preparation of a local plan is that we can look at the content of neighbouring LPAs' plans, for example, Teignbridge, and try them for size here. It would be very helpful if references were given to these.

The NPPF requires effective consultation with the public. Without a consultation document containing the level of detail described above effective consultation will not be obtained. The Council will have backed off taking the public into its trust and Mr. Tucker's objectives will not be realised.

* The Society has determined from Nick Bowles, via Sarah Wollaston MP, that the terms used in these paragraphs must be interpreted by the local planning authority.

The Society's Comments on the documents titled 'Our Heritage and Environment' and 'Our Resources' issued with SHDC's Our Plan Newsletters 4 and 5:

Newsletters 4 & 5 describe the content of the plan but again fall short of telling us what is actually going to be in it. The content of the Plan is defined in outline in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) yet curiously there is no reference to the Framework in the newsletters.

Yet Our Plan has to function as the local interpretation of requirements in the NPPF. For example, Our Plan 4 points out that 44% of planning applications lie within the South Devon AONB. In Paragraphs 115 and 116 the Framework discusses development in AONBs. It states that ‘Planning permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas except in exceptional circumstances where it can be demonstrated that they are in the public interest.’

We have established that there is no national definition of a major development or statement of how public interest is demonstrated. The Minister for Planning has told us by letter to our MP that these issues are to be defined in the local plan by each local planning authority. So Our Plan must contain definitions of what constitutes a major development and what constitutes public interest and how is it demonstrated.

The same paragraphs go on to say that assessments should be made of the impact on the local economy, the scope for moving it outside the designated area and the detrimental effects on the landscape.

To illustrate the effect of these requirements, we can use them to examine the planning application for the potato processing factory at Churchstow where the buildings total 5,000 square meters. To make a decision on the application we must have answers to the following:

is the factory a major development?
can it be demonstrated that new jobs associated with the plant will be created?
are these new jobs considered a public benefit?
have alternative sites been considered?
how is the detrimental effect on the AONB described?
what measures might be suitable for moderating it?

The NPPF requires all these criteria to be considered as material issues in deciding the planning application. And Our Plan has to provide guidance on them. So for development in the AONB Our Plan must define what is a major development for example in terms of area of the buildings or the numbers of houses involved. It has to state what evidence is required for the creation of new jobs and whether this can be considered a public benefit. And so on.

For applications affecting our built heritage Our Plan must make reference to the English Heritage listings and require that comments from English Heritage must be obtained and considered as a material issue in deciding the application.

Similar issues arise in the Resources Newsletter. How high can a wind turbine be or how near housing before it becomes a noise problem? How many turbines of each size can be accepted before the cumulative effect outweighs the benefits? What difference does it make if the site is within the AONB. What size must a solar farm be to qualify as a major development?

Again these are material issues in determining a planning application. The NPPF requires that Our Plan must provide statements on these issues so that a decision can be reached and supported by reference to it.

As another example the our Plan has to face up to the problem in determining the numbers of houses required in the future - in the period up to 2031 somewhere between 4,000 and 16,000 we are told by the SHMNA. Our Plan is going to have to resolve this wide range. Are those considering the sites put forward in the recent call for sites wasting their time until they know the numbers of houses required?

And this is where writing the Our Plan becomes difficult - the devil is in the detail. When will SHDC’s strategic planners get down to it? They will have to do so very quickly if the plan is to be completed in 2015.

Or will SHDC dodge the problems of defining material issues more closely and rely on benign generalisations? This would effectively leave decisions on planning applications to be based entirely on unsupported judgements by the planning officers and the Development Control Committee. No doubt this would be the easiest path to follow.

But the Planning Inspectorate, which must approve Our Plan, may not be content that such a plan will produce decisions on planning applications of the quality and consistency required.

John Chalmers
1 Jan 2015