It can be argued that the “political row” was warranted when the Castle Point Council Development Committee met to discuss the development proposal for Solby Farm.
Whether all Green Belt is Green Belt, or whether some development means it automatically becomes a Brownfield site or previously developed Green Belt is a sensitive matter to councillors and residents alike.
What should not become a material factor is romantic rhetoric such as “pristine” or “virgin” Green Belt. There are clear long standing purposes for Green Belt and if these functions have been eroded then that marks a failure in the historic development patterns within the borough.
A quick look at Solby Wood on Google Earth indicates that incremental development has eroded the extent of the Green Belt around that area. The site itself contains some equestrian buildings and a few stored caravans, we assume these are not for permanent on-site living accommodation.
At the time of the Local Plan2016 publication 2 motions were considered, one to protect ALL Green Belt as indicated in the 1998 Local Plan, and the second motion to protect undeveloped Green Belt. Officers indicated that it may be easier to argue at examination stage for the protection of All of the Green Belt.
However as we know cpbc voted to include some Green Belt sites for Housing development.
This was referred to in general terms during the Castle Point Local Plan2016 Duty to Cooperate pre-examination hearing with reference to balancing the Housing Need and Green Belt Policies.
This being the case it may be argued that as a general policy cpbc are willing to release some areas of Green Belt. Should that be in areas in which there is no realistic appetite for developers to build at present, this policy may lead to an Inspector concluding that if cpbc are willing to release some Green Belt it may be timely to marry the developers preferred areas with the Need for Housing. That would be unfortunate as this is not what strategic planning should be driven by.
It may be a case of the Inspector being willing to give cpbc the benefit of the doubt and approving the Local Plan2016 but with an early review. Should the proposed 100 dwellings per annum supply not be achieved then, no doubt, appeals for developers preferred sites would inevitably be successful.
It could also have been argued, which I did not pick up on hearing during the cpbc planning meeting, that the application could be rejected as being Premature. The Local Plan2016 must get over the first hurdle of the Duty to Cooperate, ahead of going under Examination for the tests of Soundness and legality.
Instead this proposal was treated as a means of endorsing the unexamined Local Plan2016. Members suggested that to reject the proposal would be inconsistent with the draft Local Plan2016, however in effect the Approval indicated a dismissal of enforcing the Adopted Local Plan with its different approach to Green Belt defence.
Prematurity would then have served both purposes of enforcing the Adopted Local Plan whilst allowing for the timely emergence of the altered approach to Green Belt policy in the Local Plan2016 should that be successful under Examination.
The policy of allowing development proposals, as in the case of Solby Farm with funding for off-site affordable housing supply, rather than actually including on-site affordable homes, almost inevitably increases the deprivation levels in already deprived areas – the “Not in My Backyard” syndrome!
Other serious matters such as lack of amenity space and under use of development land could also be given reasonable consideration, rather than the proposal being decided simply by the threat that we dare not Approve in case the Local Plan2016 should Fail on the result of the handling of a proposal for 46 “executive” dwellings.
Similar muddlings occur where caravans are concerned in our neighbouring borough of Basildon, as recorded in the Travellers Times earlier this year;
Before the eviction of the Dale Farm Travellers site at Crays Hill near Basildon, Essex, in 2011, local council leader Tony Ball said: “Dale Farm has been illegally developed on green belt land. By doing this … the Travellers have broken the law.” After the eviction Cllr Ball thanked Inspector Knacker and bailiffs and promised to restore the site in keeping with its green belt status. This hasn’t happened. It still looks like an urban wasteland.
Basildon council’s draft local plan now suggests building up to 2,500 houses in Crays Hill – much of which is green belt. Whilst the council says the draft does not propose any development of Dale Farm itself, an eager developer is canvassing travellers who own plots on both the legal site and the illegal site which was cleared, and exploring the possibility of building homes there. The council says there are no plans to build on the legal site, and that the draft local plan proposes to safeguard it for Gypsies and Travellers, but the developer can feed into the local plan and suggest developing the site.
Any developer would have a number of obstacles to overcome, including the fact that some pitches have injunctions protecting standing gates, fences and even three lawful plots, which would need to be quashed in court, and the fact that the land is severely contaminated. If the Travellers are to feel it is worthwhile to sell their pitches (most want a minimum of £100,000) then charges against the pitches that the council have taken out to cover the cost of the eviction will need to be dropped. These range between £60,000 and £360,000 per pitch and the council says it has no plans to remove them — yet. It is a great bargaining tool, after all.
The Travellers are well aware of the irony of the fact that they were evicted from the green belt because nobody is supposed to live on such cherished land – yet “settled” people could live there, possibly in their hundreds, in executive homes, just a few years later. One wonders what it would be called – Dale Farm Close, perhaps? But having lived in squalor for the best part of five years, they seem prepared to go quietly – if Basildon and a friendly developer are willing to help them.
By Katharine Quarmby (first published in Private Eye and republished with kind permission T.T.).
Castle Point must not appear similarly indecisive!
A link to the cpbc Solby Farm committee meeting can be found HERE.