There was a marked difference from Wednesday’s session on housing, when there had been so many participants that some people were parked two rows back from the main tables.
Yesterday many well known (and some not so well known) housebuilders were anxious to demonstrate that the EDLP did not provide sufficient housing, and to urge the Inspector to provide more. The wildest claims and demands came from Mr David Seaton who wished to see the housing provision in East Devon almost doubled at nearly 30,000 additional dwellings up to 2026.
By contrast only 14 people debated the employment provision today. The other difference was that unlike Wednesday`s session where all the housebuilders and developers wanted more (often much more) housing, and everyone else wanted less; there was almost a consensus that the local plan advocated massive over-provision of employment land.
This morning got off to an eventful start with the contribution from Sidmouth resident Mike Temple. He suggested that the over-provision was a result of the influence of the now disbanded East Devon Business Forum, and of its Chairman “the disgraced former councillor Graham Brown.” The inspector intervened to say: “I don’t think we want to use words like that.”
The words used certainly do raise the hackles of many local people, but on reflection I think the words the Inspector was referring to, were probably “the disgraced” rather than “Graham Brown.”
A succession of speakers were critical of the employment provision advocated in the Plan. Margaret Hall of CPRE said it was at odds with the Roger Tym report, commissioned by EDDC in 2011. Its findings had not been accepted because it suggested a much lower level of development than EDDC wanted.
Tipton resident David Boyle described the allocation as “excessive”. He said that this was partly due to a very ambitious EDDC target to reduce the number of people travelling from East Devon to work in Exeter by 50 per cent. David Boyle also said that the projected growth rates were unrealistic, and would create problems if accepted.
Dorset County Council also had concerns about the plan’s commuting predictions.
Absurd levels of employment land
Prof Steve Wilks for the Green Party said that the Plan “absurdly” over-provided employment land. His argument for a much lower provision was that East Devon had virtually full employment.
He said that East Devon is not self-contained, it is closely linked to Exeter and other centres. There is major employment provision at Skypark, the Science Park and Cranbrook and also in Exeter; and the Plan population projections are too high, and do not reflect the latest census information.
Prof Wilks added that many environmentally unsuitable sites had been proposed, such as the five hectares of employment land at Sidford. He said that EDDC’s own evidence showed that the plan is advocating three times as much employment land as is necessary.
Seriously excessive over provision
David Valentine for Gittisham Parish Council, said there was substantial over-provision. He was not concerned about the West End, but in the rest of East Devon there was seriously excessive over-provision.
Mr Valentine said that the formula providing a link between the provision of new homes and new employment was wrong. The amount of employment land being planned was sufficient for a very much greater number of homes than the plan provides for. He stressed that he was not seeking a higher housing provision – the opposite was the case.
Loss of employment sites
EDDC officers said that the figures were “net,” so the loss of sites such as Manstone in Sidmouth (scheduled to become housing as part of the Knowle relocation project) should be taken account of.
EDDC commissioned work ignored … and influence of East Devon Business Forum
Cllr Claire Wright referred to the EDDC Employment Land Issues Task and Finish Forum (ELITAFF) of 2007, which was a piece of work undertaken by East Devon Business Forum and had been chaired by former councillor, Graham Brown .
Reference to this work appeared to take the inspector by surprise – it appeared that EDDC had not submitted it as evidence for the examination in public, despite relying on it as evidence in the paperwork available for today’s session. Claire Wright offered to give the inspector a copy.
Claire Wright explained that the ELITAFF had been formed by East Devon Business Forum, following the production of the Atkins report, which had been commissioned by EDDC. Atkins advocated a low level of employment provision. The ELITAFF had examined the sites considered by Atkins, and had concluded that many of them would not come forward; that there was therefore a need for many more sites; and had recommended a substantially higher level of provision than Atkins.
Following this piece of work many major planning applications had come forward from those landowners and developers involved with the study, that were then approved as departures from the adopted local plan.
Cllr Wright said that the report could not be described as objective and also was flawed because it only considered sites that were available immediately. It also did not take into account empty units.
She asked the inspector to approve the much more sensible Roger Tym number instead, which was roughly half the amount of land (and possibly less still) than EDDC was proposing.
Cllr Mike Allen (who had been the Chair of the Local Plan Panel) said that the morning’s debate had been all about numbers. He wanted the debate to go back to reality.
He said that the EDDC objective was to improve the economic well-being of East Devon people, particularly of women, and to provide sustainable employment options whereby more people could work nearer to where they lived.
He said that the five hectare site at Sidford – which he did not support – had come in very late in the process.
Cllr Allen said that the 2007 ELITAFF had been produced by realistic business people.
Approvals table disappears
Cllr Claire Wright asked what number of commitments (land allocated and land granted planning permission) had been taken account of in the local plan. She said that an earlier version of the plan had included a table of commitments. In the most recent version of the plan the table had disappeared.
The inspector asked EDDC for the latest situation, but only received a vague response.
Turning to Claire Wright, the inspector asked: “”You think there is a greater stock than is being shown?” which produced the answer: “Yes.”
The inspector tried again with EDDC who were unable to offer an explanation for the disappearance of the table and were unable to provide an up-to-date table.
The inspector asked EDDC to sort this out, and to put the table on the website.
Local resident, Graham Cooper said that there were many unoccupied commercial premises, and some had been unoccupied for years. Mike Allen said that take-up was increasing.
Dorset County Council was concerned that a vast amount of the whole of employment land proposed, was scheduled to come forward in the early part of the plan. This was inconsistent phasing.
EDDC began to answer by referring to sites at Sidford and Honiton, but the inspector interrupted to say that it was a wider point, and that there should be more sophisticated phasing. However he seemed to accept the subsequent EDDC answer that there were practical difficulties related to attempts to enforce this.
Emily McIvor for the Green Party said the plan gave insufficient consideration to constraints such as those relating to AONBs. She said the plan should give more consideration to employment options that were not dependent on the allocation of land.
Prof Steve Wilks for the Green Party said that it was difficult to see a link between the commentary in the plan, and the policies in the plan.
Prof Wilks said that the excessive proposed provision of employment land at Honiton would lead to/be dependent on massive inward commuting. He asked where all the commuters would come from.
He said that the allocation included provision for EDDC relocating its offices from Sidmouth to Honiton. However it had recently been announced that EDDC was now intending to relocate to Skypark, not Honiton.
Lack of evidence
David Valentine of Gittisham PC said that the only document relating to any sort of viability study was a letter from the landowner. Echoing Mandy Rice Davies` court statement in the 1960s Profumo/Keeler scandal, he said “and they would say that, wouldn’t they?”
Knowle relocation project
Mike Temple also referred to the recently announced EDDC intention to relocate from Sidmouth to Skypark, rather than Honiton. He said that this would result in a loss of jobs for East Devon people, as many of the jobs would be taken by Exeter residents.
A Sidmouth’s resident had prompted an interjection from the inspector at the beginning of this morning’s proceedings.
There was a nice symmetry at the conclusion of this part of the plan examination in public where a Sidmouth contribution prompted the inspector to ask for a high level discussion. I think the request was for strategic, rather than localised contributions, rather than an appeal for more intellectual discourses.
Readers might wonder why this report contains no arguments for greater employment provision. Essentially this is because no such arguments were made. The closest such offerings came from David Seaton who in a restrained (in length and in what he was seeking) contribution claimed that the plan had got it about right.
Just before the session concluded Cllr Wright queried an earlier point made about a possible future consultation.
The planning inspector replied that if he decided the plan was unsound but could be made sound with his recommended “modifications”, these would have to be consulted on.
EDDC would organise the consultation he explained, but it would belong to the planning inspectorate.
Tomorrow is the environment session…