National Park Planning Committee Performance Review 2013 prepared for the South Downs Society
The South Downs Society’s action plan for 2013 included a requirement for a report to its Planning and Conservation Committee at the year end on “the extent to which the performance of the National Park’s Planning Committee has been consistent with national park purposes”. This is the first occasion on which this task has been undertaken – other than anecdotally – so the methodology is experimental.
For this task the Society has scrutinised the decisions of the Planning Committee at each of its monthly meetings during 2013, categorised them very roughly in terms of significant and less significant development proposals, compared them with its own submitted comments and also with the recommendations in the reports of the NPA officers. The position is complicated by a number of factors:
- It would not be reasonable to conclude that any decision not to the liking of the Society must automatically be contrary to national park purposes: planning issues are rarely black and white, are subject to personal – though trained – perspective, and members of the Planning Committee may apply varying emphasis to the two purposes and statutory duty of park designation.
- Not all of the planning applications which come before the Planning Committee for determination will be of major significance. Now that four local authorities have withdrawn from the delegation agreement with the NPA, the latter is now responsible for decisions on all applications, both major and minor, in those districts and some of these will come before members, rather than being determined by the officers under delegated powers. This exercise covers only those applications which have come before the Park Planning Committee monthly meetings.
- The exercise has not considered the comments made by the Committee to neighbouring planning authorities on applications outside the park.
- The Society’s own submitted comments are not always related to the most significant applications. Submissions are largely down to the efforts of individual District Officers (DO) of the Society, some of whom may be able to deploy more time than others. There are significant parts of the national park in Hampshire where the Society has no DO coverage, and there have been some significant applications in those areas.
- A total of 51 determinations were made by the Planning Committee in 2013. Some of these related to the same sites eg a proposal to demolish a building in a conservation area and replace it has hitherto required two separate applications, or a proposal that affects a listed building has required a separate approval because of that status. More than 51 applications have appeared on the Committee’s agenda but a number have been withdrawn or deferred for further information.
- Of these 51:
32 were recommended for approval by the case officer and approved
10 were recommended for refusal and refused
8 were recommended for approval but refused
1 was recommended for refusal but approved
- Of the 51, around 16 were of particular interest to the Society – eg more than two dwellings involved, a school, a hotel and retail units, a travellers’ site, a nursing home, a visitor centre, holiday homes, a vineyard pressing centre, large farm buildings. This categorisation has no formal basis but these applications raised significant issues, including the extent to which they met national park purposes. By their nature the Society was more likely to have expressed concerns than support.
- Of these 16:
5 were recommended for approval and were approved. The Society had written in support of one of these (National Trust’s conversion of its hotel at Birling Gap to improved visitor facilities) and expressed concerns on none of them.
4 were recommended for refusal and were refused. The Society had objected to two of them (Durand Academy’s expansion plans for St Cuthmans school and further developments at a nursing home near Fernhurst) but made no comments on the other two (both were housing developments in Hampshire without DO coverage – but they were rejected anyway).
6 were recommended for approval by the case officer but rejected by the members of the Committee. The Society had objected to four of these (listed building consent at St Cuthmans, the demolition and new build at the magistrates’ court building in Lewes, and a major mixed development in Southdowns Road, also in Lewes). The Society had submitted comments but no formal objection on a proposed vineyard pressing centre near Petworth, feeling that it might support the local rural economy. The Committee concluded that there was no overriding reason for it to be located within the national park and it would be utilising grapes not only from the vineyard itself but also those harvested elsewhere. The final application of the six in this category was for housing in Hampshire where the Society currently has no DO presence.
1 application was recommended for refusal by the officer but approved by the Committee. This related to a proposal for industrial scale, new agricultural buildings at Iford in the Ouse Valley. The Society had objected, along with local residents, and addressed the Committee in support of the officer recommendation, but the members overturned the recommendation and declined even to take up the applicant’s offer to discuss a more sensitive location.
In summary, and also having regard to some less statistical observations:
- The deliberations of the Planning Committee are usually thorough and are informed by a group site visit. Members clearly have varying perspectives and frequently express conflicting views, but the purposes of national park designation are a constant background to decision making.
- The Society is listened to. It is selective about which items to speak on but does so more frequently than any other body. It often lines up in support of parish councils, local residents and others. Its submitted and oral comments are frequently referred to in the officer reports and in member discussion. Members of the Planning Committee have indicated that they appreciate the Society’s presence at the meetings.
- The Society has a good record of engaging with the most significant applications which come before the Committee, particularly where there is an active DO presence.
- The great majority of the Committee’s decisions, both major and minor, are in line with the Society’s aims and its submitted comments – even when the officer recommendations took a different line (St Cuthmans, the Lewes courts and Southdowns Road). Iford Farm remains a notable exception, with the Society’s support for the officer recommendation failing to secure Committee agreement.
- The Society has issued press releases and had letters published in local papers indicating when it has welcomed the position taken by the Committee as well as when there has been disagreement.
In considering the above report at its meeting in January 2014, the Society’s Planning and Conservation Committee made the following points:
- Use of the NPA’s website for responses to planning applications had improved during the year but there remained problems and delays.
- The NPA’s generation of “paperwork” through policy and strategy development and the associated consultation processes made heavy demands on the time and resources of stakeholders as well as the NPA, while additional resources were needed in areas such as planning enforcement.