Sir Roger Gale MP’s response to Thanet District Council’s Local Plan does a competent job of doing exactly what a constituency MP should: take firmly on board the views of the many disaffected correspondents who have been in touch to express their concern at plans that would radically and irrevocably change the character of Thanet, carpeting greenfield sites with housing and placing both infrastructure, services and wildlife under sustained pressure.
There is much of credit in what he has to say, although we have starkly differing views on Manston. I think it is worth pointing out however just how much of the fault of this “developer’s charter” is that of Sir Roger’s party and government; the coalition’s planning framework that gives such carte blanche for widespread development scared the living daylights out of anyone who cares about our natural environment and who was paying attention in 2011 and 2012, with the Campaign to Protect Rural England, for example, among the many groups that were rightly aghast at the (then- and still controversial) National Planning Policy Framework.
As the CPRE recently highlighted, government figures state that there is “enough suitable brownfield land available for 1,500,000 new houses across the UK. And as the CPRE’s chief executive Shaun Spiers, concluded in a recent report:
Far from community control of local development, we are seeing councils under pressure to disregard local democracy to meet top-down targets. Local authorities are having to agree fanciful housing numbers and allocate huge areas of greenfield land to meet them. Where they lack an up to date plan, the countryside is up for grabs and many villages feel under siege from developers.
That major developers were also large contributors to the Conservative Party prior to this legislation passing through parliament is of course entirely coincidence…
With local government having had its central funding slashed and the prospect of it being hacked back so much further if the Conservatives are reelected, councils (concerned at how they are going to pay for basic services) are becoming even more venal, partly under duress, and even more incapable owing to the legislative framework they are operating under, to robustly challenge developments they might have questions about.
The New Homes Bonus paid to English local authorities for every new home added to their council tax register exacerbates this, as a top down incentive to approve large scale new developments. (For each new home, the Department for Communities and Local Government pays an amount equivalent to the national average for its council tax band every year for six years.)
As planners have highlighted, the threat to withhold New Homes Bonus payments from councils who lose too frequently at appeal—when challenging developer’s applications—is also likely to frighten cash-strapped authorities into accepting schemes that they should really be seeking to improve or reject. Councils, in short, face the prospect of bully boy tactics from developers (adding insult to injury, some one third of New Homes Bonus money is now set to be allocated to Local Enterprise Partnerships; unelected quangos rather than democratic councils.
Thanet and the Herne Bay area are faced with proposals that would allow tens of thousands of new homes to carpet the countryside in areas already under significant infrastructure pressure, e.g. not enough school places or indeed in Herne Bay, schools; sewerage infrastructure that cannot cope with frequent heavy rainfall without churning sewage into the water off our beaches, etc. But for all the fine words of Conservative MPs and candidates across the district, these are the result of central government policy that tore up—and continues to do so—much needed protections in place for decades. (It is hard to envision any other attitude from a government that was keen to even sell of England’s ancient forests to anyone who had the cash).
Adding local insult to national injury—as my colleague and Green candidate for Thanet South Ian Driver has highlighted in a letter to Eric Pickles—in Thanet three major public consultations have been taking in place at the same time: an eight week consultation on the Local Plan; a seven week consultation on the Thanet Parkway Rail Station and a seven week consultation on the location of National Grid pylons across Thanet’s countryside. These three consultations—on issues that will radically change the social and environmental infrastructure of Thanet—are running in parallel for a period of four weeks and encompass some 5,000 pages of dense material, the response to which, if it is to be effective, has to be legally closely argued. With TDC officers estimating that the Local Plan will not be approved until 2017, its certain that the planning application for Thanet Parkway will go in before that date, rendering it legally very difficult to stop.
With many respondents finding their arguments bouncing out of TDC inboxes that were unable to cope with the size of the documents and the lack of time given for scrutiny, the whole process has been a shambles given the importance of what is at stake. It has also been a compelling example of what happens, in (a pretty damn big) microcosm, when parliamentarians either too supine, self interested or simply misguided, allow the macro of national policy to be shaped in a way so fundamentally detrimental to the interests of anyone other than large-scale developers of commuter housing belts. (Why has it taken TDC so long to get a Local Plan draft out to consultation anyway?)
Thanet Green Party (along with many other no doubt more articulate local residents) have done what we can at the tail-end of this process and hope to do better in Autumn when there are chances to comment on the Local Plan anew. The importance of realising the gravitas of legislative changes before they creep up and hit you in the face on local level cannot be emphasised enough however and is one of the reasons I’m so keen to see more Green members of parliament fighting for protection of our rapidly diminishing biodiversity and green spaces, along with the genuinely progressive concept of a Land Value Tax, which would do so much to prevent this kind of mass allocation of land for development. As for Sir Roger, I fear his are crocodile tears or simply coming far too late as his constituency’s Local Plan hoists him with his party’s petard.