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Is South Hams District Council meeting its planning responsibilities democratically?

With four substantial planning applications located in the centre of rural Dartington currently under consideration by the District Council, the complexities and challenges of community consultations being held over the Christmas holidays and ever changing COVID restrictions are compounding a truly challenging situation for the parish. It raises the question of whether the planning system being applied at the district Level is managing the situation fairly and based on the democratic principles that should govern all formal decision making by local authorities.

Cllr Jacqi Hodgson

There have been many challenges to South Hams District Council’s planning policies and plans in recent years, none more so than from Dartington. Residents and Councillors in this rural parish, have actively and repeatedly protested and demonstrated their concerns about what first appeared as a new ‘development policy’ in 2014. “Grow Dartington” was first presented to South Hams District Councillors at a planning workshop in September 2014 by the then senior planner (since departed). As District Councillor for the Ward, I asked a question at the workshop, “Is Dartington to be the sacrificial lamb for the new development to be delivered in the forthcoming plan?” and was assured by planners that this was not the case. I fortuitously took a quick snap of the slide that had been put on the screen. [Image below].  Sadly the predictions of that slide is fast becoming a reality for Dartington.

Regrettably, SHDC then embarked on their creation of a new local plan without providing an overview that could encourage landowners across all the parishes to put forward a range of sites. Neither did they offer guidance aligned to a growth plan based on meeting identified local housing needs, rural employment needs, organic growth around village and town centres or suitable topography; all established ways to guide the creation of a sustainable settlement pattern. Instead, a non-directional open tender was issued, inviting landowners and attracting mostly large scale sites, nineteen of which were in Dartington.

Inevitably this approach has led to SHDC developing its new local plan (the Joint Local Plan – JLP) on a fundamentally different basis to the multitude of Neighbourhood Plans that have been established by local Parish Councils in the district. SHDC’s priority has been to deliver housing on larger sites to accommodate estimated housing needs (based on previous growth rates + estimated inward migration rates + national housing needs), while individual Neighbourhood Plan groups have been seeking to meet local housing and employment needs and deliver sustainable settlements by carrying out local needs assessments to evidence their proposals for new development.

This messing about with actual sites and figures does not help with public confidence

Unsurprisingly, In 2014, a flurry of nineteen potential development sites were put forward in Dartington alone, by developers keen to benefit from what was clearly becoming a rich feeding ground with the highly valued Dartington Estate giving added value to any house buyers. Dartington Hall Trust (DHT) itself put forward 17 of those sites, potentially shooting itself in the foot. Concerns have been raised as to why such a large number of sites were put forward by the Trust and if they were encouraged to do so by SHDC. It is clear we need absolute transparency around this going forward as the consequences of these decisions are having and will continue to have, a majorly negative impact on the village and its inhabitants. There has been a breakdown of trust between DHT, SHDC and the community and only honesty and transparency from all parties involved can rectify that. A local resident declared, “I no longer believe a word that SHDC or DHT say, we are being left in the dark and trampled on by developers’. It’s very important that trust in the process and in the council is restored.

The final JLP, that was approved in 2019 had filtered these new development sites down to five for Dartington, conveniently assigning three other sites as apparently having moved to Totnes and conveniently ignoring in the listings the additional 120 new houses for the Dartington Core Estate, the four sites that had been built out in Dartington since 2014 and the new huge three storey care home being built at Brimhay. This messing about with actual sites and figures does not help with public confidence in the District Council’s agenda. Similarly, at no stage of the development of the Joint Local Plan has SHDC taken proper account of the evidence and clear direction for local housing that many of the Neighbourhood Plan groups have gathered and collated; a yawning gap that has left many parishes without housing and employment allocations that could help keep their parishes and villages thriving and become more sustainable, while fewer other parishes, including rural parish of Dartington and its neighbouring town of Totnes have been dumped with delivering housing and sites to accommodate over 13% of the housing needs of the ‘Thriving Towns and Villages” allocation of 5,878 new housing in the South Hams and West Devon. Dartington alone has been expected to accommodate an additional 504 new homes between, an increase of 63% of houses between 2014 – 2034, plus an additional 19,700 sq meters of employment space, i.e. 13% of all the new employment space allocated in South Hams and West Devon. Change that is rapidly urbanising the previously highly regarded, heritage rich, rural parish of Dartington, characterised by its distinctive and relatively unspoilt hamlets, now on track to fast becoming a suburb of Totnes.

Photographed slide from “Grow Dartington” presentation

In 2019, the South Hams, Plymouth City Council and West Devon Borough Council’s Joint Local Plan was approved by all three Local Authorities (although not unanimously voted on), sealing Dartington’s fate. No explanation has ever been provided by SHDC as to why so many sites and new housing could even be considered in a small rural parish with less than 800 houses at the time. However six years later as major planning applications continue to pour into Dartington, with developers keen to take up the opportunity for the sites allocated in the Joint Local Plan, even more weight has been applied by SHDC to smooth the way for developers seeking planning permission for sites in Dartington.
In the last year a planner has been appointed by South Hams District Council to deal only with the Baker Estates’ planning applications. As previously reported on, this planner is paid for by Baker Estates under a ‘Planning Performance Agreement’, and despite agreement last June that this agreement would be posted for public view on their website, this document has yet to be made formally publicly available, except for being tucked away in a Kingsbridge application.
Concerningly, the new Baker Estates (with Dartington Hall Trust), applications for Broom Park and Sawmills Field West which started their planning journey just after COVID hit in late Spring, were not required to carry out formal Heritage Screening, despite the full knowledge at SHDC that the wildlife corridors that converge within these sites are known to provide important habitat for European (and UK) protected bats and dormice. The public concerns raised at the time were dismissed, leaving the developers to move forward unhindered with their planning applications.

Similarly, concerns about air quality have become increasingly voiced due to the increase not only in regular traffic, but also the heavy goods vehicles as more commercial development sites have been opened up in Dartington. Air quality is monitored by SHDC along the Air Quality Management area along the A385 in recognicion of the problems (although inexplicably now ceased in Dartington), however no finance is ever spent on implementing the Air Quality Action Plan, instead highways monies from new developments are used for maintenance work. With anticipated pedestrian safety measures such as zebra crossings agreed at the planning stage then not implemented, roads have become increasingly dangerous and more children, who once walked to school are now being driven in for safety. At what point does all this become a risk of expenditure to the local authorities and investment is made in meaningful traffic reduction measures including more non-vehicular routes? Perhaps change will come when another Court Case finds that a child died of asthma induced by air pollution.

Jacqi Hodgeson at the illegal wall at Meadowside 5 years on…

As we move forward with these two major new applications in Dartington, my question is why have the many hundreds of residents and Local Councillors who have raised their very reasonable concerns over the years about the individual and cumulative impacts of developing these sites before they were allocated been ignored? When these sites were first allocated, DHT promised to stagger the builds and only develop BroomPark Field in 2028 thereby limiting the impact on residents, the environment and on traffic. Unfortunately they have changed their minds on this. The outcomes of the new developments to date, the loss of green space, the illegal red brick wall at Meadowside, the lack of adequate open space at Brimhay, the increase of traffic and failure to deliver just a few zebra crossing etc etc and the overall impact and loss of natural and built heritage that this strident planning creep is forever changing Dartington, and continues to erode and undermined local public confidence in the planning system.

I personally urge residents to not give up on sending in their views on these applications, the current four in Dartington parish centre are at Broom Park, Sawmills Field West, The Wave Academy and a new drainage attenuation site and can be found on at the SHDC’s website Planning portal. I also urge SHDC senior planning, heritage and ecology officers to take a good hard look at what is happening to Dartington and ensure the most robust traffic, ecological and heritage assessments and surveys are required for these applications and adhered to in any recommendation made to the Planning Committee. Without high professional standards being applied, concerns about democracy being undermined and political interference are likely to continue to be voiced.

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