BSCF letter to Planning Policy Team on proposed modifications to the draft District Plan

Planning Policy Team
East Herts Council
Wallfields
Pegs Lane
Hertford
SG13 8EQ
28 February 2018

EAST HERTS DISTRICT PLAN - MAIN MODIFICATIONS CONSULTATION

1. I am writing on behalf of the Bishop's Stortford Civic Federation to comment on the proposed main modifications (MMs) to the draft District Plan.

2. However, before commenting on the modifications, we feel we should comment on the unsatisfactory nature of the consultation process itself. Although we understand from the Inspector’s post hearing note that the Council will have consulted the Inspector before publishing its MMs, we have no indication of the underlying reasoning which has led the Inspector to require some modifications, and equally for ignoring or rejecting the arguments for different proposals. And so our response to this consultation is hampered by the fact that, apart from internal consistency, we are ignorant of the rationale on which the MMs are based.

3. I should also add that the Inspector decided not to allow me to participate in the Part 1 hearings concerning the Development Strategy, the Green Belt and the Rural Area beyond the Green Belt. I must therefore make the representations now that I would have done at the Examination in Public, had I not been prevented from doing so.

MM/3/01, MM/3/04, MM/3/19, MM/3/21 and Table 3.1

4. We consider that to describe 18458 homes and their distribution as the ‘Full Objectively Assessed Housing Need’ is a misuse of words. The assessment has essentially been driven by the business model of volume housebuilders to build commercial developments on those greenfield sites where they think they can make most money. At 80% of market values, any so-called ‘affordable’ housing in this part of the country is well out of the reach even of people who are on significantly more than average income and so there is a significant mismatch between the overall suggested provision and actual need.

5. Moreover, the distribution of the housing total conspicuously fails to allocate sites for housing on the basis of need in the areas where naturally occurring demand will arise. So the allocation of 500 dwellings to villages (nearly all of them already committed) and 750 to Hertford significantly underprovides for the demand which would naturally arise there. On the other hand there is huge overprovision in Bishop's Stortford which will lead to large scale immigration, not just from London overspill but also from people who would like to stay in their existing communities in other parts of East Herts but will be unable to do so because of lack of housing provision. We have suggested a modest redistribution from development on Green Belt land in Bishop's Stortford to the rural area beyond the Green Belt which would begin to restore the balance. Even if that were to be accepted, Bishop's Stortford would experience a growth in population well in excess of any increase in local employment opportunities (including Stansted airport). The reality is that the plan will force the town to accommodate edge of town developments as dormitory suburbs for long distance commuters to London and Cambridge. In MM/3/19 the sites identified as Bishop's Stortford South and the High School should therefore be deleted from the list.

6. From a sustainability perspective, long distance commuting is something that should be discouraged. The new proposed settlements are not within walking distance of the railway station and regardless of any ‘green’ travel initiatives, the serious congestion problems in the town will only get worse. This makes it all the more surprising that Hertford apparently needs a bypass, but Bishop's Stortford which is taking 6 times as many new homes, does not need to have the missing south eastern quadrant of its bypass completed.

7. The table at 3.1 envisages completions across the district running at the rate of 1018 for the next 10 years. This compares with an average rate of about 530 per annum over the previous 25 years. We have seen no evidence that the construction industry has the capacity to double the rate of its output. Indeed one of the few consistent messages coming from the BREXIT negotiations is that freedom of movement from Europe will be restricted, thus exacerbating the skills shortages the industry faces already.

8. But, irrespective of land supply and capacity issues, it is absurd to imagine that volume housebuilders would increase their rates of production to a level which might adversely affect profit margins. Bishop's Stortford North for example, has planning permission for some 2500 homes, but developers are expecting to take ten years to complete the development – just five completions a week. Now that work has started, there is nothing except disinclination preventing them from scaling up to ten a week. But it won’t happen. So zoning sites for development far in excess of likely output achieves nothing except blighting them for years to come.

9. If a change of Government policy were to be implemented to supplement commercial housebuilding with a major social housing programme then, subject to capacity constraints, the annual rate of completions might increase. But the location of social housing projects would not necessarily be on the sites which the so-called objectively assessed need has identified in the plan. Social housing providers might attach priority to building new homes where there is a need to meet local demand.

10. In summary, therefore, the development strategy is not sustainable, or deliverable and is therefore unsound. The housing total and its distribution is based on commercial housebuilder led demand and not need, the infrastructure to support development on this scale in Bishop's Stortford is missing, and the rate of completions the plan allows for is not realistic or achievable.

MM/4/05 – 07

11. For the reasons set out in our previous submissions and above, these policies are too restrictive. Sufficient development should be allowed at least to meet natural growth in demand in those settlements.

MM/5/01

12. Policies BISH 5 and 6 should be deleted from the list.

MM/5/03

13. The purpose of any Plan such as this should be to give certainty to residents and developers alike about how much development can be expected on each site. The housing total and its allocation to sites should therefore be expressed in words which treat them as ceilings. By prefixing the numbers with the words ‘at least’, this MM would instead turn the number into a floor and deprive officers of any leverage with developers in negotiating how much development can be crammed on to a site. This does not give planning officers more flexibility to deal with detailed applications. On the contrary, it is nothing less than a planning department suicide note.

14. The absurdity of this approach can best be illustrated by looking at the Goods Yard site for which an application including 580 dwellings is under consideration. In successive iterations of the Plan, the dwelling total has increased from up to 200 to 400 to 600 in the most recent version. The second phase of the scheme, for which outline permission is sought, includes a mixture of flats and family homes. However, if the Plan were to be adopted on the terms now proposed, the developers may feel obliged to come back at a later date to insist on replacing the family homes with a larger number of flats, simply to comply with what is now expressed as the minimum total in the Plan. The wording should therefore be replaced by language that makes clear that these are the upper limits of development, not the starting point for negotiating an increased provision. The same point is relevant to other parts of the Bishop's Stortford Chapter included in the MMs.

15. Policies BISH5 and 6 should be deleted from the list (see below). However, developments in Southmill Road and South Street comprising 118 dwellings in total should be added to the list. For reasons which escape us, they have never appeared in the Plan at any stage of its development but they are now nearing completion. Their omission leads to an understatement the contribution Bishop's Stortford is making to housing supply. I raised this point at the Examination in Public but I must confess that I did not understand the Council’s reply and would have thought that now was the opportunity to remedy the omission.

MM/5/08

17. This policy should be deleted in its entirety. The removal of this site from the Green Belt should only be permitted in very special or exceptional circumstances. We have seen no written evidence nor heard any oral evidence to explain what very special or exceptional new circumstances have arisen to justify overturning the decisions of two previous Planning Inspectors and the Secretary of State (as recently as 2012) that the site should continue to enjoy Green Belt protection. We have moreover suggested a more sustainable distribution strategy for the housing that would be displaced.

18. It also appears to us that the Inspector may not have been aware that the great majority of the site falls within the administrative parish of Thorley. For purposes of this plan, Thorley is classified as a Group 3 village, within which under policy VILL3 only limited infill development will be permitted. The Bishop's Stortford South development is clearly incompatible with policy VILL3 and for this reason too should be struck out.

19. The town and district councils are, we understand, trying to legitimise retrospectively this underlying incompatibility by proposing a boundary change between the parishes of Thorley and Bishop's Stortford but, whatever may eventually take place, it has not been put before the Inspector in evidence and a decision on the application will not be made until October. We suggest therefore that the Inspector should attach no weight to possible future boundary changes but instead address this fundamental inconsistency in the Plan on the basis of the evidence already before her.

MM/5/9 and 10

20. These two policies should be deleted if Bishop's Stortford South is removed from the plan. If it is not, then these two policies are incompatible. Policy BISH6 rightly notes that the site can be released only if sufficient secondary school capacity is provided elsewhere within Bishop's Stortford. Relocating the Boys High School of itself creates no new places, and even if it were enlarged, creates no new places for girls. MM/5/09 (para 5.3.15) ought not therefore to prejudge the nature of any school that might be needed at Bishop's Stortford South, since the housing numbers now included in the Plan (if they remain unchanged) provide more than enough demand for another wholly new co-educational secondary school, in addition to the one at Bishop's Stortford North.

MM/5/15

21. We were made aware only at the Examination in Public that the owners of the Football stadium wanted to move the football club to another location and instead change the use of the site to become a parking lot for local car dealers. However, the Inspector forbade me from making any representations on this proposal at the hearing, and I am therefore making the points now that I was prevented from doing at the time.

22. The Inspector may have been unaware that this site is currently in the Green Belt. The football club received planning permission some years ago to relocate there from a town centre site only because sport is a permitted exception to the normal prohibition on Green Belt development.

23. We do not object to the removal of the site from the Green Belt. Indeed, the only bit of it left that is green is the football pitch itself. However, there is no obvious alternative site for the club to move to, and none has been proposed in the new developments included in the Plan. We would therefore prefer to see its existing use intensified (by sharing it with other clubs) rather than for the club to relocate.

24. Nevertheless, if the club were able to move away, the site is ideally placed to become a park and ride site. It would be better used for that purpose than for commercial car parking – particularly if a commercial car park were to turn itself into an off site airport car park. In the absence of any enhanced transport infrastructure in the Plan for Bishop's Stortford this is the sort of green transport initiative that should be encouraged.

Conclusion

25. We trust that proper consideration will be given to these comments before the Inspector finalises her report on the District Plan. While we have commented only on the Development Strategy, Green Belt and Bishop's Stortford parts of the MMs, many of our comments affect the plan more generally or will lead to consequential amendments elsewhere – for example the mistaken use of the words ‘at least’ before each of the housing totals, and the removal of Bishop's Stortford South and the High School sites from the Plan.

Yours faithfully

JOHN RHODES
PRESIDENT