It was confirmed at the meeting by Planning Policy Manager, Matt Dickins, that there were around 1300 comments on the Local Plan during its consultation.

Further consultation with town councils
Before we started to dissect the comments Matt Dickins gave an update on the next steps of the process.

Meetings are now being sought urgently with town councils to debate any outstanding issues, such as disagreements over housing numbers, employment land and any other outstanding disagreements over strategic development.

Also, during the same meeting EDDC strategic planners wish to have a debate with town councils about town shopping areas and the degree over which they might change. 

Currently, there are policies relating to the extent of primary shopping areas of towns and there is a presumption against change of use to residential dwellings.  The policies protect town centres from turning into residential areas and losing shops. 

In Ottery St Mary for example, there have been a number of shops and one or two pubs that have been permitted to change into residential dwellings.  This can be a dangerous path to go down and the long-term outcome is obvious.

A built-up area boundary review for rural areas
A review of built-up area boundaries in villages is to take place in the next couple of months.  This is a welcome move as previous thinking indicated that this would not happen until later in 2013.  Leaving the review until then would have been a risky business, given the increasing pressure that EDDC is under from developers and their large-scale applications outside town and village boundaries.

The review will include small scale land allocations. EDDC will draw up a plan of the land put forward for development by landowners in each village and submit to each parish council for comments (or town council where it covers villages, such as Ottery St Mary Town Council).

Sustainability assessments will also be carried out.  The frequency of public transport, numbers of services, shops and facilities available, for example.

Comments from the consultation period December 2011-January 2012
Matt Dickins confirmed that the public comments and comments from statutory organisations, which are still being uploaded to the website – see here East Devon Local Plan consultation comments will continue to be uploaded and will appear in full. 

So far the public comments span over 650 pages.

Comments as summarised in today’s panel agenda papers
There appeared to be a view from panel councillors that the summary of comments outlined in today’s agenda papers, accessible here, are Local Plan agenda – 28 February 2012  were reflective of the views of people.  The chairman stated that it appeared that most people were now happy with the Local Plan.

I vehemently disagreed with this.  I have (quickly) been through the 658 pages of comments from individuals (first link) and it was obvious that there were two camps – developers – who were arguing for more development.  And residents who were arguing for less development.  I told the meeting I did not think that most residents were in the least bit happy with the Local Plan.

Matt Dickins confirmed that my interpretation of the comments on the Local Plan was correct.

I emphasised how unhappy I was with the way the comments were summarised in today’s agenda papers.  I said there was no numerical indicator of the number of views either way for any given subject or policy and views were simply referred to as ‘some respondents felt’ and ‘other respondents believed.’ 

I said that this gave a misleading impression that East Devon residents were divided over development which was a long way from the true picture.

I proposed that the summary of comments be amended and re-presented to the panel at the next meeting, broken down into numbers of respondents and whether they were residents, developers or councillors.

After a less than enthusiastic response from Cllr Andrew Moulding and Head of Economy, Kate Little, this eventually was agreed.

An ‘empty units first’ policy?
During the spatial strategy section of the comments (page 18 of agenda papers) I proposed that there should be a new policy to ensure that developers had to consider empty units before applying to build on our green fields. 

Despite this initially being an idea originating from Head of Economy Kate Little and Cllr Mike Allen at a panel meeting last August, there was significant opposition to it at today’s meeting.  Both Kate Little and Matt Dickins opposed it, as did Cllr Andrew Moulding, based on the claim that it would be too difficult to enforce. 

I asked for a vote but could get no seconder, so my proposal failed.  But in an unexpected move, chairman Mike Allen proposed that developers should have to prove why they had not considered empty units in their planning applications. 

I was a little surprised to see that virtually all the panel members were nodding their heads vigorously and saying ‘Oh yes I can support that!”  Cllr Alan Dent said:  “To be fair to Claire, that is what she was proposing.”

I agreed that it didn’t sound very different to my proposal. 

A vote was taken on the revised proposal. 

It was supported unanimously! 

I concluded that politics moves in mysterious ways.

Environmental policy – draft strategy 5
The RPSB had commented that they were unhappy that the district and county wildlife sites were not included in this policy.  It listed only the internationally protected sites such as the Sites of Special Scientific Interest (mainly the pebblebed heaths). 

I raised the RSPB’s comments as an issue and am happy to report that Matt Dickins said that the policy would be amended in line with the charity’s comments.

Honiton section
I pointed out that the comments from the Honiton section revealed that virtually every consultee (except developers) were unhappy about the level of employment (industrial land) proposed.  This would be 15 hectares – around half a mile of extension to Heathpark Industrial Estate.  The unhappy consultees include Honiton Town Council, Gittisham Parish Council, Awliscombe Parish Council, Honiton Chamber of Commerce and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. 

I added that EDDC’s consultants, Roger Tym, had recommended a maximum of five hectares of industrial land for Honiton.

Ottery St Mary section
Cllr Roger Giles came forward and summarised the overwhelming feedback from Ottery residents over the housing numbers in the town.  He said that 95% of responses were opposed to the level of housing proposed in the Local Plan. 

After he had finished speaking I proposed that the following changes be made to the plan: 

– Reduce the housing numbers to 300 in line with the town council’s submission
– remove the references to high quality public transport link
– include references to the Feniton, to Ottery to Tipton to Sidmouth cycleway to ensure it becomes a reality
– reduce the amount of employment land to the Roger Tym recommendation of an additional 0.6 hectares.

This was immediately blocked by Cllr Andrew Moulding who said that the decision should wait until planning officers had spoken with the Ottery Town Council.  I argued against this on the basis these issues were something Ottery Town Council (and Roger Giles) had argued for many times before. 

Kate Little agreed with Cllr Moulding that the discussion should wait.  So this will be debated at the forthcoming special meeting with Ottery St Mary Town Council.

At this point there was a mini-debate about the format of the forthcoming meetings with town councils.  Views were polarised over whether the meetings should be held with the press and public present, or held behind closed doors.  I said it would be inconceivable for the meetings to be held behind closed doors and that it would create suspicion and bad feeling.  I was backed by Cllr Steve Wragg.

On the other side was Cllr Andrew Moulding who said that it would just be minor tweaking on the table anyway and there was no need to involve the public.  Head of Economy Kate Little also argued VERY hard to keep these meetings out of the public domain.  I then made a formal proposal to hold the meetings with the press and public present. 

Cllr Moulding immediately made a counter proposal that they should not be held in the public domain. Fortunately, the rules on proposals meant that his proposal was invalid as it ran directly counter to my proposal – only amendments to a first proposal are allowed. 

When my proposal for the meetings to be held with the press and public present (the compromise was to observe the meeting only) was put to the vote, it was carried 6 votes to 1. 

Surely the only sensible outcome!?

Villages
Having been contacted by Feniton Parish Council as a member of the Local Plan Panel and responsible for part of Feniton village, I said the comments on Feniton – pages 31 and 32 of today’s agenda papers were not representative of public opinion in Feniton, as evidenced by objections to a series of major planning applications in the village. 

What had understandably alarmed Feniton Parish Council was the sentence (presumably submitted by a developer) which stated:  “Housing allocation should be significantly increased as Feniton is sustainably located with good access to public transport and facilities.”

There was agreement that this comment did not represent a balanced picture of Feniton’s position and it would be amended for the next meeting on 20 March.

Employment land in villages
I asked what the breakdown in views was to this proposal because there appeared to be substantial opposition to it. Matt Dickins said his team would do some more work and let us know the answer at the next meeting.

The next meeting is on Tuesday 20 March, at 9am, where the remainder of the consultation comments will be reviewed.  The press and public are welcome to attend.

The 11 members of the panel are myself (Ind) and Cllrs Steve Wragg (LibDem), Douglas Hull (LibDem), Peter Bowden (Con), Ray Bloxham (Con), Helen Parr (Con), David Atkins (Con), Alan Dent (Con) and David Key (Con), Andrew Moulding (Con) and Chairman Mike Allen (Con).