Saturday, 8 February 2014

Putting David in Goliath’s shoes…

Yesterday, I found myself discussing – with one of its active, campaigning residents – the insidious threat of nearly ninety new houses being built in a field on the outskirts of another South Warwickshire village. Unlike Tysoe, this one is only classed, in the Stratford-on-Avon District Council (SDC) draft Core Strategy, as a Category 3 Local Service Village (LSV): and therefore is only required to absorb between twenty-six and fifty additional houses between now and 2031. (Tysoe – that is, Upper and Middle Tysoe combined – is a Category 2 LSV: allocated fifty-one to seventy-five new houses.)

Unlike Tysoe, they appear to have no heritage-derived arguments to defend what is, basically, just an ordinary field – which the owner is trying to sell as one big block. Unlike Tysoe, they have pretty good transport links with Stratford-upon-Avon: being on a main road (although, like Tysoe, heavy school traffic creates twice-daily, dangerous logjams). Unlike Tysoe – because of what appear to me to be misguided loyalties to the longstanding family which owns much of the surrounding countryside, and were once true Lords of the Manor – not everyone in the village is against the development.

However, like Tysoe, there are very strong arguments to be made around sustainability and disproportionateness; as well as the removal of yet more agricultural land. The current owner seems to care little for his family’s strong and historically-intertwined links with the village; and appears to be interested solely in the large amount of cash he would realize, were planning permission – still to be officially applied for – granted.

Like Tysoe, the residents are quite happy for sensible development to promote the evolution of their historical village (probably originating as a Roman encampment) – as long as such development is suitable in size, scale, and appearance. As they prepare to apply for Neighbourhood Planning status, they have already earmarked enough sites to meet their current Core Strategy allocation – without the need for an estate that would result in an immediate growth of over 30%.

The case they must make – when it comes to the planning committee meeting that is the first (and possibly only) stage in deciding their fate, with regards to this “insidious threat” – will only, therefore, be slightly different to that we put forward for Tysoe. And so – although each town, village or hamlet inevitably has different needs and wants, different histories, different functions – it is such shared commonalities that need to be given greater prominence in the planning process, and that can be used in defence against what Nadhim Zahawi has aptly dubbed “rapacious developers”.

We were lucky, in Tysoe, when we launched our campaign, our fight, that one of the first pieces of information we were shown were the ‘material planning considerations’ that are considered valid reasons for objecting to any proposed development. Rather than being hidden in training slides for parish and district councillors, or in other obscure documents, why aren’t these distributed automatically (along with other vital information and documents) to those who would be affected by any formally submitted proposals? Instead, it feels to me, we are simply expected to plunge headlong (and headless?) into desperate NIMBYism: which will first be sneered at, and then summarily dismissed.

At the moment – despite the undoubted value and encouragement provided by the Localism Act, and the “golden thread” of sustainable development running through the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – the advantage lies firmly in the court of the developers. They are instructed in detail by the local planning authority as to what needs providing, and in what format; what surveys they must carry out; and are actually supported in their application – in fact, having their hands held tenderly, but firmly, throughout the application process.

Those objecting, though, must ascend a very steep learning curve – having to become ready experts in planning law; grasping the tight timescales they must work to; as well as establishing local support (in action, expertise – if available – and morally) – from a very low-altitude base camp; and in isolation. Most of those getting involved in opposition are unlikely to have done such a thing before. But where is the support; where is the hand-holding? Yes – as our tiny, but resourceful and strong, community showed – an initially ill-informed David can take on a well-practised and experienced, corporate Goliath, supported (ironically) by a council department that is surely supposed to represent those who are objecting (its constituents)? – and win (if only the first battle of what may yet be a protracted war). But, surely, the fight would be more equal; the battlefield more level; the outcome more balanced, if both sides received similar support, both administratively and legally?

A first step to such equality would be not only the more prominent positioning of those “material considerations”, for example, but checklists and delineated processes running in parallel for both applicant and (any) objector(s). As well as a case officer being allocated to help the applicant, there should be another aiding those who would challenge the application.

No partisanship need occur – these things can be done purely and objectively. And, yes, I know that council planning departments are overburdened; but I believe this – in formalizing a process that is, currently, rather slipshod and haphazard (at least for those against) – would quickly ease their workload: avoiding time-consuming confusion and repetition; and pulling together, collating, all the commonalities and themes (e.g. those described above) that, currently, such objections have to re-invent anew every single time.

And, yes, I know that organizations such as the CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England) already do some of these things. But they are external to official channels; mostly voluntary; underfunded; and also overburdened by the huge amount of local, regional and national planning applications currently attempting what can easily be perceived as a mass rape of the shires they seek to safeguard.

Isn’t it time that the law provided equally for both sides; that the presumption wasn’t so obviously in favour of the developer (with lip-service being paid, snidely, to both localism and sustainability)? Rather than those wishing for a safe and secure future for generations to come being immediately presumed guilty (of NIMBYism), shouldn’t they be seen for what they really are? True defenders of an almost indefinable and recondite faith – in humanity and equality; a faith with deep roots in time, society and nature… – that invisibly holds this country together; that is the constancy never perturbed or sullied by the ceaseless change it is surrounded and threatened by…?

This is not a plea for conservatism, nor a rejection of evolution. Change must always come: but it should be driven by the needs of those affected by it – not imposed from on high by those whose only wish is profit; whose only motivator is greed. This is a plea for fairness.

Even though large tracts of England and many old and famous Shires have fallen or may fall into the grip of Gladman and all the odious apparatus of Tory rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in puddles, we shall fight on the ridges and furrows, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the law, we shall defend our village, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight in the sewers, we shall fight on the building grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this parish or a large part of it were subjugated and flooding, then our allies beyond the village boundary, armed and guarded by the stubborn and fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
– with apologies to Sir Winston Churchill

1 comment:

Countrygirl said...

Surely the recent extreme weather leading to greater flooding problems shows that climate change is a real threat; not only now, but for our children and grandchildren. Sustainable building must be a priority.