Petition triggers a debate and further consideration of rural concerns

Over the Summer, your petition for the introduction of the Landscape Protection Policy signed by over 2000 people, was presented to Ashford Borough Council.  As we exceeded 1500 signatures, the Council was obliged to debate the petition, a rare occurrence, which happened last week.

There are conflicting opinions on the value of petitions. We think they help us all to express our opinion and feel that we are ‘doing something’. They also demonstrate  strength of support ( or not) for whatever a petition is about and, through this, they can be a tool for gaining attention from or forcing political leaders to take action.

Our petition started life, early this year, to demonstrate support for the Landscape Protection Policy proposed by Cllr. Jane Martin. Throughout the consultation process and the Examination of the draft Ashford Local Plan by the Government appointed Planning Inspectorate, the petition continued to gather signatures. The RMR team, meanwhile, lobbied the Council, both personally and via representatives, for changes in planning policy in the new Local Plan to address the cumulative effects of continuous development in rural locations. As the signatures on the petition mounted and the summer recess loomed, we decided it’s job was to keep Council attention.

To some, it might look as though the petition for the inclusion of the Landscape Protection Policy had missed it’s moment: the Examination in Public took place earlier this year and several parties presented the case for the Landscape Protection Policy in their representations. Modifications have now been published by Ashford Borough Council that include some elements, though not all, of the Landscape Protection Policy in proposed additions or alterations to other policies in the Plan. Whilst the debate on the petition last night couldn’t change the current Plan  – and the Council are not interested in delaying its adoption – there is always a role for flag waving. That was the role of this petition.

Actually, the concept that the petition called for has more in common with Environmental Impact Assessment than the usual planning policy – which means that there was always needed some entrepreneurial thinking from Ashford Borough Council to consider it.  Planning Offices are required to consider every single application on it’s own merits against policies that usually focus on a single topic so a policy that considers multiple effects is quite different. The process is myopic!

RMR is now focussed on trying to inspire the Council to commit to measurement of cumulative effects.  In responding to RMR’s evidence at the Public Examination, ABC officers argued that there is no means available for assessing cumulative impact ( and, by implication, it should not therefore be reflected in policy). We put forward to the Council  last week that this is a matter of political will. We asked Ashford Borough to  debate how to engage communities in collecting evidence. We believe that methodology could easily be established for collecting measurable indicators of cumulative impact. It’s just a matter of deciding what needs measuring and structuring how measurement is collected to give a picture over time.

Cllr Gerry Clarkson, Leader of Ashford Borough Council proposed a motion to revisit the need for a specific policy after the adoption of the Local Plan. He proposed that this would be done via Ward members and Parish Councils so our next challenge is to get our Parish Councils on board with the idea of measuring and monitoring.

The Ashford Local Plan will be revisited in 2023/24 but in the mean time we will all continue to face challenges in safeguarding the rural character of our villages, both from speculative applications within Ashford Borough and adjacent authorities, such as the proposed Otterpool Park. So the next step is to join in the monitoring – information is power!

Ashford Borough Council is currently consulting on Main Modifications to the Local Plan. The consultation runs from 13th September until 5pm on 26th October 2018.  You can file your comments on line: https://www.ashford.gov.uk/planning-and-building-control/planning-policy/local-plan-to-2030/updates-and-next-steps/

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