The UK’s Suggested Best Practice and South Hams District Council

Never The Twain Shall Meet.

There are times when living in Totnes feels like you’re in a submarine moving along underneath a whole flotilla of destroyers. You know that any minute, a depth charge could be launched with your name on it. In our town, the destroyers are the South Hams District Council and the depth charges are the planning applications which appear out of nowhere and are more often than not detrimental in nature.

…there should be an official line of communication between Totnes Town Council and the SHDC.

The Totnes Pulse recently ran an excellent piece by South Hams District Councillor John Birch, summing up four situations involving SHDC that are not in the community’s best interest. For those who missed the piece and would like a summary of it, here are the four “attacks” as the Councillor likes to call them.
1. The proposed development of the old Budgens site into 40 or so retirement units – a development that could have a rather significant impact on parking capacity and will only add to an already oversaturated market for retirement units.
2. The possible development of several town centre car parks. In an effort to generate cash by selling off their “assets”, SHDC has chosen to approach this initiative in a way that is totally clandestine for reasons that are, I’m afraid, dubious in nature. To make matters worse, a decision was handed down on Thursday enabling the District Executive to make the decisions on the future of the car parks without any involvement of the planning department or opposition councillors.
3. A request that SHDC purchase the Budgens property for the good of Totnes went unheeded even though there were reportedly funds available to facilitate that purchase. SHDC’s decision to ignore the request becomes even more galling with the proposal to turn the area into yet another retirement home development.
4. There is now a proposal on the table to develop an area called Puddavine Yard with commercial and retail properties fashioned out of shipping containers. While we can debate the aesthetics of such an initiative, the idea of locating it at the eastern entrance to town (diagonally opposite KEVICC) doesn’t make a lot of sense. To be fair, the area had already been zoned for commercial/retail, but far more appropriate schemes could have been put forward.

Each of the above has at least two things in common. First, They appeared before us in Totnes right out of the blue with no forewarning or consultation. Second, they don’t appear to fit into any larger strategic planning framework. Unfortunately they also have a third thing in common – they fly in the face of suggested best practice for how local government units like the SHDC are to interact with the people of Totnes in arriving at suitable development plans. Without boring you with the granular details of local authority planning policy, let me just point out two government guidelines that either SHDC hasn’t received or is simply ignoring.

The National Planning Policy Framework is, as the name suggests, the government’s attempt to steer all the country’s various planning initiatives in a direction that makes the most sense given the needs of the moment. In July of this year, the government issued its revised framework and here is what it said in the press release announcing the new policies:

“Refocusing on the quality and design of proposals which are in line with what local communities want, the framework ensures councils have the confidence and tools to refuse permission for development that does not prioritise design quality and does not complement its surroundings.”

Perhaps I’m missing something here. By all standards of good governance and common sense, there should be an official line of communication between Totnes Town Council and SHDC. More precisely, there should be a process of official consultation that would spare us having to swat away these poorly thought out planning applications and proposed developments just like that analogous submarine has to swerve to avoid the depth charges – all of which is contrary to how the government says it would like us all to work with each other.

But there’s more. Just this month, the government issued new guidelines for plan making. And here’s what the introduction to the guidelines says: “Strategic policy-making authorities are required to cooperate with each other, and other bodies, when preparing, or supporting the preparation of policies which address strategic matters. This includes those policies contained in local plans (including minerals and waste plans), spatial development strategies, and marine plans.
The National Planning Policy Framework sets out that these authorities should produce, maintain, and update one or more statement(s) of common ground, throughout the plan-making process.”

Local planning authorities are also bound by the statutory duty to cooperate.

In fairness, SHDC has shown an ability to cooperate with others in arriving at the Joint Local Plan that was put together with Plymouth and West Devon Council.

But nonetheless, it would make for a much better working environment between ourselves and the district if we could have a say in what’s important to us much earlier in the process, sparing us the depth charges along the way.

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