East Devon District Council’s planning policy became extremely fragile following an appeal decision in Feniton on land next to Louvigny Close.  The planning inspector allowed Wainhomes to build 50 houses – work is due to start next month.

The reason for allowing the appeal – according to the inspector an apparent lack of a five year supply of housing land, insisted on by the government – and this has plunged East Devon District Council into a vulnerable position in terms of being able to refuse development.

That was in September.  Now at the end of November, the housing land supply figures have been updated and EDDC confirms that it DOES have a five year land supply for housing.  PLUS the extra year’s penalty imposed by the deeply unhelpful National Planning Policy Framework, for not having a five year land supply in September.

EDDC planning officers say that this is because Cranbrook, which previously had been stalled, has now speeded up and the rate of planning permissions has increased, resulting in a more secure position for the rest of East Devon.

So where does that leave Ottery St Mary?

Well, Redrow Homes applied to build 130 houses on land next to Butts Road earlier this year.  Planning officers rejected the scheme because it was contrary to the adopted Local Plan, being outside of Ottery St Mary’s built-up area boundary, and also because future development in the town has been agreed by just about everyone, including councillors and residents, would be better on the west side of the town, largely due to better transport links.

Ottery St Mary’s centre is a network of tiny medieval streets that were built for the horse and cart, not for cars.

The land is also high quality agricultural land, mainly grade 2.

Redrow Homes lodged an appeal in the summer, challenging the fact that EDDC’s adopted Local Plan is one year out-of-date (but policies are saved) and yes, you have guessed it, the five year housing land supply.

The appeal is of the public inquiry variety, where barristers grill unfortunate witnesses on minutiae for hours on end, with residents in the public gallery trying hard not allow their heads to nod.

The inquiry opened on Tuesday morning, with a roomful – around 50-60 members of the public in attendance at Ottery Cricket Club, Strawberry Lane.

By yesterday afternoon the numbers had dropped to about five – with a few diehard ones, who hadn’t fallen into a slumber, sitting out the entire inquiry, including Ottery’s councillor, Roger Giles and Protect Ottery St Mary campaigner, Malcolm Macdonald.

The planning inspector, Mr Pope, oversaw an inquiry appeal (on the ubiquitous five year land supply issue) from Strategic Land Partnerships at Lympstone (120 houses) earlier this year.  He dismissed that one, just as the inquiry appeals at West Hill and Tipton St John were also dismissed by other inspectors.

But that was before the ‘pro-growth’ National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was published.  And that changed everything. 

Despite government ministers on Tuesday trying to offload the blame to the planning inspectorate for the Feniton appeal decision, it is THEIR NPPF that is responsible for Feniton getting 50 unwanted houses dumped on a picturesque cornfield, that up until now, has grown food.

Batting for EDDC is: Senior planning officer, Lynn Shwenn, planning policy manager, Matt Dickins and barrister, Richard Ground.

Mr Dove was the barrister for Redrow Homes, with members of his team (six of them) all sat nearby.

The inquiry kicked off on Tuesday morning, with the planning inspector going through a series of legal issues to ensure that each party was in agreement about certain things.

The statement of common ground was read out and it was established that the only two issues at stake were:

– the five year housing land supply
– that the land is high quality agricultural land

Everything else, at this moment, was rendered irrelevant. 

Although many residents, as well as Ottery St Mary Town Council, had expressed concerns about the traffic and nearby roads being unsuitable for such a big increase in traffic, because Devon County Council (the Highways authority) had not objected, EDDC did not believe it could defend this as issue as a reason for refusal.

During the barristers’ opening statements, Mr Dove confirmed that Redrow Homes was relying on the Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS) figures published in 2008, as the most up-to-date population data figures. 

I thought this was ridiculous considering that in 2008 there was no recession and we have since had the 2011 census results, which are markedly different and show a considerably revised downward trend, in terms of inward migration.

Richard Ground, QC for EDDC, pointed out that the RSS was never adopted in the south west in any case and that EDDC could now prove it had a five year land supply, because Cranbrook was being built.

The first witness to be called was Cllr Paul Lewis, speaking for Ottery St Mary Town Council. 

Cllr Lewis explained why the town council did not support development in that location, that it was the wrong side of the town, the roads were too narrow to be suitable for such an increase in traffic.  He said that the existing sewage plant was at capacity and so was The King’s School.

He added that there was considerable water-run off from the land, as he had witnessed on Saturday night, when driving past.

Then it was Dr Margaret Hall’s turn, representing the East Devon branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

Dr Hall made an excellent case for reduced housing numbers in East Devon, referring to the 2011 census data and the Roger Tym report (EDDC’s commissioned housing and employment study report).

She said that the appeal site was the worst of three possible housing sites for Ottery and the need for the site had not been established.

Dr Hall added that the Feniton decision “should not be followed blindly.”

Next it was Mick Koch`s opportunity to speak.  He spoke of the importance of building on brownfield land, such as the Ottermill Switchgear factory site, before greenfield land and pointed out what a previous planning inspector had ruled, following an appeal on the land in the 1990s.

Helen Dickason, from Protect Ottery St Mary, spoke of the public support for the numbers of houses in Ottery St Mary not exceeding 300, the fact that the decision to build housing on the west side of the town being widely supported and asked that this be given significant weight.

She said 297 people had objected to the Redrow proposal and Ottery St Mary Town Council had unanimously voted against it.  Mrs Dickason pointed to the inadequacy of the road network, with cars mounting the pavement, due to a line of parked cars on North Street, resulting in a single line of traffic only being able to travel on this road.

Malcolm Macdonald told the inquiry that the previous planning inspector had informed residents, that they had “got it about right.”  He said five applications had been rejected on the site and one had subsequently been dismissed at appeal. 

Mr Macdonald said the scheme would increase congestion and the road to Patteson’s Cross (the alternative route out of Ottery) would mean a big increase in cars travelling along twisty narrow roads.  He added that development here would prejudice highway improvements relating to the Prokter Land proposal at Barrack Road, near King’s School, for 165 houses.

Then it was Redrow Homes’ traffic consultant, Mr Miles, to stand witness.  The barristers did not question him but there were plenty of residents who did, including Martin Thurgood, who gave him a rather lawyer-like grilling.  Mr Miles admitted that the roads in Ottery’s town were of the lowest category, with Gold Street a particular problem.

But Mr Miles said he had used Sainsbury’s methodology and criteria (unbelievably Devon County Council did not object to Sainsbury’s planning application on highways grounds, which is right in the centre of the town).

Residents were reminded that Devon County Council had not objected to the Redrow Homes planning application, on highways grounds either.

The planning inspector wanted to know whether the Redrow Homes site was more or less sustainable in travel terms, than the Prokter Land proposal at Barrack Road.  Mr Miles claimed that there was little difference.

There was a break for lunch after this and then planning policy manager, Matt Dickins offered himself up for HOURS of grilling by both barristers.

After listening to half an hour of a minutely detailed critique of a telephone directory of planning policies, I gave up and went home, feeling very sorry for Matt Dickins, who is one of the most patient polite chaps I have ever met. 

I understood from Cllr Roger Giles that Mr Dickins had been grilled for about four hours in total by both barristers. 

I dropped in briefly to the inquiry yesterday morning to hear Cllr Giles evidence.  He started off by saying in his opinion, the Redrow Homes application was a poor piece of work, with road names incorrectly referred to and he said contrary to what the appeal documentation stated, the application did not have significant local support, it had significant local opposition.

Cllr Giles confirmed that the development would create a further 900 vehicle movements along inadequate Ottery roads each day.

He said that land to the west of Ottery was far more sustainable, being closer to King’s School, Coleridge Medical Centre and the cycleway into the town.  The land here was also level, he said, not steep and difficult for disabled people, elderly people and parents with buggies, like the roads near the Redrow Homes land.

Cllr Giles made points about possible flooding, referring to a stream that ran from Butts Road estate and Ridgeway.  This stream was a problem in heavy rain, and had caused flooding to people’s homes at Dunkirk and Cadhay.  He read out a letter from Drs Bob and Juliet Baker, who were flooded in July and almost flooded last week, only escaping the influx of water due to much effort on their part.

With four public meetings, Cllr Giles said, councillors in Ottery St Mary had probably carried out more public consultations that anywhere else in East Devon.  Residents views had been sought and residents opinions had been consistent.  Future development must be to the west of the town.

I left as Ottery resident, Martin Thurgood was giving a very well researched presentation to the inquiry.

This afternoon planning officer, Lynn Shwenn was on the witness stand but I was at home by then, leaving the hardcore observers to sit out the pedantic barristers’ questioning.

We won’t know what the planning inspector’s decision is until at least the end of January.

One thing is for sure though is that this is the most important test case appeal in years.  The implications for our countryside if the appeal is allowed, is unthinkable, because when all is said and done, the only thing that really matters in the planning inspector’s eyes is the five year housing land supply.  The government’s ‘pro-growth’ national planning policy framework has seen to that.

The developers are gathering like hungry wolves.  EDDC cannot lose this appeal.

The inquiry is likely to conclude either this afternoon or tomorrow morning.