Report from Planning Minister’s visit

Monday 22nd September 4pm

It took 6 months from the promise made by James Arbuthnot MP at the Basingstoke Country Hotel public meeting until the Planning Minister finally came to listen to Hook residents. Two prior visits were scheduled and cancelled and it was a different Planning Minister that came to see us than was in post back in March, but there was no change of message.

Despite the difficult weekday afternoon scheduling, Hook residents were very well represented with around 150 attendees present.  Although BBC South Today came to cover the event, Mr Arbuthnot prevented them from filming the event itself as it might inhibit residents from asking questions. BBC South Today did file a report and it can be viewed here.

The Minister accepted that Hook and Hart were in a weak position, but he blamed Hart District Council and said there were no plans to change anything to help us. Only Hart getting their Local Plan in place will protect against uncontrolled development and as we know that will not be until 2016. Hart’s response was that “they are far from the only council in this position”.

Mr Arbuthnot provided the background to the meeting in that it had been instigated following the Hook residents’ planning meeting in March which was organised by Mr Arbuthnot and Hook Ward District Councillors following huge concern about uncontrolled development in Hook.

Mr Arbuthnot acknowledged that the time of the meeting prevented many people, who would like to have attended the meeting, from attending. There were around 150 attendees.

Mr Arbuthnot outlined that given the fact that Hart do not have a Local Plan, they are subject to unwanted planning applications from developers. He highlighted that he felt that Hart’s plan was rejected when other Councils with similar issues were accepted. Mr Lewis committed to reviewing this as he was keen to see consistency.

Mr Lewis then gave a 5 – 10 minute summary of the current situation, i.e. councils must have a Local Plan and those that do have them are working well, those that don’t are finding it harder to stop unwanted development.

Mr Lewis was keen for people to understand that the responsibility for Local Plans and managing development lies firmly with the Council and he supports a bottom-up approach rather than someone from Whitehall setting the numbers which was previously the case.

Mr Lewis said he was very keen on Neighbourhood Plans and is looking at steps to improve and speed up the process to produce plans. He hopes to do this by the end of this year.

Mr Lewis stated that green belt and impact on the environment are grounds for restricting housing numbers. As Hampshire does not have green belt, that item is no defence for Hart.

Although Mr Lewis felt sympathy for residents who are the victims of the planning process when there is no Local Plan in place, he said he would not instigate a moratorium on development as it would remove the incentive for the Council to get the Local Plan in place. This means that Hook and other parts of Hart are exposed to unwanted development until 2016!

To ensure Hart Council protect residents as quickly as possible, Mr Lewis offered the services of a retired planning inspector for a period to work with Hart to ensure the Local Plan was successful at its next submission.

Mr Lewis also supported Hook’s view that they wanted housing built in keeping with existing development rather than “boxes”.

Mr Lewis also stated that he will look into the environmental impact on house building following a question from the audience.

The main theme of questions from residents were:

  • What happens / what protection can be offered to the residents of Hook from now until 2016 when the Local Plan should be approved. Despite many suggestions from the audience on what could be done to offer even the slightest protection/ ideas to speed up the process to produce the local plan, Mr Lewis would offer nothing. This made residents understandably disappointed and frustrated as 2016 is a long way away – much damage will be done by then.
  • Development needs to be infrastructure led – The minister agreed that infrastructure needs to be an integral part of the planning process and understands the issues surrounding it but made it clear that it is the Council’s job to manage it.
  • When asked “the Conservative Party has received millions of pounds in donations from developers according to the Daily Telegraph, what effect have these donations had on government policy?” the Minister replied that the process is quasi-judicial which is not impacted by politics. The audience reactions showed that they were far from convinced!
  • He was asked if he would change the NPPF process to allow housing numbers to be agreed at the start of the Local Plan creation process instead of being tested at the end. He said a number of people have asked about that but there was no change imminent as “it would be unfair on other authorities that are running the process as it is”.
  • Presentations were made on the number of houses required.  The Minister said it was the responsibility of the Councils to produce the number for their area.
  • Questions on what % of rejected applications by the Planning Inspectorate came from Councils which did not have their Local Plan approved caused much debate. There were figures produced about all adjudications, but not specifically in the case where there was no Local Plan.
  • Residents raised questions on particular developments in Hart – the Minister could not comment on these as he might have to rule on them at appeal.
  • Residents raised that given the landscape of Hart, there are very limited areas to build – Hook and Church Crookham are bound to get the greatest % of houses, despite all of the housing approved to date and inadequate infrastructure. The Minister advised that environment is a justifiable reason to quantify housing numbers.
  • Brownfield sites development was raised – the Minister was keen to see these developed further.
  • Trains and capacity / Roads & Congestions- again the Minister advised this is down to the local District and County Councils to manage.
  • One resident asked “As a resident of Hook, today you have committed to nothing that will address our concerns about over development. Given that, why on earth should we vote for Conservative at the next election?”. The Minister advised that Planning is quasi-judicial and not political and we need a Local Plan in place i.e. we are at risk until it is in place.

James Arbuthnot closed the meeting, thanking all for attending.

In summary, apart from a retired planning inspector being offered to advise Hart Council on their Local Plan, there was no good news for Hook or the rest of Hart regarding prevention of uncontrolled, unplanned development until at least 2016.  In March we had a meeting where our MP and District Council representatives put the blame for our situation firmly on Government policy, and in September we heard from a Government Minister that the District Council are the cause of the problem.  So while they all acknowledge that there is a problem, they blame each other while Hook is left defenceless.