A seven hour meeting peppered with frequent intense debate, criticisms and accusations over the level of development proposed in East Devon.

That’s a summary of the latest (and probably final) Local Plan Panel meeting, held on Tuesday (20 March) at the Knowle, Sidmouth.

The meeting kicked off in flurry of controversy at 9am, with LibDem councillor for Axminster, Douglas Hull, challenging the minutes of the last meeting held on 28 February.

Private meetings with town councils
Cllr Hull was concerned that the minutes did not properly reflect the vote relating to holding town council meetings with EDDC planning representatives in the public domain.

These meetings were held during last week.

Regular readers of my blog (and local press) may remember that at the last meeting I proposed that these meetings, which were to debate development in each town, should be held with the press and public present. 

The vote was carried 6-1.  It was, however, later overruled by chief executive, Mark Williams, who claimed that the panel did not have the authority to make such a decision, as it could only make recommendations.  Mr Williams also said such a meeting would not be constitutional.

Since making this issue public there have been several letters from angry residents appearing in the local papers. Other irked residents have written to officials and councillors at EDDC, demanding an explanation.

Chief executive, Mark Williams, unusually, attended Tuesday’s meeting in order to explain his decision – and to offer legal advice throughout the day.

Mr Williams said there he had never heard of such a meeting in all his years as a council officer and rules had to be followed.  He said that it was a hybrid meeting which would never be allowed.

I argued that I did not see that it was against the constitution that these meetings should not be held in the public domain, only that they were not listed as a type of meeting that HAD to be held in public.

I added that the level of public interest in the Local Plan, which was highly controversial, should have meant that efforts should have been made to involve the public.

There then seemed to be a degree of confusion among panel members as to what we had agreed and voted on.  Panel chairman, Cllr Mike Allen said it was his understanding that the meetings would have been held at town councils, with the press and public present. 

Mr Williams seemed to be surprised at this explanation and appeared to be under the impression that the resolution was that the town council meetings would be held at the Knowle.

At this point, Cllr Allen said (rather pointedly) that Mr Williams may have been ‘misinformed’ about the nature of the meetings.

Mr Williams said that this scenario would not have changed his mind in any case as there would not have been time to advertise the meetings properly nor arrange the necessary administration.

At this point Cllr Ray Bloxham proposed that as the meetings had already taken place and we had a large agenda to get through, that we should move on.  This seemed to be a pragmatic approach in the circumstances, which was voted on and agreed by members.

Feniton development
Two residents – Jayne Blackmore and Val Jones – from Feniton which is under a lot of pressure from developers currently, had come along to the meeting as they were very concerned about the way the consultation feedback comments were recorded in the agenda papers. 

This set of feedback will, eventually, be submitted to the planning inspector. 

The bone of contention is in the first sentence of the Feniton section, presumably submitted by a developer, which states that development in Feniton should be ‘significantly increased’ due to its train station. 

Its placing in the report, as well as few subsequent comments, means that it looks as though this is a strong view at Feniton, which is very far from the true picture.

I had argued successfully at the panel meeting on 28 February that this text should be amended to reflect the true picture – but in yesterday’s agenda papers the original text remained.

I asked Cllr (panel chairman) Mike Allen, minutes before the meeting whether he would be able to talk to Jayne and Val very briefly about their concerns.  Cllr Allen said there was not time to do this but he would invite them to speak if I raised the issue.

I duly raised the issue, as a challenge to the accuracy of the minutes.  Cllr Allen then asked that the two residents come to the table to give their view.  However, at this point the chief executive, Mark Williams intervened to say that because there was no reference to public speaking being allowed on the agenda, members of the public were not permitted to speak. 

This was very disappointing and I asked when the rules had changed.  At previous panel meetings members of the public had been allowed to speak. 

There was, however, agreement that the section for Feniton would be amended to reflect a more balanced picture.

Update on progress of Local Plan
Planning policy manager, Matt Dickins then updated the panel on the Local Plan work that was due to take place over the next few months.

Two interesting things:

Firstly, confirmation that work on examining, and if necessary, amending, village boundaries is likely to take place during the summer.

Secondly, I asked when the revised Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment (SHLAA) (database of locations where land has been submitted for development) would be uploaded to EDDC’s interactive map on its website. 

Matt Dickins replied that the sites needed to be assessed before they were uploaded to the website.  It is not clear when this might take place. 

Cllr Mike Allen said he thought it was very important that all the sites submitted (and there are thought to be many submitted during the most recent consultation ending in January) should be in the public domain as soon as possible.

Debate on the towns
I won’t go into the issues for all the towns or I will be writing for hours, however, I will focus my attention on Honiton, Ottery and Sidmouth – in my view the focus of the most contentious proposals.

Honiton
450 houses are proposed for Honiton and originally 300 of those were proposed in the Gittisham parish on land next to land designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. 

Following opposition from Gittisham Parish Council and Honiton Town Council, the Head of Economy promised to look at other options for development in Honiton, mainly brownfield sites in the centre of town.

But in yesterday’s agenda papers, not only were the 300 houses in the Gittisham parish back on the agenda, but a further site for 150 houses were submitted as a ‘reserve’ site, also in the Gittisham parish.

The universally opposed 15 hectares of industrial land (around 40 acres) alongside the A30 towards the Ottery junction, also remained in the plan.

Alderman Vivienne Ash, presented the position of Honiton Town Council.  She said the town council had not been listened to, nor had Gittisham Parish Council.  Ms Ash stated that Honiton Town Council had been actively seeking out alternative brownfield sites, but these had not been pursued nor taken seriously by EDDC strategic planners.

I said (again) that there was no evidence that 15 hectares of industrial land was needed and that consultants Roger Tym had recommended a maximum of five hectares for Honiton.

I added that the Local Plan had a policy of developing brownfield sites first and therefore the council should make every effort to build on them first. 

Cllr Mike Allen was critical of the reinstatement of the land in the Gittisham parish.  He said he was ‘appalled’ that the housing designation to the west of Hayne Lane had reappeared.

He added that the proposal was totally wrong and should be rejected.

After a long debate there was agreement that the development on industrial land and housing should be phased.  This in my view, did little to allay anyone’s concerns.

Ottery St Mary
The session on Ottery started off with Ottery town councillor, John Harding presenting the position of the town council.

He maintained that the town council wished to see a maximum number of 300 houses in the Local Plan and more was not acceptable.

Then Cllr Roger Giles, ward member for the town gave a fulsome account of what he saw as being wrong with the proposals for development for Ottery. 

He said he was ‘shocked’ at the map for proposed development in Ottery that had been submitted with the meeting’s agenda papers. 

He added that the new land proposed had not been seen before by any member of the public.  Nearby residents would no doubt be appalled if they knew about the proposals.

Cllr Giles view met with agreement from Cllr Allen.  He told the meeting that officers were again putting forward ideas the panel hadn’t seen before.

The map showed a red line around a number of fields to the west of the town.  These included:

Island Farm 6.6 hectares x 25 dwellings per ha: 165 dwellings

Barrack Farm 5.7 hectares x 25 dwellings per ha: 143 dwellings

Salston Barton 3.3 hectares x 25 dwellings per ha: 82 dwellings

Total 390

The Barrack Farm site, if developed, would start a slow creep of development from Ottery towards West Hill. The field in question is opposite the two cottages where Strawberry Lane meets West Hill Road near Salston Corner.

The Salston Barton site would have encompassed development on the opposite side of the same road on land across the road from the ‘Welcome to Ottery’ sign. 

This development would have reached the houses at Salston Ride. 

Head of Economy, Kate Little, for this reason, described it as ‘infill’. 

From studying the map, it looked to me, like ribbon development stretching out a long way from the centre of the town almost reaching the Salston Manor Hotel.

Mr Harding stated that Ottery St Mary Town Council had considered that the Salston Manor may be suitable for housing.

However, Mrs Little said she would not consider a ‘remote hotel’ as suitable for development. 

I agreed with this comment, particularly given Mrs Little’s previous position on ‘infill’ between two development sites with fields in between.

Cllr Giles requested that the panel deleted the Barrack Farm site and deleted the Salston Barton site.  He also proposed that the land next to the school ringed in red should be designated for community/educational use.

He said if the housing figure for Ottery were reduced to 300 it would result in housing at the mill and housing at Island Farm, which in total would create around 300 dwellings, as per the town council’s long-standing position.

Cllr Mike Allen quickly proposed to delete the Salston Barton site. I seconded this but wanted to amend the proposal to make it more encompassing.

First I asked Matt Dickins about Tesco’s plans, because currently the planning application being prepared for the Ottermill Switchgear site is for the mill only and housing nearby.  All the derelict 1950s warehouses nearer to the river are not proposed for housing – they are owned by Tesco.

Mr Dickins seemed to be under the impression that Tesco might be keen on the idea of a deal being done over housing. 

At this point, I made the following proposal – a similar version to Roger Giles’s request: 

– land next to the school should be designated for community/educational use
– Barrack Farm site should be deleted
– Salston Barton site should be deleted
– A housing allocation should be made for the entire factory site, including the Tesco owned 1950s warehouses

Mrs Little was not keen on this proposal because we did not formally know Tesco’s intentions in relation to their site.  I suggested EDDC write a letter to Tesco enquiring of their plans.  This was agreed by Mrs Little.  I added that EDDC’s policy was building on brownfield sites first, therefore this must be pursued enthusiastically.

Mrs Little told the panel that the Environment Agency had stated that there should be no residential dwellings at ground level in this location because of the river.  This is an important point, however, this could be accommodated through non-residential accommodation being available on the ground floor, such as car parking, with flats above.

Other councillors liked the look of the land next to Butts Road (currently the subject of a planning application) but it was explained that for good reason the site was the wrong side of the town.  This was accepted.

My proposal was carried.  I did not record the voting but it was substantially supported.

I felt the need to fan myself with my agenda papers at this point.

Roger Giles and John Harding resumed their places in the public gallery.

However, the chief executive who was advising on legal proceedings said that our job was only half done because we had not agreed the final number of houses for Ottery and if we wanted to reduce the number to 300 we had to give evidential reasons.

Roger Giles and John Harding returned to the debating table.

I said that aside from public opinion, which was unanimous and in accordance with the town council’s position, the most compelling evidence was of proportionality.  I gave Honiton as an example.  Honiton is two and a half times the size of Ottery, however, it has been allocated only 50 more houses than Ottery. 

I made a proposal for 300 houses on that basis.

A further vote ensued.  It got through with a substantial majority.

Hopefully there will be no more ‘nasty surprises’ in future drafts of the plan.

NB:  Both myself Roger Giles asked that a piece of land between Finnimore Industrial estate, and Ottery Hospital should be designated for housing, but this was not agreed as it was in the flood plain and was already designated for ‘employment’ purposes.  It would have generated about 20 dwellings.

Sidmouth
More land had popped up at the last minute in Sidmouth, this time allocated for an industrial estate.

Sidmouth has been allocated five hectares of industrial or commercial land – a move hotly contested by Sidmouth’s Chamber of Commerce.

As Sidmouth is surrounded by land designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty there has been ongoing debate about where to put it.  As ever, there is no evidence to support the industrial land proposals.  However, EDDC strategic planners simply reply that the land represents an ‘aspiration’ for jobs.

EDDC’s consultants Roger Tym hold no truck with this argument, reporting that to over-allocate this sort of land could reduce the number of jobs available as it will flood the market. 

Given that EDDC has stuck to its guns over the five hectares, which is backed by Sidmouth Town Council, a proposed allocation for an industrial estate on land between Sidbury and Sidford has now been made (in the past week). 

Three members of Sidmouth Town Council (also EDDC members) – Frances Newth, Stuart Hughes and Peter Sullivan presented the position of the town council, alongside town clerk, Chris Holland.

Robert Crick from Sidmouth Vision Group and Steven Kendall-Torry from Sidmouth Chamber of Commerce sat and listened to the debate.  Steven had been present for hours, keen to hear what was to be decided over the future of the industrial land that his chamber objects to so strongly.

The Sidmouth councillors made a strong case that the proposed land at Sidford should was not suitable for highways reasons.  They were also worried that it could pave the way for Sidford joining up with Sidbury.  This, they felt, was a real risk.

Cllr Hughes argued strongly that the industrial land should instead be allocated near Sidmouth Garden Centre, where a park and ride scheme has already been agreed.  He argued that public transport to this site was better and it was much better from a highways perspective.

This argument was shot down by Mrs Little who said that Persimmon, who owned this land would want housing built on this site, not industrial units, as housing is far more lucrative.

Mrs Little added that she had had discussions with highways officers who had not believed there was any problem with the site between Sidford and Sidbury. 

Mr Hughes replied.  “I am highways and I can tell you that they are not happy with it.”  (Cllr Hughes is the portfolio holder for highways at Devon County Council).

Stalemate on the highways issue ensued.

I fished out my list of empty commercial units and totted them up for Sidmouth.  There were about 30 empty units as of the middle of last year.  I argued that there was no need for the five hectares, no evidence for it and that 30 empty units in Sidmouth alone meant that there was enough existing capacity.

There was a proposal to allocate the land between Sidford and Sidbury for industrial use. 

The proposal was supported (I believe) unanimously bar one.  I voted against it.

Amendments to policies as a result of the consultation
I proposed a number of amendments to policies in order to tighten them up, in most cases backing up consultation responses from the RSPB and Natural England or the Woodland Trust.  The following policies will be tightened as a result:

– DS5 – environment
– DS42 – local distinctiveness in the built environment
– D5 – trees and development sites – more protection of ancient trees and woodland
– EN5 – protection of local nature reserves, county wildlife sites and county geological sites
– EN6 – wildlife habitats and features

Policy E8 – extensions to existing employment sites.  I proposed that this policy be tightened from its current position allowing a 10 per cent extension when a site is 80 per cent built out, but was outvoted.  Cllr Peter Bowden shared my view on this.

The Bad Neighbour Uses Policy, something I have argued about retention of for a long time, was proposed to be retained by Cllr Mike Allen.  Happily, it was voted through.  This relates to controls on dirty, noisy, smelly development starting up next to residential areas.

Next steps
The next stage in the process is the Development Management Committee meeting on Tuesday 8 May.

There will then be a short public consultation of four weeks on development for the towns.

The Local Plan will then be considered by Full Council on Wednesday 25 July.

Work will be taking place on village boundaries during the summer months.

After this the formal ‘pre-submission’ stages start. 

Examination in public of the plan by a planning inspector is expected to in spring next year

The plan is then expected to be adopted during late summer/early autumn next year.