Stewardship of Our District - The Lib Dems and the Local Plan

Cllr Dr Tony Vickers gives an update on the Lib Dem position regarding the local plan.

"All my life I have been fascinated by maps. My grandfather signed the first ‘series’ map sheet depicting Everest as Surveyor General of India and I followed in his footsteps as an officer in the Royal Engineers Survey Service for 20 years. That’s how my family and I came to live in Berkshire, at Curridge, in 1980.

Maps tell a history – of the physical and human worlds and and of how humanity has acted on the Planet over recent time. What my grandfather almost certainly never thought about now dominates our thinking: the survival of humanity brought about by over-exploitation of its resources by a minority at the expense of those not privileged to have exclusive access to enough of them – as well as at the expense of other species.

So on behalf of my colleagues in the Liberal Democrat Opposition on West Berkshire Council I have approached the draft Local Plan prepared by our planning policy officers from the perspective of “stewardship”. A steward is not the absolute master of his owner’s estate any more than a Local Planning Authority is the master of what happens to this district over the period of its emerging Local Plan. But a steward is held accountable for how man-made change in the environment is planned and executed according to the policy of his master – in this case the local electorate that appointed him.

The evidence base for this Local Plan was entirely gathered before the pandemic struck and almost all before the nature of Brexit was known. We believe this casts doubt on its value and that although we do not want to delay the plan making process any plan now needs reviewing sooner rather than later.

Brexit has allowed Government to review agricultural and environmental policy independent of the EU. We expect many changes over the Plan period in how our countryside is used and how the money flows to farmers and land managers. That seems bound to affect local authority planning too – but who knows how, at this early stage?

We Liberal Democrats hope and expect to take control of West Berkshire District Council at about the time that the Local Pan is formally adopted, in early 2023. Whilst the determination of decisions on particular planning applications is not supposed to be ‘political’, I want us to try to put a distinct stamp on the Local Plan that we might have to implement ourselves.

The priority is tackling climate change, in accordance with the Council’s formal declaration of a Climate Emergency in 2019. We welcome a new ‘strategic’ policy specifically on Climate Change and several ‘development control’ policies that reflect it. But we believe this aspect of the Local Plan can and must be significantly improved.

Second priority for us is ensuring that the housing needs of all – not just those who can afford the high prices of homes for both sale and rent – are met. We do not believe – and our planners agree – that tackling climate change and providing sufficient affordable homes are incompatible aims. However we wish to see a broader range of both type and location for all kinds of tenure, including community led and self-build housing schemes. People built better homes for themselves than the major home builders care to offer through their ‘take it or leave it’ dominance of the market – a market that has since “Right to Buy” totally failed to provide for essential needs in both quantity and quality.

We continue to believe that it is better to have many small and medium sized housing sites in the Plan and to spread new homes across the District to more villages and smaller settlements – even in the AONB – to make them “vibrant” and “viable” communities than to have one or two very large sites. The experience of the past ten years in South Newbury at Sandleford Park tells us the danger of putting all one’s eggs in one basket: you just give one site promoter a local monopoly and lose control of the Plan altogether, as happened here between 2015 and 2017.

So we oppose the new and ill-considered site north east of Thatcham, which is poorly connected to the road network, unless it comes with new road links to the south and west that do not rely on the A4 through Newbury or rat runs through the AONB to reach the M4 and A34.

Similarly we continue to oppose Sandleford unless, among other things, it comes with a new road access avoiding Wash Common to reach the Newbury bypass south of the current settlement area. The recently completed “road to nowhere”, built at taxpayers’ expense, to access the A339 southbound and avoid Monks Lane is not enough to sweeten the pill of 1500 homes here.

We want a separate policy covering renewable energy developments to ensure that overall the Plan can deliver a carbon positive outcome to offset the inevitable carbon negative status of the existing housing, whose carbon footprint cannot otherwise be improved significantly through the Local Plan. This should not be buried in the sub-text of a “non residential development” strategic policy.

We want clarity on the weight that must be given to tackling climate change as against preserving the character of our landscape and other policy requirements in both housing and non-residential development proposals. Nothing will damage our landscape more than uncontrolled climate change.

I am particularly keen to hear the views of Liberal Democrats and others who live in our rural areas – especially the AONB villages – because although I grew up in a village that planners would call a Rural Service Centre, that was before the current planning system was invented and in another county! So I hope you can read the draft response to the Local Plan which will soon be uploaded to the Local Party’s website as well as the draft Local Plan itself on the Council’s website.

We want our descendants to see and understand what we did as stewards of this district in these years of climate crisis that are to come. If that means more ‘system built’ housing or somewhat strange estate layouts because they deliver a lower carbon footprint, so be it.

If you are a Lib Dem member, please join me and other “planning lead” officers covering our shared AONB on January 29th at 7.30. To get the zoom link register below.

Cllr Dr Tony Vickers".



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