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Director’s bulletin, November 2013

Monday, 25 November 2013 15:50

B&NES Core Strategy again…

SOBAEvery month I sit down to consider the big stories in rural planning in our region, and pretty much every month sees a new twist in the saga of the Bath and North East Somerset Core Strategy. So I can only apologise for returning to it once again…

Very briefly, the Core Strategy – the strategic planning policy for the next 15 years – is undergoing Examination in Public at the moment, whereby a Planning Inspector works through the plans to ensure that they are sound and compliant with national policy. The process got halted because there were questions about the evidence that the council had provided for their housing numbers. Cynical observers felt that the only problem with the evidence was that it didn’t point to high enough housing numbers, but at any rate, the issue has now been resolved and the Examination is starting again.

However, the Inspector in charge of the process has recently written to B&NES Council to say – among other things – that in order to deliver the right number of houses at the right time, the suggestions that have been put forward regarding new housing in the Green Belt around Bath will have to be included not as outline plans but as specific proposals with a great deal more detail included. This in turn means that a new public consultation will have to be run about these Green Belt developments.

To say that the proposed developments are controversial would be an understatement. The plans involve releasing land from the Green Belt at Odd Down (near Southstoke) and at Weston; there is also a proposal to extend development at the ex-MOD site at Ensleigh. Between these sites, a total of perhaps 720 houses are proposed for green field, Green Belt locations in the setting of the Bath World Heritage Site – and the final figure could well be more, depending on how the details are planned.

Bath was named as a World Heritage site not just because of its Georgian architecture, but because of the extraordinary completeness of the original vision for the city: a civilised and beautiful urban space set within a Romantic rural landscape. So it’s barely an exaggeration to say that the preservation of the Green Belt around Bath has perhaps more importance to the character and future of the city than in any other UK city.

The consultation on the proposed Green Belt developments begins on November 11th, and we will be meeting on that date with other local organisations to discuss our response.

North Somerset Core Strategy

Long Ashton 1More Core Strategy news, this time from North Somerset. Earlier this year, a Judicial Review was held on North Somerset’s Core Strategy. It was triggered by Bristol University, who own land near Long Ashton which they wish to develop for housing (http://www.bristol.ac.uk/estates/long-ashton/). They challenged the housing numbers in the Core Strategy, in the hopes that higher housing numbers might mean urban extensions south of Bristol – into the land which they own.

The arguments were arcane in the extreme – you can read about the details here.

Long Ashton 2However, the result was by no means a clear-cut victory for the University. The judge ruled that Policy CS13, on the numbers of new houses needed, should be remitted for a fresh examination. If CS13 were to be found unsound, this would have implications for the rest of the Core Strategy as new sites for housing might need to be allocated.

Anyway, in the run-up to the re-examination of CS13, there has been a surprisingly frank exchange of letters between the council and the Inspector.

The Inspector seemed at first to suggest that the whole of the Core Strategy might need to be re-written. He wrote:

“I consider that these matters would go to the heart of the Core Strategy and are unlikely to be capable of being addressed by making Main Modifications…

Before proceeding further, I would suggest that the Council should give serious consideration to […] these fundamental issues and should assess whether it would be worthwhile to proceed further through, what is likely to be, a costly and time consuming re-examination process.”

The Council came out fighting:

“…there is concern about the perceived lack of balance in the Inspector’s initial letter. In particular the starting point seems to be that the remitted examination process is unlikely to result in a successful outcome…”

Not exactly bar-room brawling, but strong language for this kind of thing!

They went on:

“…it is clear that the projections as assessed now will be very different to those at the time of the original Core Strategy examination. They are likely to be substantially lower primarily as a result of the recalibration of the population base in the light of census data, reduced migration and household formation rates, and factors reflecting more recent economic conditions.”

“The Council’s position is that even if the housing requirement is increased, the flexibilities in the plan mean that this is likely to be able to be accommodated without changing the spatial strategy“

In plain English, they say that they don’t think that new sites will be needed, as if anything, they expect to lower the housing numbers or at least accommodate them in their existing plan.

The Inspector was put plainly on the defensive:

“In your response you refer to my having ‘pre-judged’ the outcome of the re-examination and having displayed a ‘lack of balance’ in my letter. I can assure you that this is not the case…”

The Inspector then shows his awareness that an expensive legal team will be watching his every move:

“I am cautious about the handling of the re-examination as I wish to avoid any possibility of further legal challenges.”

You can read the full text and find out more here:

http://www.n-somerset.gov.uk/Environment/Planning_policy_and-research/localplanning/Pages/Core-Strategy.aspx

North Somerset Council clearly mean to fight this challenge very hard. I would imagine that they are fuming that their lovingly prepared and successfully adopted Core Strategy is being hauled over the coals again. I’m not a gambling man, but I think I’d bet quite a lot that the very last place on earth that North Somerset Council would now allocate for housing is a certain stretch of land near Long Ashton…

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