Reflections on the Sandleford Planning Inquiry

Cllr Dr Tony Vickers gives his thoughts on the recent Sandleford Inquiry.

This was my first Public Inquiry of its kind – not just because it was all online. I had attended our last Local Plan “Examination in Public” by an Inspector appointed by Government in 2011-12. This was when Sandleford was made a “strategic housing site” for 2000 homes, 1000 of which were to be built by 2026 with the first completions due in 2016. I was then, as now, Liberal Democrat Planning Spokesman on West Berkshire Council (WBC), the Local Planning Authority (LPA) which had mysteriously elevated the site from 13th to 2nd (after Newbury Racecourse) in its preferences for where housing should be built. We had vigorously opposed it then.

The story of Sandleford up to January this year – when the developer of 2/3 of the site, Bloor Homes, launched their appeal against the WBC decision – was described in previous articles on the Lib Dems’ local party website. Here I will describe how the Lib Dems set about continuing the struggle to prevent this unsuitable site being over-developed through the Bloor Homes Appeal process.

On 26th January, the Government Planning Inspectorate (PINS) announced that Bloor had appealed the WBC Decision made on 13th October (my birthday incidentally), as they’d promised they would beforehand. It would be held by Public Inquiry, owing to its size. Furthermore, because it involved more than 500 homes, the Secretary of State himself had exercised his right to make the final Decision – not the Inspector, who would merely convene and run the Inquiry and write him a report.

The site is split down the middle by the parish boundary between Greenham and Newbury. Local councils can apply to PINS for a “seat at the table” for a Public Inquiry but the two councils had less than a month in which to decide whether to apply to be what is called “Rule 6 Parties”.

Luckily Newbury Town Council (NTC) and Greenham Parish Council (GPC) had already formed a Joint Working Group (JWG) specifically to monitor and advise them on everything to do with Sandleford. The JWG is chaired by Cllr Roger Hunneman of NTC and had three members of each council: four are Lib Dems but one each are members of the Green and Conservative parties.

The JWG met several times early this year to discuss what to do about the Inquiry. It proved easy for local councils to obtain Rule 6 Status and Roger and I were invited to the online video-conference that the Inspector convened in early February. Peter Norman had also obtained a place for the campaign group SayNoToSandleford (SNTS).

PINS, like everyone else, has been unable to hold Public Inquiries in the normal way at a physical location near the appeal site. However it only has a limited number of Planning Inquiries which are allocated live streaming to enable the public to view the proceedings, so the first thing we did was ask them to allocate one of those to Sandleford, given the worldwide potential interest because of the link to “Watership Down”. It took some weeks before we had our request accepted.

The guidance on how the Inquiry was to be run made it seem quite daunting to us amateurs but our councils had no funds set aside to pay for professional advocates. SNTS advertised without success for local experts to offer themselves as witnesses. However among our own councillors on NTC and GPC we were lucky to have Adrian Abbs and Dr Chris Foster. Adrian has worked in the business of renewable energy in the recent past and still follows it closely, as well as being Lib Dem Spokesman on Climate Change on WBC. Chris is an ecologist lecturing at Reading University and chairs NTC’s Climate Change Working Group. They both offered to be expert witnesses. I had been the Highways Officer for the local cycling campaign group SPOKES as well as WBC Planning Spokeman since 2015, so I covered transport with an emphasis on ‘Active Travel’.

The JWG prepared a “Statement of Case” (SoC) on behalf of the two councils but we were allowed to retain separate places as Rule 6 Parties for NTC and GPC, giving us “two bites” at the Appellants in every Inquiry session where we had something to say. The Inspector also agreed that the topics we had chosen to base our SoC on would not be held under the “inquisitorial” format of Cross Examination by the Appellant’s QC but at a virtual “round table” chaired by the Inspector. So it didn’t prove to be at all intimidating once we got to know the other main participants.

Chris, Adrian and myself had to prepare “Proofs of Evidence” (PoE) elaborating on the matters covered in the SoC, upon which we would be invited by our respective “Advocates”: Roger for Chris and NTC, on everything ‘green’ especially biodiversity; Adrian for me, as GPC advocate, on Renewable Energy & carbon reduction. I presented my own PoE on Active Travel and highways impact mitigation. The Appellants’ QC, who is also Boris Johnson’s personal planning policy adviser and wrote much of the hated Planning White Paper, then questioned us before the subjects were discussed by all parties.

Special online libraries of core documents referenced before and during the Inquiry were established by WBC on their website for the Inspector and other participants – and the public – to access. These included submissions from other interested parties right up to the final days of the Inquiry. The mind boggles at the time that highly paid members of the Appellants’ team must have spent outside of the actual live proceedings.

The Inquiry began on 5th May and ended on 28th. Roger Hunneman attended almost all the sessions, at the expense of his garden! I had a week’s holiday booked in the middle but didn’t miss any sessions where I was needed. Adrian and Chris only attended as witnesses to be participants questioned by the Inspector and the Appellants’ QC, with friendly prompts from myself or Roger.

The Closing Statements of the five parties reveal as much as can be concluded from the marathon event. The Planning Authority’s leading barrister was the star: she’d said very little during the preceding four weeks but her summary could prove decisive with the Inspector, if not the Minister who decides. She began with this quote from Richard Adams’ book Watership Down by Holly: “Men will never rest until they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals”.

Impacts of 1000 homes and associated infrastructure on wildlife, surface water runoff, ancient woodland and ecosystems generally, also the inadequate attempts to achieve carbon footprint reduction, were the key issues raised. All were points addressed by your Lib Dem representatives too. They are what lies behind our response to the ‘emerging’ new Local Plan, where we said we put climate change mitigation “front and centre” in our approach.

After a very detailed rebuttal of the Appellants’ case, which was that local planning authorities have no power to impose a standard higher than what the government has set, she said: “Future generations deserve better than the lowest common denominator”. If she is right, it is a shame that so many planning applications in West Berkshire have been granted consent with similar inadequate energy standards. Our 2012 Local Plan did indeed set the standard of zero carbon (under the Code for Sustainable Homes) for all new dwellings built after 2016 but councillors have been told this policy had been overruled by the Tory Government soon after the Coalition ended.

Those who know me know I “bang on” about the classic Liberal policy of land value taxation. I felt I had to quote from Winston Churchill’s speech in the 1906 budget, when he was a Liberal. “Roads are made, railway services are improved [etc.] and all the while the landlord sits still. To not one of these improvements does the land monopolist as a land monopolist contribute, yet by every one of them the value of his land is sensibly enhanced.”

This was aimed at the Sandleford Farm Partnership, who own the appeal site – not the developer Bloor Homes with whom they signed an “option” to build and who were the Applicant. It is landowners who make the “eye-watering” profit from having greenfield farmland and woodland sites allocated by elected local councils for housing. It is also landowners who sign “Section 106 Agreements” to legally commit to providing funding for on-site infrastructure (roads, schools, a community centre, playgrounds) in support of the homes the developers offer for sale.

Yet this landowner wants to retain ownership of all the ‘public’ facilities (except roads and schools) and to not even provide funds to build the community centre. In an Appeal situation, if the decision maker (the Government – either as Inspector or, in this case, the Minister) decides that the Unilateral Undertaking (UU) is unreasonable, its provisions can be set aside with the consequence that funds for essential community facilities have to come direct from council tax, not from the developer through “Community Infrastructure Levy”. That could mean about £27m in Sandleford’s case!

I had made a late submission focusing on the unfairness of the idea that by hanging on to ownership of community facilities and charging the residents of Sandleford – including occupiers of affordable housing – an annual charge for maintenance of open space and country park, they would be making only some users of ‘public’ land pay for its upkeep.

The Inspector thankfully took the point and told the Appellants and the Council to submit an amended draft UU and associated Planning Conditions schedule.

There isn’t space to list all the factors that the Inspector will now have to consider. We should see the above final revised UU and Conditions by 18th June but it could be several months before the Inspector sends her report to the Secretary of State (SoS). At that point we may get an indication of the date when the Minister should issue his Decision, alongside which we will see the Inspector’s report. I’m sure this will be a long read!

Few people would find several hundred more new homes south of Monks Lane in Newbury totally unacceptable but I summarised my personal position thus, in my closing statement: “These proposals will destroy a beautiful part of West Berkshire and won’t contribute at all to tackling climate change. The homes are not needed urgently enough to allow anything less than carbon neutral for a scheme that has to last at least a century.”

Cllr Dr Tony Vickers

Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Planning on West Berkshire Council and Councillor for Wash Common

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