The South Hams are under threat…

Government proposals to relax planning laws could have a permanent & profound effect on our area.

Opinion- 12th September 2020
Updated 18th September 2020

The ‘white paper’ from August 2020 is a consultation which “covers a package of proposals for reform of the planning system in England”

Radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War. – Boris Johnson

These new top-down reforms include scrapping ‘106 agreements‘ that oblige any new developments to take into account social and affordable housing and/or pay an agreed amount to district councils to fund social projects such as schools and parks as a form of compensation. They also allow local planning to control how land is used and what kind of developments are allowable. The Labour party have branded the white paper as a “Developers Charter“. Mike Amesbury MP, Shadow Housing and Planning Minister said:  “This is a Developer’s Charter that will see communities side-lined in decisions and denied vital funding for building schools, clinics and community infrastructure.”

Oversubscribed: Camomile Lawn, Great Court Farm, Baltic Wharf, Guinness Trust

It is feared that this will enable greedy developers, already famed for building sloppily built estates. A housing design audit for England reveals that 75% of new housing development should not have gone ahead due to ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’ design.

These proposals appear to open the door for private firms to build high-profit-low-standard ‘slum’ housing. It seems clear, judging by the ‘luxury housing’ developments that have mushroomed in Totnes, even the existing regulations fail to provide sufficient social or affordable housing. But whilst the white paper is scattered through with charming prose:”a virtuous circle of prosperity”  and “a fast-track for beauty”,  decorative words such as “innovative“, “biodiversity” and “visualisation”,  the current UK Government have proven themselves as liars, embezzlers and law-breakers and hardly seem like trustworthy custodians of our landscape. RIBA president, Alan Jones, said: “While there’s no doubt the planning system needs reform, these shameful proposals do almost nothing to guarantee the delivery of affordable, well-designed and sustainable homes.”. Now that he is in power, Dominic Cummings has said he will “take an axe to planning laws” – This white paper seems to be his axe. Perhaps his motivation is his own personal problems he encountered with his Durham home.

What does this mean for the South Hams?

Planning decisions have always been made locally with local knowledge and data. These planning (de) regulations take control away from planning departments by removing the tools they currently have to oppose unsuitable developments. The CPRE (Council for the Protection of Rural England) say “Under these new proposals, our ability to shape the future of where we live – a right communities have had for 70 years – could be lost with the stroke of a pen”. Devon is a prime target for developers with it’s beautiful countryside, moors and coastal locations. Up to now we have been subject to the Plymouth and South West Devon Joint Local Plan (JLP) which itself came under fire for oversubscribing developments above existing government requirements. Totnes & Dartington were allocated 528 new homes despite existing traffic, infrastructure and severe air quality issues. But these new proposals could sweep this plan aside enabling unfettered building projects in the region. Totnes District Councillor John Birch stated “All this careful work [JLP] could be overturned… … The local plan could be put in the dustbin!”

We will seek to strengthen enforcement powers and sanctions – Planning White Paper

The CPRE have set up a petition stating “Ministers want to take decision-making powers away from communities and local councils, handing it over to housing developers and central powers in Westminster. ” with nearly 20,000 signatures. The proposals are set to be put through very soon so if the white paper is to be challenged, action needs to be taken sooner rather than later.

Totnes Town Councillor Georgina Allen, who has a special interest in planning matters locally stated: The concern locally if the White Paper becomes law is threefold –

Cllr Georgina Allen

  • firstly that the number of houses pushed on to the South Hams will double, as the Area of Natural Beauty (AONB} is protected, a large share of that will fall into the so-called Brixham to A38 urban corridor or in other words, us. Planning control over what is built and protection for habitats and the environment will be greatly reduced.
  • Secondly, our High St could be decimated by the new rule allowing shops to be turned into residences after only a relatively short time empty. Obviously it’s far more profitable to sell a house than a shop and I can imagine landlords only to eager to squeeze business tenants out. We could lose a lot of our High Street.
  • Thirdly, it will be possible to raise residential roofs by at least two storeys without getting permission from council first. The impact on light, privacy, aesthetics etc could lead to a serious breakdown in neighbourly relations. A friend in the construction industry described it as a developer-led, free-for-all frenzy that will affect our most beautiful areas most badly. Another friend in local government described it as uncontrolled development. It’ll be an absolute disaster for Totnes, no two ways about it.”


What would Anthony Mangnall do?

According to a letter responding to a local constituency question, our Conservative MP will do absolutely nothing. He appears to be backing the new proposals to the hilt, further establishing himself as career Conservative. In a surprisingly long and robust response, Anthony says “I welcome that radical and necessary reforms are being brought in to cut arbitrary red tape while maintaining standards and protecting our Green Belt and greenfield sites”. He goes on the defend the plans with a positively Trumpian;  “A fast-track system for beautiful homes will also be created and new streets are to be lined with trees, helping make and keep places beautiful.” The nonsensical use of the word beautiful covers up the false narrative that planning decisions “often take” 7 years in his preceeding line: “Local housing plans should be developed and agreed in 30 months, rather than the seven years it often takes”. It was probably unintentional but Antony has succinctly summed up exactly what the problem is with the white paper. Most planning decisions are made in a reasonable and timely manner considering the many factors involved, however they can take this long if local people have objections strong enough to warrant it. Surely that’s the whole point of having a planning department!  These new proposals are intended to sweep away those annoying objections and fast-track development in every single case because they are specifically designed to remove local intervention and input.

Update 18th September: It seems since this was first published Anthony has had an extremely welcome change of heart and has written an open letter to the Totnes Times as copied below:

It has not escaped readers of this paper that the Government has recently published its white paper, Planning for the Future. This white paper details ambitious pleather of ideas for how we might change our outdated. complex and slow planning system.
In brief, the aim of these planning reforms is to ensure that we build in a better-designed, more environmentally friendly way and that can help more people into homeownership. The white paper looks to streamline developer contributions and introduces three zoning arrangements: Growth, Renewal and Protection. Local authorities will divide their areas into these three categories. Those that fall into ‘Growth’ will be able to be more easily developed, provided it meets regulation and design codes. ‘Renewal’ would see residents able to expand upon their properties. Those areas that are designated under ‘Protection’ such as the Green Belt or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, will, as the name suggests, be protected from development.
In theory, this all sounds well and good and I welcome the sentiment behind the proposals. However, when you consider that the word ‘rural’ only once appears in the white paper, then you begin to believe that what we are being presented with are proposals that are best suited for urban growth, not rural development.
Over the last 10 months, I have studied many of the neighbourhood plans that we are so fortunate to have in place. Their continued survival and input will be essential in ensuring that local communities not only build beautifully and in the right way but are in keeping with local demand and infrastructure capability. South Hams District Council has worked hard to produce a joint local plan which focuses on development in a fair and equitable balance across the area. These proposals should not be overlooked, encouraging cross-region cooperation can ensure that we build in the right places rather than building to just meet targets. A one size fits all approach is inadequate and takes little account of where we have achieved targets already and where there is already a robust system in place.
Jobs and development must go hand in hand. There can be little point in building hundreds of new homes across an area if the jobs aren’t there to support those who might wish to buy. Fortunately, I believe South Devon has a great deal of opportunity to grow new and innovative industries and services. But it is essential that jobs come first and then we use the expeditious proposals outlined in this paper to build the houses that are needed by those who wish to live and work in the area.
Finally, much consternation has rightly be directed at the algorithm which, if accurate, will see South Hams and Torbay Authority almost double the number of houses they are required to build. It is fair to say that rural MPs across the country are more than concerned about the impact this could have on their communities and we are all working to see how this can be amended and rectified to suit our communities.
The recent comments of the Housing Minister, Chris Pincher MP, should be cautiously welcomed in that “the numbers generated {by the algorithm) for an area’s housing need will not necessarily be the same as their ultimate targets. Here is hoping that they are considerably less.Reform of the planning sector is more than necessary. There are a number of proposals in this white paper that I believe will benefit the whole country. However. in its current form, I do not believe it is fit for purpose. That is why I have joined a working group of backbench MPs to reform these plans. But, to succeed I need the help of every reader to submit their views to this consultation so that our arguments and stance are given the added weight that they deserve.
Anthony Mangnell MP

What now?

Under the cover of a pandemic it seems Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings and Robert Jenrick would like the population to be unaware of the drastic changes being proposed to UK planning laws under yet another 3 word buzzphrase “Build, Build, Build” – for once the statement seems truthful but it’s important to remember that once a space is built on, the damage is permanent.


Hazel Hindell – 14th September 2020 – “I hope common sense prevails and Anthony Mangnall will realise that more housing does not necessarily make a town more workable or friendly. The traffic is already an issue through the area. One of the most attractive aspects of this Devon town is the High Street with independent shops.”

Richard O’Connell – 14th September 2020 -“There are some contraversial points in the new Planning White Paper, not least the issuing of “Rules” as opposed to “Guidlines” which makes its operation very inflexible. I would however urge responders to the Paper to make constructive criticisms as opposed to just rejecting it. I fear letters of straight out objection may have little impact and result in the bill will be railroaded through as opposed to being ammended.

There seems however to be a suggestion from some local correspondents that the new Planning White Paper somehow allows developers to purchse a redundant building and immediatly start knocking it down and building whatever they want. This is not the case.

The “old” building must:
• have been built before 1 January 1990 and have been in existence on 12 March 2020;
• have been vacant for at least 6 months immediately before the application for prior approval.
• be a free-standing purpose-built block of flats or a single detached building that was used for office, research and
development or light industrial use.
• have a footprint of 1,000 square metres or less: and
• not be taller than 18 metres.

The scope of the new right is very clear. A block of flats or a single detached house can be built. The new building must be within the same footprint as the old one, but can be up to two storeys higher (up to a maximum of 18 metres).
The new building however,must be built and occupied within 3 years of the grant of prior approval. This follows the government’s previous “use it or lose it” mantra, but it may be a cause for concern for developers who have complicated sites and/or those who need to secure funding.
How will it work?
An application for “prior approval” will need to be made to the local planning authority (LPA). The new right will require a wide range of information to be provided and assessed by the LPA before any demolition or building works are started. Factors to be assessed include:
• noise, transport and highways;
• contamination and flooding;
• design and external appearance (including landscaping);
• overlooking, privacy and light;
• heritage and archaeology; and
• impact on businesses and residents in the area.
Further details of demolition and construction will also need to be provided as pre-commencement requirements if and when prior approval is granted.

As opposed to reading the whole White Paper, this site may be a useful guide

Casper Holst – 26th January 2021 – “In my opinion new houses need to be build, ideally within urban conurbations to keep transport to a minimum. The delivery of these houses should not be done by large developers as these generally produce generic, low quality and high cost in use buildings. More land should be made available to housing (land) trusts, self build and smaller developments.

The local authority should set out a far more demanding quality standard of buildings through enhanced building and design regulations so that these buildings are designed with the end user in mind and respond to their local context, solar exposure and so on. There are are a few developers who can deliver these but they should be invited to get involved in a group involving all parties to ensure that these buildings are designed and delivered in a transparent and realistic manner. All parties should be stakeholders in the design process, this is not design by committee, rather a consensual design process which has had some surprising results.

Pension funds should be involved in the financing of these developments as their amortisation rates will allow slower returns, more creative better designs and greater build quality. More akin to what the Peabody trust produces. This is not a difficult process provided that the authorities are amenable to this more transparent approach. This is all nothing new as it has been done in the UK and Northern Europe. British house building is inadequate to say the least and does not stand up to modern standards, largely due to short term thinking and profit motive in larger corporations.
We must do better as we are starting from a very low standard.”









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