UPDATE: Since this was written in summer 2016, things have changed at Brimhay, and it now looks inevitable that demolition and building plans will proceed.
Trudy Turrell has lived in Totnes since a teenager, and in Dartington with her family for 7 years. She is chair of Don’t Bury Dartington Under Concrete, a community group of residents who are currently celebrating saving the peaceful Brimhay houses from being flattened and ‘redeveloped’ against the residents’ wishes, “A victory of national importance… a win that upholds a community’s right to open space”. Full details of the long hard-fought journey to judicial review success here. http://www.dontburydartington.co.uk/successful-brimhay-judicial-review-victory-gives-hope-to-communities-across-the-uk/
Q: Trudy, can you please explain something of your knowledge and familiarity with the process of planning, construction and council decision-making on that in the South Devon area?
Well , my involvement stems from Dartington Hall Trust’s proposals to put 19 green fields in the parish up for development. The outcry from local people formed ‘Don’t Bury Dartington Under Concrete’ in late 2014. Then, we marched to the district council headquarters – in funereal black with a coffin full of 900 objection cards – to draw attention to our parish being ‘buried under concrete’. After a long running campaign to the Trust, during which its then CEO and Chair of trustees resigned, 17 of the fields were withdrawn from being offered in the local plan and we now have a good working and more open relationship with the Trust and its new CEO Rhodri Samuel.
What we have learned of the process is that despite the fact that our elected representatives are in the council, in reality, its the developers, landowners and planners that set the agenda for what is built and where- and the public are only ‘consulted’ as a perfunctory process near the end of the plan before it is approved.
We are never in the room with landowners invited to submit sites and always ‘on the back foot’ defending the places we live in. I feel we have no proper role as stakeholders and that for communities: planning is something tht is done TO them, not WITH them.
In South Hams, there’s a Tory majority over many of the protected landscape areas, that pushes development our way – and keeps it out of their wards – to the approval of their voters. If the council were more balanced with different parties truly represented, we might have a more level playing field.
Through fighting Brimhay we found that we can turn planning into a positive process involving the community: we found ways of turning everyone’s objections to the scheme into a positive alternative scheme that did not compromise wildlife, existing good quality social homes or open space, yet still provided the same number of houses.
Over 200 local people supported our scheme, whilst just 2 wanted what South Devon Rural Housing Association offered – yet it was theirs that was given planning permission and recommended by a SHDC planner and voted in by councillors in areas far from Dartington!
If all schemes could be planned WITH local people rather than done TO them we’d be truly involved in the places we know and love and their future. The fact that a Brimhay resident had to take legal action that led to a Judicial Review just shows a real failure of communication.
Q: So, since it’s clearly not the public, who is it that sparks off the planning and construction process?
Usually it’s a landowner who wishes to build to make a profit. In most cases the area has to be designated in the local plan, but as I said: the plans are made in conjunction with landowners who are keen to develop their land. Planners regulate the balance of development and when a scheme comes in, Development Control planners assess its suitability – if it is in an allocated development area.
But often the first local people see of this is a scheme that is fully drawn up that the developer has invested much time and money in; and again, the public have to access the planning notices on a website, respond within 28 days and justify in planning terms only, why the development should not be built or should be modified.
The system is set up so that we are always on the defensive rather than working with developers and providers. Easing up of the planning controls to alleviate the ‘housing crisis’ has meant that thousands of houses are suddenly allowed on sites that 5 years ago would have been unthinkable. Similarly wildlife, landscape and heritage considerations are sidelined or legislation dismantled.
Meanwhile developers are king and are reaping huge profits, being what this government calls ‘an economic driver’. Whilst we suffer the damage to landscape and, in Totnes for example, the damage to tourism, these developer clone homes don’t seem to be solving the problem for those most in need. Of the 800 houses built around Totnes in recent years just ONE family has been housed from the housing register!
Q: What is your assessment of the ‘Plymouth and South West Devon Local Plan’ as it affects Totnes?
Specifically, are you aware that as they stand the current plans – which the public have only a few days left to “comment” on: by the 12 August – include construction in Market Square, Grove School grounds and Leechwell Gardens, as well as a raft of other spaces loved by the community here, mostly unaware of what has already been planned?
I have not been involved in responding to Totnes’s proposals – but I am appalled that the council could consider killing our famous market and building on such precious open space in a town of high density where many have no garden. To propose the plans they have shows a complete misunderstanding of our quirky, historic, vibrant town, that relies on its market, the setting of its buildings and its sheer difference to other clone towns in Britain. They are killing its much loved unique character and with it – tourism and trade.
What particularly shocks me is the simplistic way planners decide which village or town gets how many houses. They have a points system; a bit like an ‘I Spy book ‘ for planners. They score each village with a 3 for a doctors’ or a school, 2 for a shop or pub, 1 for allotments and so on. Those with high scores get lots of houses.
In the South Hams that system is a disaster: it reinforces inequality, and the divide between rural villages near the coast or moors and others nearer the towns. In recent years, villages in the AONB have experienced soaring house prices, and so lots of retired residents and second home owners but less and less families; forcing all those who work in those villages – say nurses, teachers, shop staff – to live elsewhere and drive in.
We have experienced village shops shutting, cuts in bus services, and the closing of schools and youth facilities. This system polarises and exacerbates the issue: fossilising the rural villages in protected landscapes who will now never have enough homes for younger people or attract services; choking the ‘thriving villages’ SHDC seeks to foster with traffic as they become commuter settlements.
Q: We strongly recommend people express to SHDC their democratic views on the plans via this link http://plymouth.objective.co.uk/portal/planning/jlp/shwd_thriving_towns_and_villages
But what are your thoughts on the level of democracy in the whole process given the fact that the public are allotted a brief window only to comment on pre-made plans after the fact? And what about the timing of the CONsultation during the summer holidays when people are far more out of contact?
Well I know that SHDC has suffered from huge staff cuts thanks to government cut-backs on local authorities. They have struggled to get the plan out knowing that if they don’t, central government could take over and give developers their lead in building where they wish.
However, they know as well as any developer, that if you don’t want responses from the public, set your consultation period over Christmas or the summer holidays- enough said!
Q: You were involved in a community victory over planners regarding Brimhay, what advice and encouragement can you give to people who don’t want to see local public space – playing fields, farms, squares, gardens – built over?
All we can do is keep highlighting the issues and responding: holding up a mirror to decision makers and finding out who is responsible for the future of our place. Highly visible campaigns, social media and traditional press, voting – be it a community vote, door to door leaflets to gauge opinion or enabling local people to respond quickly and easily to their council – has worked to some degree.
Working together as a community has been our strength. The fight for Brimhay has forged a wonderful community of people: whether raising funds through cooking 200 curries or an auction of art and promises or leafleting door to door, our concerns have brought us together in a mutually caring way and have proved that for local people to have a real say in their future, they are going to have to work together – and very hard- to get it for themselves.