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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!

Why we should all care about Planning

Planning; there’s lots of talk about it at the moment. Most of us glaze over at the mention of it!  Planning is a bit like the Legal profession; we know it’s there, don’t take much notice of it and hope that it will work for us when we need it…The thing about the Planning system is that there are clearly defined times when you can express an opinion; if you miss it, the moment is gone.  For many people, the first time they notice development is when the builders move in.

Planning  is what decides how where we live looks and feels. In Ashford right now, we all need to take an interest; we live in a very desirable part of the country, with employment and high speed links to London and Paris.  Development is happening on every side of the town and is a hot topic of conversation everywhere.

Many residents feel ground down by the constant planning applications and ignored by the planning authorities. The way planning works today is not delivering quality of life for many localities – such as ours.  The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England says “it is entirely possible to have a planning system that is rebalanced towards community and environmental interest.”  Rural Means Rural agrees with this statement.

We are village residents who feel that our communities should have more say in what is built there, that the combined effects of a development should be considered and that the environmental impact in rural areas should be a major consideration. We have all participated in many Planning discussions; and seen that the application usually gets through, eventually.  The irony is that, though the developer justifies what, how  and where he builds – it is the people who already live there that have to adjust and live with the consequences.

We think that Planning needs to apply the same consideration to rural development as it does to large infrastructure projects; considering the total impact through examining all the different ways that the proposal will affect the place in which it is proposed. It would be designed to help planning to be for residents – going beyond the current Neighbourhood Plans and truly swinging the balance of planning power back into the hands of local people. We call this the Landscape Protection Policy.  It is a kind of mini- environmental audit. It is very different from any other Planning tool that exists right now.

Let’s take a practical example of how a Landscape Protection Policy could work.

There is a current planning application ( ref. 18/00225/AS) for land in Aldington.  Two years ago Aldington residents pioneered the Landscape Protection Policy approach so have already identified the special rural characteristics that they want to preserve and have collected information to help prove the impact that further development would have upon them.

The  proposal is to build  80 dwellings. If the Landscape Protection Policy were adopted by Ashford Borough Council a cumulative impact assessment would be required and would evaluate the following matters that are all not covered by the current local plan:

  • the amount of development that has already taken place and when it took place;
  • the impact of the pace of growth of new housing in the locality;
  • the cumulative positive and negative impacts on local businesses, on local services and whether the school can meet demand, on the quality of life of residents, the disruption caused by parking, noise, light and traffic pollution during development, and long and short term damage to wildlife habitats and on the built heritage;
  • the cumulative impact of the development – both on its own and in combination with previous developments – on the unique character and special features of the village that have been identified as in need of protection.

The Landscape Protection Policy and cumulative impact assessment arising from the application to develop would give communities the ability to define the grounds on which development could happen in their village.   In effect, the community gets to raise the bar for rural development so that development, when it comes, is a positive thing.  In Aldington keeping the lanes quiet, the skies dark and the hedgerows intact are all crucial to quality of life.  Like all local villages services to the village are minimal and broadband speeds a concern.

With a Landscape Protection Policy agreed, the  community would decide the circumstances under which development would be appropriate.  For example, the developer could be asked to help improve public transport to reduce car dependency, or to compensate for the effects of HGV traffic on fragile lanes by covering the costs of resurfacing and repairing the erosion of gulleys, verges and hedgerows. The village could work with wild life groups to put a programme in place, supported by contributions from developers, to address damage to hedgerows and wildlife habitats. Most importantly the Policy would put the onus on developers to build the type of housing that the community needed first and foremost, reducing executive homes and increasing smaller, more affordable houses.  Building would have to compliment the rural setting and be suitably landscaped with native plants to protect and enhance the highly valued countryside views with great care taken to minimise the effects of any lighting to avoid increasing light pollution. All in all The Landscape Protection Policy would acknowledge that rural development has very different needs to urban ones – and would ensure that developers were guided by the identified needs to keep the countryside special. 

It’s an ambitious plan and we need your help.  We need  lots of villages to demand the Landscape Protection Policy!  We will be talking to the Planning Inspectorate , an executive agency, sponsored by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government that is reviewing the Ashford Local Plan over the coming months. We will be explaining why our Council should give all Borough villages the tools to shape their community in ways that a Neighbourhood Plan does not achieve.

Join our campaign at https://ruralmeansrural.org/become-a-member/  – a few moments of your time could make all the difference.

Letter to MP Damian Green

 

17 February 2018

Dear Mr Green

Re. Government house building policy

I am a resident of Shadoxhurst and I am deeply concerned about the impact of the Government’s current house building policy on the quality of life in our village and the wider rural community. My concerns are shared by people living in similar villages in the Ashford Borough district, particularly by those closest to Ashford itself where housing growth is set to destroy precious countryside and wildlife habitats, and subsume long established villages and communities. This will damage the quality of life of people living in your constituency.

I am frustrated by Ashford Borough Council’s response to our concerns.  However, it is clear that the Council are facing many challenges as their policies and priorities are ultimately driven by house building targets set by Government. These all-consuming targets were set in an economic and political climate that is irrelevant to today’s market and social needs and are now largely unachievable. Furthermore, the penalties imposed by Government on councils who fail to meet these targets involve imposing increases in their existing house building target. This is perverse as it can only worsen the situation at every level, especially in terms of the added pressure it places on rural areas.

Together, as individuals and through representative bodies, many local people have used all possible means to have our detailed concerns heard and adequately addressed. These important concerns include:

  • The impact on the local highway network during construction over many decades and the management of inevitable increases in traffic when the thousands of homes become occupied.
  • The inadequacy of the existing surface water drainage and the lack of a strategic approach for dealing with the impact of water displacement from these massive housing developments.
  • The lack of resilience within our local NHS, social care and other services, and lack of plans for improvements in these areas to match demand ahead of anticipated population growth.
  • The lack of coherent plans to improve the currently inadequate School provision. This results in large numbers of children being bused to and from school, in addition to many school run car journeys.
  • The permanent loss of countryside and precious green spaces in and around our villages, with irreparable environmental damage and loss of wildlife habitats.

I believe that in the main we have been humoured, treated as a hindrance to the process of delivering the Government’s policies and priorities. Our well-presented and very serious concerns have had no or little impact on final decisions. These are decisions that will have a direct impact of on our quality of life now and for generations to come.

Many village communities and individuals in your constituency are choosing to join ‘Rural Means Rural’. This grass roots group is focused, structured and well organised.

It is concerned about the cumulative effects of the many small pockets of development in rural areas as well as the propensity of building on greenfield sites to meet national housing requirements. The Group supports appropriate development in rural locations but believes that the current scale and pace is resulting in irreversible and substantial damage to all aspects of rural life.

In broad terms the Rural Means Rural group aim to campaign for:

  • Public and political support for consistent and enforceable protection policies that are meaningful to local people.
  • The inclusion of these protection policies in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for the benefit of all areas of Britain, rural and urban.
  • Appropriate development in rural settings.
  • Protection of the unique rural characteristics of our villages.
  • Clearly defined criteria for green strategic gaps between settlements.  

Rural Means Rural have stated that they “want to ensure that ‘Green Corridors’ are maintained around villages such as Shadoxhurst to provide a buffer that will retain their distinct identities and rural characteristics”.

Many people in our village community describe it as being under siege.

New housing is currently being built in and around Shadoxhurst and permission has been granted for thousands more homes, with many more proposed for the future. I believe that there is a complete lack of any holistic vision or strategy coming from either central government or the local planning authority. Rural Means Rural are breathing fresh air into the stagnant and depressing situation that currently exists. As such they will receive my full support and I anticipate the support of substantial numbers of other people too.

I recognise that national government has many challenging priorities to juggle, and that this challenge is further heightened by the demands of Brexit. I know that the government is making “the housing crisis” a top priority and it is clear that there is a particular need for more affordable housing. However, there is no indication that many of the proposed developments in our villages will prioritise homes that are truly affordable for young people or those on low incomes.

On the contrary, experience shows that developers often include the bare minimum ratio of affordable housing in their submitted planning applications. Also, after permission is granted, some developers persuade the Planning Authority to allow still fewer to be built on the grounds of the development’s commercial viability. The most recent housing development here in Shadoxhurst included six affordable homes. Building works on this development ended over 18 months ago, however some of these expensive yet apparently affordable homes remain unoccupied.

Many of your constituents feel that we are being taken for granted, that there is no point in commenting on planning applications as Government policy is tying the hands of the Planning Authority.

As a result many of us feel completely disenfranchised politically.

This should concern you as I am sure that you expect us to continue voting for you and your party colleagues at general and local elections in the future. As a former senior Cabinet member in this current administration you may have a legacy that resonates long after any impact of Brexit.

Consider the 1963 Beeching Report entitled “The Reshaping of British Railways”. In the same way that over 50 years later many people continue to lament the loss of their railways. Our children will tell their grandchildren of the countryside, the precious wildlife habitats and our villages, each with their own unique rural character. All taken from us by government priorities and policies that ‘reshaped our rural life’ and failed to fix the housing crisis.

I look forward to hearing how you can reassure me that our concerns are unfounded.

Yours sincerely.

Ian Procter  MA, FInstLM.

 

The Landscape Protection Policy – the answer to conflict between villages and demand for houses.

They paved paradise.sang Joni Mitchell in 1970.

With the housing crisisnow accepted as fact, will our generation be remembered for addressing housing supply or for allowing commerce to rise above concerns about loss of green fields, using housing demand as justification?

Despite Ms Mays reassurance in the House of Commons last November that the Government has no plans to change rules on building on the green belt, the current drive to increase the number of available new homes is causing increasing unrest in rural communities across Britain.

A new phenomena is blighting the countryside. Threatening rural peace and biodiversity in equal measure, it offers solution to hard pressed Borough Councils and planning authorities as they scrabble to satisfy the demands of the Five Year Land Supply and housing targets set by Central Government. The UK, home to the entrepreneurial spirit has a whole new industry. With farming threatened by Brexit and increased regulation, landowners are being courted by companies that prepare fields for development by doing the time-consuming work of gaining planning permission. They are then sold on to house builders. These companies dont ever build, but work within the labyrinthine planning system to expertly take advantage of its weaknesses and loopholes.

The Daily Telegraph has called it a modern-day gold rush. Inspired by the business model adopted by the legal profession, some of these new companies offer services on a no win, no feebasis. The potential for profit is great. The pressure on green belt is increasing.

Like many other Boroughs, Ashford Borough Council in Kent has been working on a Local Plan. National Planning Policy places Local Plans at the centre of the planning system. Local Plans set out how and where that housing supply needed in an area will be met during the life-span of that Plan. Councils that do not keep their Local Plan up to date have come in for much criticism. Ashford is no exception. However, during the development of the latest Ashford Local Plan and after many the many public consultations, it became clear that Ashford was struggling to bring forward the its target number of new homes and had a serious deficit in its Five Year Land Supply. Omission sites, that had previously been rejected as suitable for development, have been brought back into the Ashford Local Plan 2030 and are currently being reviewed by the Planning Inspectorate. Several of the Omission sites included in the Plan are in rural locations.

Aldington’s story

One village that has had Omission sites revised and included in the draft Ashford Local Plan 2030 is Aldington. Residents here are tired of constant development and have lobbied the Borough Council for a period of respite from building. Far from being a village that opposes every proposal, the number of households in this village has grown by 68% since 2001.

In the last fifteen year Local Plan period, Aldington was scheduled to grow by 30 households. In actuality, 186 houses were approved and built.

Now, even before the draft Plan is approved, a developer has countered the 30 dwellings on the Omission sites included in the draft Local Plan, with a different proposal; on a different field, and a plan to build 80 new homes. The village is heart broken but worn out by constantly attending consultation meetings, expressing views then watching as the diggers move in to what used to be a field.

This village has an agricultural heritage. People move here because they want the space, freedom and peace of rural life. They want to be part of a small community, escape the housing estates and raise their children in a village close to nature. But as fields become housing estates the difference between urban and rural lifestyles is being eroded.

A new approach to planning is required.

Residents of Saxon Shore Ward, part of Ashford Borough, which covers the villages of Aldington, Bonnington, Bilsington, Brabourne, Brook, Hastingleigh, Ruckinge and Smeeth have come together to form a Community Group called Rural means Rural to champion their lifestyle ideals and those of villagers across the UK. Together they aim to give residents a voice at a time when many feel ignored or shouted down as NIMBYS by those that argue the value of building above environment, biodiversity of quality of rural life.

Most particularly they oppose the intention in the emerging Ashford Local Plan, through Policy HOU3a, to permit potentially uncapped minor residential development in even in the remotest of villages in the Borough.

The concern is that small pockets of continuous and constant development is slowly but surely eroding rural life – its quality, wildlife and ecological system, the community and character of the landscape.

The Rural Means Rural community group proposes a radical change to the way that the planning application process for residential development reviews impact upon an area. Taking inspiration from the Environmental Impact Assessments that are a key part of every large scale planning application – they propose an holistic approach to lead to better quality, more appropriate development that meets the needs of local people first and grows a community in an acceptable way. Calling this approach the Landscape Protection Policy, they intend to mirror the the emphasis in Environmental Impact Assessments of using the best available sources of objective information and in carrying out a systematic and holistic bias-free process to allow the local authority and the whole community to properly understand the impact of the proposed development.

It is a plan that takes the planning process from consideration of each individual application to a place whereby the cumulative effects of a series of developments over a period of time can be collectively assessed. Rural Means Rural is championing adoption of a Landscape Protection Policy within the National Planning Policy Framework to be adopted into every Local and Neighbourhood Plan.

A Landscape Protection Policy is developed by local residents, who define the special characteristics of their area and then work with infrastructure professionals to quantify them. The data is then used to define a Landscape Protection Policy for that area with which any future planning application must comply.

This exciting proposal puts the power to decide what development is appropriate in a given area back into the hands of the people who live there, in a stronger way than a Neighbourhood Plan alone because it takes an holistic approach and accounts for cumulative effects.

Developers do not have the well being of a community at heart. They have only one objective and that is to build, sell and move on to the next available site to grow their businesses. The same with the land management companies, whose businesses have grown up around opportunity. Its commercial. It of course has benefits for the country and for potential house buyers – but it is offending villagers nationwide. Developers and land management companies use tactics that are designed to establish what objections might be raised, address them in their planning applications – keeping a token hedge here, working around a tree there, agreeing to resurface the fragile country lane before departing – and employ experts to argue legalities that win them planning approval on appeal. Villagers are beginning to feel that opposing planning applications is pointless

Local Authorities and national Government need to have a re-think.

A Government Briefing Paper from November 2017 quotes research by Glenigan in 2015 that found a sharp increase in the number of houses securing full planning approval in the greenbelt.According to the research in 2009/10, 2,258 homes were approved in Green Belt areas. In 2013/2014, the number had risen to 5,607 and in 2014/2015, it was 11,977 homes. According to DCLGs land use change statistics, 356 hectares of Green Belt land changed to residential use in 2015-16.

The perception of disappearing fields is not an illusion; it is fact.

Neither is it true that building on green fields is our only option to meet current demand for housing. Another fact is that brownfield sites come with many complications and additional costs in order to regenerate them; old building that need to be removed or land contamination for example. In November 2014 CPRE ( Campaign for the Protection of Rural England) published its From wasted space to living spaces report, which found that at least 1 million homes could be provided on suitable brownfield land in England. The Department for Communities and Local Government described this estimate as wildly over optimisticin its Housing & Planning Bill Impact Assessment of October 2015 (page 70). The document claimed that only a fraction will be suitable for housing, which appeared to disregard the fact that the estimate was based only on sites councils considered suitable for housing. The CPRE published Housing capacity on suitable brownfield land, October 2016 which cited a new number of at least 1.1 million, based on data that the Government itself had commissioned.

 

To quote Joni Mitchell once more; Dont it always seem to go, That you don’t know what you got ‘til its gone…”

 

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Contact Rural Means Rural via ruralmeansrural@gmail.com for permission to reproduce.

Author: Linda Harman – Aldington mobile: 07802 776779