BSCF's comments to the Town Council on the Neighbourhood Plan 2 New!
Bishop's Stortford Town Council
The Old Monastery
|3 April 2016|
NEIGHBOURHOOD PLAN 2
CONSULTATION COPY 1 MARCH 2016
1. I am writing on behalf of the Bishop's Stortford Civic Federation in response to the consultation copy of Neighbourhood Plan 2 published on 1 March. Our comments are directed towards the treatment of Bishop's Stortford South (BSS) in the draft plan.
2. Para 126.96.36.199 of the document has the following to say about the limitations applying to neighbourhood plans
‘A Neighbourhood Plan must be ‘in general conformity’ with the strategic policies of the adopted Local Plan and cannot stop development that is already part of the Local Plan or amend the boundaries of Green Belt.’
3. The applicable local plan and Green Belt boundaries currently in force are those in the saved policies of the 2007 local plan for East Herts, specifically saved policy GBC1. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) makes clear (para 83) that Green Belt boundaries are intended to be permanent and should only be altered in exceptional circumstances through preparation or review of the Local Plan. This has been reinforced by the Planning Practice Guidance Note (PPGN) published on 6 October 2014 (paras 044 and 045) which emphasises that Green Belt policies are a constraint which may restrict the ability of a local authority to deliver its objectively assessed housing need.
Bishop's Stortford South
4. The possibility of reclassifying this site so that some or all of it might be developed has probably been raised more often and examined by more authorities than any other Green Belt site in the district. In the preparation of the previous Local Plan, EHDC proposed that a sufficient area for a combined secondary school campus should be released from this Green Belt site, local councillors having previously rejected release of the whole of the site for development. In her report on the draft Local Plan in 2006, the Inspector concluded that the site performed well defined Green Belt functions, and directed that the policy proposing its removal should be deleted from the plan (Inspector’s report paras 11.48.7 – 11.48.9). EHDC accordingly adopted the plan with that amendment in 2007 and it is therefore protected under saved policy GBC1.
5. However, the Inspector had pointed out that whether the exceptional circumstances which the schools thought supported their case were sufficient to override Green Belt protection could be tested through lodging a planning application. They duly did so in 2010, but permission was refused by EHDC, on the advice of officers, that the exceptional circumstances claimed did not outweigh the harm that would be caused to this important Green Belt site.
6. The schools took their case to an appeal which was considered at a month long public inquiry in 2011. In his evidence to the inquiry (paras 3.10 – 3.17) EHDC’s Head of Planning and Building Control explained the particular importance of this site in relation to the purposes of the Green Belt and concluded
'The site then has clear merit in its current form when considered against the purposes of the green belt set out in PPG2.’
7. While PPG2 has been superseded by the NPPF, it is generally agreed that it has led to no material change in the purposes of and the importance attached to preserving the Green Belt.
8. The Inspector reported on the appeal in 2011. He dealt with the issues at length in paras 553 – 583 of his report and concluded in para 753
'In this case there would be clear harm to the Green Belt through inappropriateness, and in accordance with PPG2 guidance this carries substantial weight.'
He accordingly recommended that the appeals should be dismissed. In the decision letter of 10 September 2012 the Secretary of State’s overall conclusion (para 33) was as follows
'Overall, the Secretary of State concludes that the benefits which would arise from Scheme A would not be sufficient to clearly outweigh the potential harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness and the other harm he has identified and that very special circumstances have not been demonstrated.'
He thus endorsed the Inspector’s recommendations.
9. The draft District Plan, published and consulted upon in 2014, proposed that BSS should be removed from the Green Belt and designated for housing and associated supporting infrastructure instead. This draft of NP 2 therefore includes, in para 188.8.131.52, section 3.10 and section 4.9, text proposing policies to be applied in the event that BSS should be removed from the Green Belt and allocated for housing and associated development when the District Plan is eventually adopted.
10. Consultation on the draft District Plan concluded in May 2014. Since then, Guidance has been published to the effect that Green Belt protection cannot be sacrificed merely to achieve an objectively assessed housing target (see para 3 above). As part of their procedure for producing the next version of the District Plan, EHDC have commissioned an independent review by Peter Brett Associates of the Green Belt and the suitability of sites within it for release for development. This was published towards the end of last year and concluded that the suitability of this site (site 71 on their map showing suitability of release of sites from the Green Belt for potential development) for release from the Green Belt was low.
11. At the public inquiry in 2011 referred to in para 6 above, Bishop's Stortford Town Council were unanimously opposed to the development of part of the BSS site, and granted £10,000 towards the Civic Federation’s legal expenses in our eventually successful objection to the appeal (the Civic Federation raised the other £25,000 from subscriptions from the general public). Thorley Parish Council gave evidence at the public inquiry, objecting to the development proposals. The Civic Federation is not aware of any subsequent change of policy which would have led these two statutory bodies to have altered their positions. We also understand that possible development of this site was the issue which generated the most opposition to an earlier version of NP 2 on which consultation took place
12. BSS has now been found an important Green Belt site which is unsuitable for development by EHDC’s Head of Planning and Building Control, East Herts Council itself as local planning authority, two Planning Inspectors on separate occasions, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and most recently the technical consultants reviewing the Green Belt prior to publication of the next version of the District Plan. There has never been a planning justification for its removal from the Green Belt. The only reason advanced has been to assist in meeting East Herts’ housing target. But this is a target which applies to the whole of the district, and, as the PPGN referred to above makes clear, meeting a housing target is not a sufficient reason for sacrificing Green Belt protection. The Town and Parish Councils who are covered by NP 2 have both objected to development of this site in the past and we have no reason to suppose that their attitudes have changed, and the NP 2 team have obtained evidence that the local population remains strongly opposed to any proposed development.
13. EHDC have not yet decided upon a revised version of the draft District Plan for publication. When it has been published, there will then be further round of public consultation, following which, the plan and the consultation responses will be submitted to a Government appointed Inspector who will then conduct an Examination in Public. Only when the Inspector’s report and recommendations have been published, will EHDC be in a position to adopt a new District Plan.
14. In this context therefore, no development of BSS is likely to receive planning permission in advance of the adoption of the new District Plan. The new District Plan may well determine that BSS remains in the Green Belt, thus rendering all the text in NP 2 which refers to it redundant. And the text in NP 2 relating to possible development of the site is dependent upon a course of events which may well not happen. We do not feel that the current draft of NP 2 properly reflects the position and suggest that it needs to make clear that
- BSS is currently in the Green Belt and remains so until a new District Plan has been adopted.
- Both before and since publication of the draft District Plan, every objective professional assessment of the site has endorsed the conclusion that it should remain undeveloped and stay within the Green Belt.
- Both the Parish and Town Councils (subject to checking their views) and the general public (as evidenced by earlier consultation) are strongly of the view that the site should remain within the Green Belt.
- The possibility of the site being removed from the Green Belt and allocated for housing and associated development was canvassed in a draft District Plan some two years ago.
- The status of the site cannot be changed until the Plan has been adopted and achievement of an objectively assessed housing target is not a sufficient reason to remove Green Belt protection.
- A number of steps have to be completed before the plan can be adopted, including an Examination in Public by an independent Inspector.
- If the outcome of that process is that the site remains within the Green Belt, then the text in NP 2 relating to BSS is redundant and should be ignored.
- The text in NP 2 will only become relevant and applicable in the event that the draft District Plan, as adopted, removes BSS from Green Belt protection and allocates it for housing and associated development.
- Policy BSS1 (f) should be amended to state that this development together with other development contemplated in the draft District Plan would require the construction of an entirely new secondary school on some part of the site. This is explained in more detail below.
Bishop's Stortford High School
15. The March 2016 consultation copy of NP2 makes clear (in sections 3.11 and 4.10) the aspiration of the Boys High School to move from its present site to BSS with housing on its present site in effect substituting for housing that might otherwise be provided on BSS. However, the point we wish to emphasise now is that whatever scenario emerges for the future of BSS, the Boys High School should not be allowed to relocate to it.
16. To explain our thinking behind this point it is necessary to refer to Herts County Council’s (HCC) method of forecasting pupil demand and the amount of demand implicit in the draft District Plan of 2014.
17. For purposes of planning demand for secondary school places, HCC treats Bishop's Stortford, Sawbridgeworth and villages extending out to Much Hadham as a single Educational Planning Area (EPA). It uses as a metric for calculating demand that 500 dwellings will create a demand for an additional 1 FE (Form of Entry of 30 pupils) of secondary school places. Within the EPA, the draft District Plan envisaged the construction of 5196 new dwellings up to 2031. This included development at Bishop's Stortford North (now granted outline planning permission), 750 – 1000 dwellings at Bishop's Stortford South, but only 200 dwellings on the Station Goods Yard site compared with the 700 now being proposed by Solum which need to be included in the total. So, in round numbers, school places will have to be provided for the demand generated by 5700 dwellings if all the housing proposed in the Plan and now contemplated is included in the adopted District Plan.
18. Using HCC’s metric for calculating the demand for secondary school places, unless the next version of the draft District Plan significantly reduces the dwelling total planned for the EPA, it would be prudent to assume that this housing will lead to a requirement for an additional 11 FE of secondary school places. At present HCC have granted themselves planning permission for a new school of up to 6 FE of additional places on Bishop's Stortford North. Of this, 5 FE of demand will be generated by demand from within BSN, leaving 1 FE available for demand arising from elsewhere.
19. However, the success of our secondary schools has meant that for many years now, a third of their places have been taken up by pupils who live in areas outside the EPA – so-called cross area flows. In the past, many of these have come from Essex but, with suggestions for significant development at Harlow North also included in the draft District Plan, demand from outside the EPA but within Hertfordshire can also be expected to increase in future. Previous increases in capacity have not led to any reduction in the proportion of places absorbed by cross area flows and it would be prudent to assume this trend will apply to any future increases in capacity.
20. This means that, to ensure that Bishop's Stortford children can continue to have reasonable confidence of securing a local secondary school place, the level of demand implicit in the draft District Plan – 11 FE – needs to be grossed up by a third to at least 14 FE, to accommodate prospective growth in cross area flows. So the gap between the demand which HCC has firm plans to meet – 6 FE – and the demand implicit in the draft District Plan stands at 8 FE, which would be more than enough to fill another new secondary school.
21. Saved policy BIS7 in the 2007 local plan and BISH5 in the draft District Plan required that a site in HCC’s ownership at Patmore Close, which had been acquired for educational purposes many years ago, should be held in reserve for educational purposes until such time as it was clear that sufficient secondary school places were to be provided elsewhere in the town. Having regard to the very simple calculations set out above, which we understand HCC still follow, it is clear that this condition has not been satisfied. Nevertheless, HCC applied for planning permission last year for housing on part of the site as part of a set of land transactions to secure a school on its preferred site on Bishop's Stortford North – a scheme now delayed by at least two years.
22. EHDC’s Development Management Committee (DMC) considered the application at a meeting on 26 September 2015. The issues concerning whether the site was now surplus to educational requirements are set out in the Officers’ report at paras 9.1.6 – 9.1.16 and in essential reference paper C. HCC’s case for taking the site out of the educational estate boiled down to arguing that apart from Bishop's Stortford North, the amount of housing in the draft District Plan was uncertain and might not happen; that another 2 or 3 FE of additional places could be absorbed at existing schools (mainly Leventhorpe), subject to feasibility studies, and that the cross area flows into the EPA would be capped at their current absolute number rather than growing in line with the increase in capacity.
23. Taking the issues in turn, NP 2‘s policies on Bishop's Stortford North and elsewhere are based on the assumption that all the housing in the draft District Plan will happen, so making a planning assumption that some of it might not is irrelevant for this purpose. We invited HCC to support our objections to the development of BSS, as one way of reducing the housing total in the draft District Plan and the demand for school places it would generate, to the capacity for which they appear to be planning. They declined to do so. The additional places which the current schools could provide together with the new school at Bishop's Stortford North, assuming they were found to be feasible, fall well short of the gap between supply and potential demand. We would also add that the first cohort to which the raising of the age of full time compulsory education to 18 years applies, has not yet become old enough to create any extra pressure on school capacity. This too calls into question the extent to which extra capacity can be grafted on to existing schools to meet new demand from extra housing.
24. On the final point, cross area flows, HCC have no control over the admissions policy of any of the schools in the EPA – each is its own admissions authority – and this will also be the case with the proposed new school at Bishop's Stortford North. HCC will have no control over the decision on who will operate the new school either – that decision will rest with a Regional Commissioner appointed by DfE. Discriminating against the admission of pupils on the grounds that they live in a different administrative county is illegal.
25. Our schools are already struggling to cope with demand even though none of the planned new housing in our area has yet been built. Moreover, just outside our area, major new developments are nearing completion in Stansted Mountfitchet and Takeley and one has just started in Great Dunmow. Uttlesford’s latest draft District Plan is at an early stage of production but most of the housing development options are concentrated on the south of the district with two proposals for Green Belt development right on the edge of Bishop's Stortford itself. Meanwhile, in East Herts, the draft District Plan proposes construction up to 3000 dwellings at Harlow North by 2031. While secondary schooling might eventually be provided on site, HCC’s track record on Bishop's Stortford North gives us no confidence that this will occur in a timely manner or that local people will prefer that to one of the well established schools in Bishop's Stortford. To suggest that cross area flows can be capped at their present size rather than increasing in line with the extra capacity to be provided, is not supported by past trends or any current evidence and is, frankly, wishful thinking.
26. Nevertheless, the DMC chose to accept HCC’s assurances and, setting aside policies BIS7 and BISH5, granted planning permission for housing at Patmore Close. As a result, there is no vacant site left in the town to accommodate another secondary school.
27. If, following adoption of the District Plan, BSS remains in the Green Belt, then there is no question of the Boys High School relocating there. They have tried to once before and been refused permission. If the site is removed from the Green Belt and allocated for housing, it is clear that an additional new secondary school will be needed. If the Boys High School were to move there, not only would it not of itself provide any extra places, it would also frustrate the use of the last possible site in town to provide the extra places which would be needed. Having regard to the assumption underlying NP 2 about the amount of housing for which policies have been framed, the need for another secondary school is not a matter of specialist educational expertise, but simple arithmetic.
28. However, if, as we argue, BSS should remain in the Green Belt, it would be open to the Boys High School to locate some playing fields there, since this is a permitted exception to the prohibition on development in the Green Belt. Indeed, this is what HCC have proposed for the new school at Bishop's Stortford North. Allowing development on BSS to take the form only of school playing fields would then free up land for the Boys High School to undertake such redevelopment as might be needed on their existing site. We suggest that sections 3.11 and 4.10 of NP2 are amended to reflect these suggestions, since there is no basis on which the whole school could legitimately relocate to BSS.
29. Finally I should say that we do not think it appropriate to list all the sites disclosed in the SLAA (Appendix 7 of the five Appendices listed in the document). Many of them have not been proposed for development or redevelopment in the draft District Plan and are not discussed in NP 2.
30. We hope that you find all these comments helpful and that you will be able to take them on board in such a way as to enable us to recommend that NP 2 should be supported by our members.