Day four began with some rather tetchy interventions from the inspector who gave the impression of having had a bad breakfast (or perhaps a missed breakfast).
The first speaker was Tim Hale of the CPRE, who wanted the plan to address flooding issues by draining more land and dredging more rivers.
The inspector told him that that was not a planning issue, and therefore not something relevant to the plan. Tim Hale then started to speak about agriculture and flooding, before the Inspector intervened again to say that what the farmer does is not a matter for the Council and its local plan.
The Green Party and the RSPB both expressed reservations about Tim Hale’s drainage proposals. Gavin Bloomfield of RSPB said: “A blanket land drainage policy would be highly problematic. Some drainage works have contributed to flooding problems. There would also be adverse natural environment impacts.”
Exe estuary protection
Tim Hale’s first contribution was criticised by the Greens and the RSPB, who might have been thought to have been the CPRE’s natural allies at the inquiry, in the face of developer attempts to weaken or remove countryside protection policies.
His second contribution was much more controversial. He was very much on the same wavelength (no pun intended) as the developers, in wanting to remove coastal preservation area status from the Exe Estuary. He proposed the most important protective part of the policy was removed.
Many people in the room were bemused that the CPRE would seek to remove this (to this observer) essential protection against inappropriate development.
Having had the issue opened up by Tim Hale, the developers and their representatives piled in. Mr Shaw of Savilles for Darts Farm said that coastal preservation area status should not apply to estuaries. He said the policy was unnecessary and a severe constraint. If the status had to be retained, he wanted a section of it around Darts Farm removed.
The inspector then invited a contribution from a strong opponent of all designations which restrict developers: David Seaton. Those who appreciate consistency were not disappointed. Mr Seaton was worried that coastal preservation area status was an “upfront constraint”. He believed that there was a need to review all landscape designations and asked what justification there was for such a designation.
EDDC landscape officer gave an eloquent justification. He said that the other side of the estuary was within Teignbridge District Council and had CPA status. The Teignbridge Local Plan had been found to be sound – so there was an approved policy for the CPA designation. There was a need for consistency. He spelled out the great environmental importance of the estuary, and the substantial economic benefit from the coastal footpath, and also the recently completed cycleway.
Examinations in Public tend to be rather soporific. An enterprising company that bottled Essence of EIP would probably achieve high sales amongst insomniacs. Any sleeping observers would have been woken at this point by an indignant councillor.
Claire Wright made an impassioned speech in favour of retaining coastal protection status for the Exe Estuary. “The South West Coastal Footpath is absolutely fundamental to the Devon and East Devon economy” she thundered: “It is the jewel in our crown”. She demanded to know: “What bigger asset do we have here in East Devon, than our beautiful countryside and coastline?” Claire Wright said she was “alarmed” at the possible removal of the designation.
Emily McIvor from the Green Party stressed the importance in terms of landscape and wildlife on the Axe wetlands
This is a relatively new government initiative to allow a development to go ahead as long as the countryside or wildlife lost, is replaced somewhere else. Emily McIvor of the Green Party said there was no science to show this works.
Simon Bates of the East Devon Growth Point – in his only contribution – said that there was evidence in Australia of it working.
Ms McIvor asked for a firmer presumption against destruction of existing habitat. She said that it is not possible to replace habitat without damage or loss.
The inspector said that the policy provided a high level test, and felt the policy was sufficient. Emily McIvor said that everyone in the room could give an example of a loss of natural habitat.
As a reporter I know I should be impartial. But as an environmentalist, I was becoming increasingly irritated at the developer representatives arguing on every topic for the removal of what they saw as constraints to development.
The inspector went to question five and asked how the green infrastructure proposals would work. He invited Mr Steele-Perkins to kick the subject off.
The RSPB took a different view to Mr Steele-Perkins, supporting the EDDC position.
Many in the room appeared pleased to hear David Seaton say: “I was going to keep quiet about this” but were quickly disappointed to hear: “but I’m so confused, I had to speak”.
Not surprisingly he disagreed with EDDC and the RSPB, but agreed with Mr Steele-Perkins.
Areas of outstanding natural beauty
Steve Wilks of the Greens said that nationally there were 33 AONBs, covering 15 per cent of the land. In East Devon there were two AONBs, covering 70 per cent of the land.
This showed how important landscape protection was in East Devon, and was an argument for lower rates of development in East Devon than elsewhere in the country.
He wanted the EDLP policy “to protect and enhance the landscape” to also include “natural beauty”. Emily McIvor of the Greens said it was important that built up area boundaries should be retained around settlements, and she was concerned about the possibility of urban sprawl.
Bat and barn owl protection
The draft local plan contains a policy requiring development in the countryside to provide bat and owl boxes. There was a virtual unanimity of view on this. The RSPB referred to the State of Nature report which showed a steep decline in many species.
He referred to the Exeter City Council policy in the Exeter Residential Design Guide which sought to achieve one box per unit on average. He said the cost of providing a box was minimal – akin to the cost of a drain pipe.
Emily McIvor said that the state of nature report had been written before the recent storms. Climate Change made it important for a stronger policy.
Claire Wright said that barn owl numbers had fallen disastrously – by between 45 and 90 per cent.
There were no developer arguments that the requirement to provide a nest box provided an “unnecessary burden on developers”, to use the inspectors’ phrase. How could they?
Disappointingly, the Inspector concluded discussion of the subject by saying “I am not convinced.”
The debate took place on similar lines to all the others (with the exception of that on bat and owl provision).
Mr Steele-Perkins said that there was no need for the policy. There was no evidence base to justify it. Mr Seaton took the view. It was difficult to understand the relevance, but he referred to his map showing flood constraints.
Dr Margaret Hall from Campaign to Protect Rural England argued strongly for green wedges to be retained. She said that it had been an important element in planning inspectors refusing recent appeals at Lympstone and at Colyford.
EDDC said that it was an important policy, which also had very strong popular support which is supposed to be accorded weight by the Government.
Claire Wright said that the green wedge policy was important for avoiding coalescence between settlements and read a paragraph from the recent appeal decision relating to land between Colyford and Seaton. This planning inspector’s decision made clear that the green wedge policy had been instrumental in not allowing the appeal.
Protecting developer interests
Before closing the session, the inspector asked if anyone had any other issues (the EIP equivalent of Any Other Business).
Steve Wilks of the Green Party said that the morning’s topic had been the natural environment and green space. He was very disappointed that he had heard much more about protecting landowner interests, than he had heard about protecting the countryside.
With that very telling comment, the Inspector suspended the local plan examination in public until Tuesday 25 February.