I broadly support the intentions of this new framework. For far too long, the planning process has been riddled with uncertainty and ambiguity, leading to widespread misunderstanding and frustration. In particular, I welcome the simplification of the guidance from a bewildering 1,000-plus pages to a manageable 52 pages. I also welcome the removal of top-down pressure by the abolition of the unpopular regional spatial strategies. That has resulted in a reduction of 20% on the previous Government’s insistence that 12,400 houses should be built in south Wiltshire, where my constituency lies.
I also welcome the framework’s safeguards for the green belt, areas of outstanding national beauty and sites of special scientific interest, as well as the acknowledgement of the need to protect wildlife, biodiversity and our cultural heritage. However, I have considerable concern about how the principle of localism will work in reality. Frankly, the devil is in the detail, and the precise mechanisms for collating, calibrating and putting together local views to create a local core strategy need to be clarified.
In Salisbury, there was a decision on Hampton Park II four weeks ago. The Secretary of State overturned the decision by a local planning inspector, thereby approving the building of 525 homes, which has fundamentally undermined confidence in the planning process. That may be due in part to the previous Government’s determination to abolish the district council in Salisbury by amalgamating other district councils to form a Wiltshire unitary authority. The price of this change has been the perception of a considerable distancing in decision making, and that is particularly keenly felt in planning.
“from a local perspective, the core strategy was a poisoned chalice. The forward-planners of Salisbury district, who morphed and increased under Wiltshire council to become ‘spatial planners’ had our strategic gap in the frame…However, we were negotiating until the remote spatial folk from Trowbridge overruled the locals.”
He recognises that other parishes will be able to determine the nature of the housing that should be built, but in this transitional period the consequences of unclear guidance have been devastating.
Specific concerns about the need to include a strategic gap—a piece of land that acts as a barrier between new planned development and the separate parish—have not been recognised. In fact, Ron Champion, chairman of Laverstock and Ford parish council has told me that
“the views of this parish have been wholly ignored in regards to the numbers appropriate for the development known as Hampton Park II and Wiltshire council got itself into a position of opposing a development of 500 homes on the site in front of one inspector—whilst supporting the 500 homes in front of another.”
The inadequacy of the consultation process on the development of the core strategy to replace the RSS has left a bitter taste. In essence, there is much confusion over the definition of the word “local”. When parishes are motivated to make, and indeed do make, a constructive, considered and meaningful contribution to a core strategy only to find that three weeks before it is formally adopted the Secretary of State overturns an individual planning decision by a local inspector on the basis that the core strategy is still awaited and so only limited weight to its provisions can be given, that means my local constituents’ views have, in effect, been set aside. That is how they see it.
My constituents are angry. They believe that the Secretary of State could have delayed this decision by a few weeks to await the protection that the core strategy could have provided, because it is in the detail of those provisions that good individual planning applications and decisions are enabled. My local parishioners were not saying, “No housing here.” They made a serious attempt to define the design qualities required to fit in with the local community’s wishes, but they now have a scheme, approved by a Minister, that is sub-optimally designed and does not fit with what is in the core strategy.
I ask the ministerial team to review the guidance and procedures adopted by the Department in handling appeals, so that when core strategies are not quite adopted some serious attempt is made to acknowledge what is in them and they can have a bearing on decisions made. I do not want any more of my constituents to say to me, “What does ‘localism’ mean? We did what was expected. The core strategy gave guidelines that contradict the logic of the Secretary of State’s decision and, had he known about it, it would have had some meaning.” The new framework must not simply be a codification of sensible rules for the future; it must also deal with the practical contradictions and realities of the present, and with the pipeline of unadopted core strategies that appear to give opportunistic home builders a smooth ride to build sub-optimal developments.