The meeting was exceptionally well attended with approximately 350 people in the room and the hallway outside the room, and countless others being unable to attend because of insufficient parking space. The numbers of attendees at the meeting, despite the short notice, was testament to the strength of feeling within the community.
The meeting was opened and Cllr. Stephen Parker, Cabinet Member for Planning at Hart District Council, who outlined the recent history which has led us to the current situation. In summary Hart’s structure plan was rejected by the planning directorate last year because of insufficient discussion with neighbouring councils when preparing the plan. The inspector had also said that the planned annual figure of new build homes was not correctly calculated. Cllr. Parker further explained that this meant that work had started on a new plan and that in the meantime the Council had to follow the guidance contained in the National Planning Policy Framework which was introduced by the current Government in 2011. Under the NPPF there is a presumption of sustainable development, so virtually any developer seeking to develop around the edge of the existing village is virtually certain of success if they are able to demonstrate that services etc will be available. The Council are afraid to reject any such plans because they fear an appeal and being saddled with the developers costs.
Mr Ranil Jayawardena (the prospective NE Hants Conservative candidate at the next General Election) then explained Basingstoke & Deane’s experiences with planning and the NPPF. However there was, unfortunately, no positive news to be gleaned from that.
The Right Honourable Maria Miller MP also attended the meeting as a result of fears on the part of her constituents that with building expected to be allowed in the strategic gap between Hook and both Newnham and Rotherwick, the risk of coalescence becomes greater. She tended to concentrate on why further housing was needed in the south rather than addressing the issue that the meeting wished to discuss.
Finally, the Right Honourable James Arbuthnot MP outlined the steps he had taken to date in trying to communicate our concerns to the cabinet, the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Planning Minister Nick Boles. He admitted surprise at the sheer numbers of residents that had attended and must clearly now recognise the strength of feeling that exists. He made a commitment to arrange a meeting for Hook residents with the Planning Minister Nick Boles, and suggested that a larger venue may be required, although this may be hard to find in Hook.
Mr Arbuthnot quoted from the Prime Minister’s recent answer at Prime Minister’s Questions where the PM suggested that the NPPF contained safeguards to stop uncontrolled development. The PM said “Under the Localism Act, local authorities are able to produce a local plan and get that agreed, which will give local people greater control over what is built and where. In the meantime, things are judged against the national planning policy framework, which does have protections for green belt; it does insist on going ahead with brownfield developments and it does take into account pre-existing local plans. If that needs to be clarified, then clarify it we will.”
Unfortunately it seems that the first part of the Prime Minister’s answer is true in that local councils can produce a local plan. However getting it agreed doesn’t seem to be so easy. It also transpired from the replies at the meeting that the protections he mentioned were not very satisfactory in terms of the development proposals now descending on Hook.
Questions were invited from the floor. These were all exceptionally well put and phrased questions and centred around the need to do something in the short term to prevent developers from putting in countless opportunistic planning applications whilst Hart remains without the protection of an adopted local plan.
Questions included concerns about local schooling which is already overcrowded and adding further vehicles to the already congested local roads. No one on the panel chose to address these matters.
Other questions and comments from attendees included:
“Why have the government chosen to implement the parts of the NPPF that removes power from local people well in advance of them implementing the Localism legislation that they say will give local people control over development and that is apparently “top of their agenda”? They have implemented them the wrong way round.”
“30 years ago, Hook was one fifth the size it is now. I can’t think of another nearby town or village that has grown so quickly: not Basingstoke, Fleet, Hartley Wintney, etc. So our concerns here are not NIMBYism because we’ve had so much built already. We have had more than our fair share.
The number of people in this room shows the level of concern this has raised. I do not know when last the community was so motivated: perhaps it was when the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Nicholas Ridley, advocated building in the countryside and was subsequently burnt in effigy at Foxley Woods, not far from here. I am not saying that we should burn Eric Pickles in effigy, although it would make for a jolly good fire!
We are fortunate that we have James Arbuthnot as our local MP and doubly fortunate that the party he represents is currently in power. James has been an MP for over 25 years and knows how Parliament works. The situation here in Hook was brought about as a result of Government regulation and it is entirely within the power, therefore, of the Government to amend that regulation. Will he therefore, either by using suggestions from this meeting or his own initiative, ensure that these unwelcome developments do not go ahead?”
“Mr Arbuthnot, your colleague the member for Stratford-on-Avon, a member of David Cameron’s Policy Unit, recently published a proposal for some straightforward changes to the NPPF which would close the glaring unintended loopholes that are causing us such a problem in this area. He proposes changes such that:
- Cumulative effects of development should be a material planning consideration
- Local authorities should have an extension to the end of 2014 to get Local Plans in place and in the meantime saved local policies should be used
- A sequential test should be applied to give precedence to brownfield sites over greenfield
Would Mr Arbuthnot commit to working with the other constituency MPs similarly affected to have these modest changes implemented urgently? The proposals do not undermine the aims of the NPPF, they are simply intended to allow local council planners and Councillors to regain a reasonable level of control on behalf of their communities.”
“Let’s get this straight – the number of houses planned for Hook frequently quoted tonight as being “500” is actually between 750 and 800 due to the applications already approved and known as coming soon. That’s a 22% increase for Hook. Hart’s Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment of November 2013 lists sites adjacent to Hook totalling 4,600 potential dwellings. Some of these are not viable due to flood risk or other insurmountable issues but after excluding those I estimate there to be around 2,400 viable dwellings. Without an enforceable settlement boundary, every one of these sites could be developed leading to a potential 72% increase to housing in Hook!”
All questioners, and those who commented could see huge problems with the numbers of new homes expected for Hook. Equally they could see the madness of the current Government allowing developer led development rather than locally planned and controlled development.
The panel members were left in no doubt that those attending the meeting expected them to use their influence to impress upon the Government the need for urgent action to correct “the unintended consequences of the NPPF” before the damage is done. It was quite clear that no one at the meeting believed that we could wait for the adoption of a new local plan, which at the very least will take the remainder of this year to prepare.
The meeting highlighted to our local MP the mood of our community and it is vital now that this subject is kept at the front of his mind with as many follow up letters to him as possible. We must ensure that we get the meeting with Planning Minister Nick Boles and that the turnout for that meeting is also huge, to once again demonstrate the feeling of the local electorate. But in the meantime we will not simply be sitting and waiting for that meeting to happen, we will be exploring every possible avenue to fight all planning applications within Hook and have the new Local Plan propose a more reasonable number of houses for Hook. For this we will need your continued valuable support.