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/

Rural Relief

I’m a little behind in seeing the the triumphant lead article in this week’s Kentish Express …but am today delighted to see the headline news that the Ashford Local Plan 2030 will be 400 rural homes fewer than originally proposed by Ashford Borough Council.

This news comes on top of last month’s announcement by Gladman Developments that they have  withdrawn three appeals seeking planning permission – bringing huge relief to Brabourne Lees, Charing and Biddenden.  Now Hothfield and High Halden join the list of reprieved villages, whilst others will see the developments included in the Local Plan in their location much reduced, making them much less attractive to developers.  Hooray!

from Kentish Express 2nd August 2018

Whilst the process of finalising the Local Plan is not yet over, there is already a feeling of change in the air that gives rural residents hope.

Nine months ago, when Rural Means Rural (RMR) started it’s campaign, many people expressed their frustration at a local Council and planning process which they felt dismissed their concerns about increasingly urban building styles in rural locations, and a slow, little by little erosion of quality of life in many villages. This week’s announcement by Ashford Borough Council validates people power and underlines the value of participating in the planning process, however frustrating it may appear to be.

During the various consultation stages of the Local Plan and the Examination in Public by the Planning Inspectorate many Parish Councils, Borough Councillors, local residents, CPRE Kent and Rural Means Rural stood up to express their views or to represent the concerns of their neighbours, members or residents. The RMR petition gathered over 2000 signatures of support for revision of planning policy for building in rural locations.  If these voices had not been raised, if they had not been amplified in the local press and on social media – maybe the news would be different…

Following the examination hearings, Ashford Borough Council has renewed strength from confirmation that it has identified enough land to meet it’s housing targets and it’s five year land supply targets, both of which are set by Government. In last month’s Planning Meeting several very contentious planning applications were debated and the Leader of the Council said; ‘we must listen to the people’s views.’  The message is getting through!  Planning is of course, a continuous process and there will be further causes for concern – but for now, we can celebrate.

The Planning Inspector is expecting  the Main Modifications to the Local Plan from Ashford Borough Council during August, which will then go out once more to public consultation. Cllr Paul Clokie, portfolio holder for planning, said in the Kentish Express that ‘ Although the final report will not be complete until November, I remain confident that our planning strategy will meet the needs of our growing borough.’ We certainly hope so. Ashford is a rural borough so we hope that the Local Plan will meet our needs.

Rural relief is a quiet celebration – but enjoy the moment and ready yourselves for next time!