Sunday, May 31, 2020

Creeting St Peter - a tricky planning application lands...

One of the joys of Parish Council life is our status as a statutory consultee when it comes to planning applications. Admittedly, some of them are pretty straightforward, for example the recent application from Muntons, the local malt business, who wanted to build a new staff car park. Given that you couldn’t see the site because it’s hidden from view by... a bloody great malt factory... there didn’t seem to be much for an issue.

However, a proposal last year to knock down a house in the centre of the village and replace it with five “executive homes”, leaving scope to extend the development into a neighbouring meadow, went down rather badly. Unfortunately the applicant failed to make any effort to consult, and their application drew a justifiably hostile response from the owners of neighbouring properties.

Indeed, nobody seemed to much like it, as it extended beyond the village’s planning envelope as laid down on the District Council’s Local Plan, thus potentially setting a troubling precedent. Highways didn’t like it, and it was rather emphatically turned down by Mid Suffolk District Council on the basis that it breached a large swathe of their planning policies.

Eventually, I was asked by the applicant for a meeting, in my capacity as Chair of the Parish Council. That made me nervous, as I prefer transparency, so I offered him an opportunity to present to a Parish Council meeting, should he wish to proceed with a revised application, an offer which was taken up.

It would be fair to say that the meeting which followed was... lively. It was, at least, mostly amicable, although tempers did occasionally flare. The views of the citizenry were made clear to the applicant and his planning consultant, and there was a sense that the message had gotten across.

Two weeks ago, a revised planning application was notified to the Parish Council. Five executive homes had become four bungalows, access to the meadow was now removed, and there was a sense that, whilst the unhappiness at the prospect of new housing remained, there had been an attempt to respond to some of the concerns.

There are a number of remaining problems, however;
  • the development still extends well beyond the village’s planning envelope - would approval offer an opportunity to others to do likewise?
  • the status of the village, defined by Mid Suffolk District Council as “countryside”, indicates that no new housing is permitted
  • The absence of any facilities - shop, school, public transport - mean that new residents would be obliged to drive, contrary to policy encouraging environmentally-friendly means of travel
None of these have really been addressed by the new proposals, other than in effectively wishing them away.

And so, we held our first virtual Parish Council meeting to discuss it, inviting those residents that we could reach via social media - which is a surprisingly large number. Concerns were noted and recorded, the District Council planning guidance referred to, and civility prevailed.

Our Vice-Chair was prevailed upon to draft our reply, and life moved on. And then, Suffolk Highways intervened.

They noted that the access to the road was partly-owned by a third party, i.e. one of the neighbours, and that the access road itself wasn’t wide enough, and didn’t have a footway. Cue men with tape measures. Now, admittedly, there is an issue over access, and this does complicate matters somewhat, so we’ll see whether or not any alterations can be made to remedy this.

Ultimately, however, the rejection of the original application included the following;
The proposed development would be more than 2km from the nearest services in Stowupland and Stowmarket, resulting in the likely reliance on private motor vehicle use and increase in traffic, less integrated communities leading to poor social cohesion and failure to take opportunities to design for functional communities. There is insufficient access to public transport alternatives available within short walking distance from the site to otherwise outweigh other considerations of the location and poor access to services outlined. In conclusion with consideration of the above, the NPPF states that decision- taking authorities should approve development proposals that accord with the development plan without delay, actively manage patterns of growth to make the fullest possible use of public transport, walking and cycling, and focus significant development in locations which are or can be made sustainable. 
As such it is considered that the proposal represents unsustainable development, contrary to the NPPF. In all circumstances the LPA is of the opinion that no residential development would be supported on this site. 
This new proposal doesn’t address this core issue, and I suspect that, whilst any other issues may be an obstacle, this particular difficulty might well prove to be Himalayan.

And so, we’ll see how it goes. Or not, as the case may be...

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Creeting St Peter - a Chair suspects...

Two years ago, I was the victim of what I might best describe as a genteel ambush, and became Chair of our Parish Council. Let’s be frank here, and note that we’re not talking about an empire here - our annual precept is just over £5,000, and the population for which I am theoretically in charge of is comfortably under 300. But, regardless, it is a responsibility that I take seriously.

The idea, I was informed, was that I would do two years and pass the role onto my Vice-Chair. And, I will admit, I was perfectly relaxed about that - power is not to be hoarded, it is to be shared, devolved. That said, I’d enjoyed my two years, and had found an unexpected niche in village life.

Annual Meetings take place in April or May usually, and we generally combine the two into one evening, the Annual Parish Meeting first, where various local worthies, the Parish Council Chair included, submit reports for consideration by Parish residents. There then follows the Annual Meeting of the Parish Council, where we elect officers and, if appropriate, sign documents.

Coronavirus put a stop to that, however, leaving us the question of what to do with the leadership of the Council. It was quickly decided that I should carry on for another year which either means that nobody else wants the job, or that I’m performing adequately. Of course, both could be equally true...

It would be fair to say that I’m not a radical Chair. I like short meetings, but encourage participation, maintain a reasonably tight grasp on procedure but am not fixated by it, and recognise the efforts of my colleagues, our Clerk and our residents. That doesn’t sound like rocket science, and it isn’t, but I see my role as being one of listening to people’s concerns, reflecting on what might be done, and using the tools available to us to achieve things.

Walking around the village as part of my 10,000 steps a day habit doesn’t hurt either, especially during the spring and summer when people are out and about. Admittedly, it does mean that a walk tends to take longer than it might otherwise do sometimes, but I learn a lot from the conversations I have.

And, of course, I have access to the incredible knowledge and experience of Ros, who has probably forgotten more about local government than I will ever know. Any rash notions I might have are usually tempered by a few words of wisdom from her, which makes me a better Chair.

So, another year starts, albeit under rather strange circumstances. We’ve held our first virtual meeting to deal with another controversial planning application and some financial management issues, and that seemed to go well enough. The leaflet that we circulated around the Parish with contact details in the event that anyone needed help has led to a couple of requests that have been taken care of, which is nice, although most people here are either wholly self-sufficient or have neighbours or nearby family who are looking after them.

And I really ought to write an annual report for circulation, I guess. I might leave out any reference to the absence of a plague of frogs this year - can’t be too careful...

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Matt Hancock tells me that I have a civic duty to follow the instructions. There's a word for that sort of person...

Look, let's be honest, I have no desire to catch COVID-19. Likewise, as someone who believes that community is important, I don't want to spread it either. I have responsibilities, as a public servant and as the Chair of my Parish Council, and should set an example. And so, I will.

But I will say this, it sticks in my throat that someone who is giving me instructions is, simultaneously, defending the right of the Prime Minister's senior advisor to disregard them as he sees fit.

And yes, you might reasonably say, I would be less than entirely friendly towards the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. I'm not a supporter of his party. On the other hand, I do talk to my neighbours who, for the most part aren't terribly party political. And their responses have been interesting, in that there is genuine unhappiness about Dominic Cummings - "one law for them, another for us" is the general (unbidden) response.

The good news is that his stupidity and lack of integrity isn't likely to change people's behaviour here at least - we're a cautious bunch for the most part. And, in truth, given that public opinion has rather led the Government rather than the reverse, perhaps that doesn't come as a surprise. But what it does mean is that people will have an excuse if they're asked by Matt and his mates to do something that they aren't enthusiastic about.

And what will the Government do if parents decide that they'd rather not send the children back to school in the absence of clarity over their safety there, or if people choose not to comply with the instructions of contact tracers? That's when the loss of moral authority bites, and with it the ability to persuade. Loyalty is a two-way street.

The public don't like hypocrisy, and they certainly don't like being treated as fools. And whilst the issue of Dominic Cummings' job security might blow over, especially given how desperately senior members of the Cabinet are trying to defend him, observers of the 1992-97 Major Government will remember what happens when the public first lose respect for, and then start laughing at, an administration.

And so, I will comply for now, for the sake of my family, my friends, my neighbours and my community. But I will not forget, or forgive, those who made it clear how little respect they had for our sacrifices.