We are in the final weeks of getting our local plan SAMDev in place. I am unhappy with proposed changes to wording that, in my view, will encourage development outside settlement boundaries and invite developers to submit greenfield developments.
As I type this, a planning inspector is busy scrutinising comments on the final modifications to the local plan for Shropshire known as SAMDev. Her decision on the final wording of this long and tedious document will be vital to the future of this county. If she accepts the final wording proposed by Shropshire Council, it will be much more difficult to defend green fields from development and prevent housing being built beyond settlement limits.
England’s planning system is complex in practice but simple in principle. At its heart, it is plan led. This means that decisions on individual schemes, such as a housing estate or a supermarket, must be made in line with the local plan.[i]
We have a good core strategy that has weathered the maelstrom of changing national policy rules better than many of its counterparts around the country. The core strategy, as its name suggests, set out the broad principles to guide development. The details of where developments should go are in the Site Allocations and Management Development document – SAMDev. This has recently been scrutinised at a lengthy examination in public (public inquiry) overseen by a planning inspector.
At the inquiry, the text of SAMDev was challenged by both developers and communities. A set of final amendments to the SAMDev text has been drawn up by Shropshire Council to take account of the challenges that were accepted and of advice from the inspector Claire Sherratt. This is known as the Schedule of Main Modifications. With the agreement of the planning inspector, the schedule was issued for a consultation. That consultation closed two weeks ago. I made a detailed response, one of more than 100 submitted. Most responses were from developers. Just twelve responses were received from town and parish councils, including from Ludford but not it appears, Ludlow.
In my response, I said that a new paragraph proposed in the Main Modifications promotes and encourages speculative, unplanned development. The paragraph begins:
In addition to supporting the development of the allocated housing sites set out in Settlement Policies S1-S18, planning permission will also be granted for other sustainable housing development.
This undermines the status of SAMDev as a local plan. It is also against national planning policy (NPPF17), which states:
Planning should be genuinely plan-led, empowering local people to shape their surroundings, with succinct local and neighbourhood plans setting out a positive vision for the future of the area.
The weakening of greenfield protection in the final draft of SAMDev does not end here. Another new paragraph says:
‘Windfall’ development on other sites is also important, both within settlements and in the countryside, including both brownfield and, where sustainable, greenfield sites, having due regard to the policies of the Local Plan.
It is of course right to emphasise brownfield development but the reference to ‘sustainable’ greenfield sites is likely to act as an invite for development on agricultural land. It is very hard to define sustainability
The new wording also indicates that the allocated sites and housing numbers for each settlement are just a starting point.
SAMDev has been developed after long, and sometimes difficult, consultations with local communities. The housing numbers and locations reflect intimate understanding of local needs and sustainability. This understanding exists nowhere else in Shropshire Council’s policy documents. Yet the new wording for SAMDev is a significant rebalancing of policy away from planned development to development driven by speculative proposals. It undermines a key rationale of SAMDev – to plan development within the principles of the core strategy.
The new SAMDev text does not require the developer and council to seek evidence of community support before applications are approved. That will make it easier to approve speculative developments on greenfield sites outside the settlement boundary even if a town or parish council objects.
I also told the planning inspector I am unhappy that the weight given to local design guides has been watered down. This will reduce aspirations of communities, planners and planning committees to champion good design.
A paragraph that required developers who seek to renew planning permission for sites they have failed to develop should show evidence they intend to deliver the development within three years has been deleted. This will just act as an incentive to leave sites undeveloped. If a site is unlikely to be developed, it can’t count towards our five year land supply. We must have a five year land supply to resist speculative development.
There is still a degree of protection in SAMDev against excessive development beyond settlement boundaries. But that protection is weaker in the final draft than the original text. I have urged the planning inspector to reject the harmful changes.
Shropshire Council’s approach to the final draft of SAMDev does not presage well for the future of planning in this county. We seem to be giving up on the local plan before it has even been approved.
On 3 August, the planning inspector began a new consultation on wording designed to bring SAMDev into line with recent guidance on wind farms, and clarification on policies to prevent development in the north of the county damaging ecologically important sites.
See also: What SAMDev means for Ludlow.
[i]. There are occasions where the local plan can be overridden. Sometimes there are exceptional circumstances – for example, planners might agree to affordable housing on rural sites where open market housing would be forbidden. Sometimes too, any one of or a combination a range of material considerations mean that the rules of the local plan can be put to one side. There are also national rule in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and, from time to time, ministerial edicts.