Tag: development control

Rejected… for now

It shows how well Swindon Borough Council presented their case that, on appeal, the Swindon Gateway Partnership’s application to concrete over the area surrounding Coate Water has been rejected following the planning inspector’s recommendations. This will no doubt bring on a certain amount of celebration by the campaigners that fought against the development. Any such celebration is misplaced.

The decision is quite clear about why the application was rejected. It’s also clear about which objections weren’t important. Most of the campaigners’ objections are in that latter group. In summary, the reasons why the development was rejected were:

  • impact on the views from Coate Water park, particularly towards Liddington Hill;
  • insufficient gap between the development and the eastern side of Coate Water park;
  • lack of confidence that the area on the site identified for a university would actually be developed as such;
  • detrimental influence on town centre regeneration that building offices and a university on the edge of town would have;
  • insufficient guarantees to ensure that the offices would be used as a science park linked to the university;
  • constraints on future expansion of the Great Western Hospital.

Objections that were not upheld were:

  • flood risk;
  • impact on views of Coate Water from Liddington Hill;
  • impact on wildlife;
  • proximity to an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty;
  • protection of archaeological heritage;
  • literary associations with Richard Jeffries.

From that list it can be seen that most of the campaigners’ objections were cast aside, whereas the objections from Swindon Borough Council — so often criticised by the campaigners — were upheld.

There’s one other feature of this decision that seems to have been overlooked by those celebrating the rejection of the application. That’s the support in principle from the inspector and minister for housing development on the site.

The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that… the appeal proposals have the potential to deliver high quality housing,… make a meaningful contribution to identified housing needs and are in a suitable location in principle for an urban extension. He gives significant weight to this factor.

He has given considerable positive weight to the contribution the proposal would make to easing the identified shortfall of housing in Swindon, including the provision of affordable housing. However, the Secretary of State considers that this needs to be set against other factors including the proposal’s failure to use land effectively and efficiently, due to its excessive land take in respect of the university campus.

In other words, a revised application, with houses in place of a university, may well succeed. The fight for the area around Coate Water is far from over.

Developing the party line

It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that the vote at last night’s council meeting to oppose the Eastern Development Area proposals ended up dividing along party lines. It seems that the local red nest are totally ignorant of what their party’s mismanagement of the economy and distortion of the housing market has done, as illustrated by the comments of Mr Grant.

This plan will deliver much needed affordable housing to Swindon. We should be trying to make sure that the development is eco-friendly and includes green technology — we should back this development for the future of Swindon.

At the moment, just about the only building going on in Swindon’s northern and southern development areas is the construction of so-called affordable housing. And if you look at the prices of those ‘affordable’ houses, you’ll notice that most are more expensive than the equivalent allegedly unaffordable houses in other parts of Swindon. Forcing developers to make 30% of any large development ‘affordable’ just forces the average price of housing up without solving the underlying problem.

If you want to make housing affordable, the only way to do it is to ensure that supply exceeds demand. The recent collapse in the economy has done more to bring that about than market distorting government rules on affordable housing ever will.

Crunch, Stretch, Weave

Swindon Eastern Development AreaI spent yesterday wading through Swindon Borough Council’s consultation document on the proposed Eastern Development Area. With the main document running to over 90 pages, and almost 240 pages of supporting documentation, it wasn’t easy going. The consultants seem to have been enjoying themselves, with the document stuffed full of jargon. I have now been introduced to phrases such as “functional green infrastructure links”, “benchmark for exemplar sustainable development” and “urban acupuncture”.

It’s only once one has got through almost 30 pages of this guff that there’s something of substance about what is actually planned. For those living in South Marston and East Swindon it’s bad news.

It is important that South Marston retains its independent identity as a settlement and does not coalesce with Swindon.

The consultants have an… errm… unique way of doing that. The proposals change South Marston beyond recognition, more than doubling it in size, or in planner-speak “significantly enhance the sustainable credentials of the village”.

For those in East Swindon, there’s just a few fuzzy words about not increasing the likelihood of flooding, with nothing to say about the severity of flooding. There’s much talk of the ‘benefits’ the development might bring to East Swindon, but these are dependent on the most expensive option — The Crunch — being selected: an option that requires government subsidy to bury the A419 at the White Hart Roundabout. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that with the current government having run up a level of debt that would shame a 1980s third-world dictator, that money isn’t going to be forthcoming. Which leaves us with one of the other options, The Stretch or The Weave — just what were the consultants on? — with a new town centre facing South Marston across the railway line as the most likely outcome.

Unusually for anti-development campaigns in Swindon, the campaigners actually seem to have got their act together and learnt from the mistakes of some of the less effective recent campaigns. No petitions, but 200 individual responses submitted to the council. The last time there was a consultation on a similar matter, the Central Area Action Plan, the number of responses from individuals could be counted on one hand.

The consultation closes at 4.30 pm tomorrow.

The impotence of petitions

In a contest, it’s important for the participants to know and follow the rules. Those that don’t know the rules tend to lose or worse, get disqualified. This basic requirement applies not just to sports, but to any contest: school exams, elections, mortgage applications, the list is endless. Somewhere in that list are planning enquiries.

As I’ve noted before, the Save Coate campaigners have admitted to being amateurs when it comes to planning enquiries. In their surprise at how the Coate Enquiry has been run, that amateurishness is apparent.

All of those signatures that took time and effort to get together were just counted as one complaint.

If they’ve read the guidance for participating in planning appeals, they should’ve known before they started that would be the case. It doesn’t take much effort to find a couple of examples on the Planning Inspectorate’s website that show how petitions have been treated in previous enquiries. Why do they think it is that many of the big environmental activist groups don’t bother with petitions but run mass letter writing campaigns instead? It takes less than a second and zero thought to sign a petition. They may be good for publicity; unless backed-up by submissions from others making a similar point, they’re almost worthless for winning a case.

I think Swindon Council really passed up a number of opportunities to challenge the developers, so it was left to us to do it.

Or perhaps Swindon Borough Council’s counsel was sticking to the rules, rather than raising issues that the law does not allow the inspector to consider.

I just hope that the planning inspector appreciates the views of the people of Swindon and will take those on board.

That’s very unlikely, as he’s not heard the views of the majority of the people of Swindon. All he’s heard are the views of the council, the campaigners and the developers.

I don’t wish there to be development in the area near to Coate Water, but neither do I wish to have a group of unelected environmentalists claiming to represent the views of Swindon.

Planning decay

You could be forgiven for thinking that Swindon Borough Council now has an obligation to find alternative uses for the Mechanics Institute. That’s certainly the impression that the Adver’s report gives.

A Planning Inspectorate report on the Swindon Central Area Action Plan says it has seen no evidence that other sources of cash have been explored to restore the building as a centre for learning, cultural and social activities. It says the council must demonstrate alternative ownership and a cultural learning centre is not feasible before it can look at other uses of the building.

It’s not true: the council doesn’t have to demonstrate anything. The planning inspector’s report on Swindon Borough Council’s Central Area Action Plan is very careful not to point at who has that obligation. These are some of her comments.

The Mechanics Institute is privately-owned. Although there is strong support to bring the building back into public ownership, the ongoing revenue costs of maintaining the building would impose a substantial financial burden on the Council. Consequently, the acquisition of the building by the local authority was discarded as an option in favour of working with the owner to deliver a sensitive re-use of the building that would secure its long term survival….

Whilst public ownership of the Mechanics Institute does not appear to be a viable option, there is no evidence that other sources of funding to help restore the building and reinstate its historic use as a centre for learning, cultural and social activities have been considered, or other ownership options have been explored…. The policy is not framed with such options in mind. Moreover, as drafted, it fails to encapsulate the important place of the building in the heart of the local community, both physically and emotionally

The changes she has made to the plan and its policies as a result also make no reference to the council.

IC12

Before alternative uses are considered, the availability of grant assistance and the option of charitable or community ownership should be explored in order to establish whether it is feasible to reinstate the historic use of this listed building as a centre for learning, cultural and social activities.

IC13

If it is demonstrated that reinstating the historic use of the Mechanics Institute as a centre for learning, cultural and social activities is not feasible, then other options for the future use of this listed building will be considered. Such uses should be sympathetic to, and compatible with, the historic character and role of the building, deliver public access to, and use of, the building’s main rooms as far as possible, and be of a nature that would not adversely impact on the amenity of Railway Village residents

That reads to me like it’s for the owner, Mr Singh, to demonstrate that his proposals are the only viable option… and for those who oppose his plans to demonstrate that they aren’t. Swindon Borough Council is the pawn in the middle, running the planning process. While the arguments rumble on, the Mechanics Institute continues to decay.

Very appealing

You’d think that, with the housing market in the doldrums, the likes of Persimmon Homes would have better things to do with their money than going lodging planning appeals at almost the first opportunity. If a council fails to make a decision within a set time (‘non-determination’ in planning jargon) the planning laws allow six months to appeal. Persimmon have waited just one month to lodge an appeal against Swindon Borough Council’s failure to make a decision on their plans to surround Coate Water with concrete.

Just how many developments in a single town does one developer need in a falling market?

Back to the market drawing board… again

Another thing to happen during my unscheduled absence from the internet is that Swindon Borough Council planning committee has, at its latest meeting, yet again rejected proposals for replacing the tented market with an ugly slab pavilion of restaurants. Having previously commented at length on this proposal I’ve little more to say, apart from noting my satisfaction with the committee’s decision, and wondering yet again at how the planning officer manages, still, to find these plans so much more attractive than almost anyone else does.

Yet another plan for the Tented Market

How pretty!The developers Clarebrook and their interior designers architects Pennington Robson are back with revised plans to replace Swindon’s tented market with what they rather fancifully describe as a ‘pavilion’.

Half a pavilionNow, credit where credit is due, the revised plans are an improvement on their last ones. That’s not a great endorsement. Their last design was incredibly ugly. So ugly that the planning committee deferred decision on them. The appearance from Commercial Road in the new plans is improved. However, anyone approaching from Farnsby Street — which, as a result of the one-way system, many do — will see a building remarkable only for its drab ugliness.

The plans are open for comment until 3rd July.

Sprawl

Swindon Eastern Development Area, from figure three of Swindon’s Core StrategyI first came across the Campaign to Protect Rural England (then known as the Council for the Protection of Rural England, CPRE) as a child living in West Sussex, when they seemed intent on having the majority of the county frozen at some point in an imaginary Victorian past. (They still do.) My impression then was of an organisation of city dwellers and rich commuters that knew little of the countryside and wanted to preserve it as a playground for the rich, regardless of the implications of that for rural communities. (The organisation’s original name included the word ‘preservation’ rather than ‘protection’.)

As someone who has now been a town dweller myself for twenty years, I’m really no different from my description of them, but nevertheless find the comments of the chairman of their North Wiltshire branch on the South West Regional Spatial Strategy still tainted with the same lack of reality. There’s much in what they say about the proposed eastern expansion of Swindon to supply the 36,000 extra houses imposed on us (as described in Swindon Borough Council’s Core Strategy) that I agree with.

There needs to be a major investment in water supplies, sewerage and public transport to support the proposed increase of 36,000 more houses in Swindon and an additional 13,000 new homes in the surrounding areas. Already there are instances of severe sewage overflow; the existing infrastructure cannot cope. It is time the Government listened to our concerns over building in the flood plains, for the protection of Coate Water, and for maintaining the separate identities of Swindon’s neighbouring communities.

There’s nought wrong with any of that. But then they go a bit off track.

Expansion outwards has left a dead centre and a fall in the economy.

To ascribe the problems of the town centre to the growth of the town is bizarre. On that analysis, city centres like Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham should be long dead and feeding the daisies. As the CPRE also say, central Swindon needs regeneration, but that regeneration can never supply the sort of living environment that outward expansion — welcome or not — could.

Planned distortion

The difficulty planning authorities have rejecting any application without the decision being overturned on appeal is well known. Strength of local opinion counts for nothing if an application complies with guidelines set by central government. Whilst some degree of central influence is necessary, so that national needs are met, there needs to be a reasonable level of local flexibility and accountability too, otherwise the local planning process appears pointless: just another sham consultation to make the people feel good when there is no intention of listening. So when a constituent says

Ask any of them and they’ll say what difference does it make talking to your councillor? It’ll happen anyway.

you might think that any sensible MP would interpret that as a judgement on the excessive central government control of planning. Sadly, Ms Snelgrove though an MP is not sensible. In a distortion of reality Ms Snelgrove interprets it as an indictment of the abilities of the local councillors.

I think it is really worrying that so soon after a local election, when only 29 per cent of those eligible went to the polls, there is this level of disillusionment with the work done by councillors. Something has to be done to re-engage people with the democratic process.

It’s not disillusionment with the work done by councillors: it’s disillusionment with the lack of power councillors have. If you want to re-engage people with the democratic process, how about freeing councils of central government controls and targets, not just in planning but other things too, such as education and social services. No doubt the press would scream ‘postcode lottery’ at every opportunity, but at least there would be something worth voting for in local elections.