Posted on

The Society reports on the performance of the National Park Planning Committee

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 Now that four local authorities have withdrawn from the delegation agreement with the NPA, the latter is now responsible for decisions on all applications, both major and minor, in those districts and some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.

 

Findings

  1.  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.
  2. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

 

Summary

In summary, and also having regard to some less statistical observations:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

Posted on

Press release from the Society February 2014: Drilling for gas in the national park? No thanks!

Drilling for gas in the national park? No thanks!

 National Park “Friends” group, the South Downs Society, has thrown its weight behind objections to a proposal for an exploratory drill for shale gas near Fernhurst, West Sussex.

“The current planning application may only be for exploration,” says Society chairman Robert Cheesman, but “we can have a good idea about what might happen next. This Society supports renewable energy – at the right scale and in the right place – over the extraction and burning of more fossil fuels. And running a major gas extraction operation within the national park can’t be right. It runs counter to government planning policy.”

A range of environmental organisations, as well as local residents, are campaigning against the proposals from Celtique Energie and are pressing for them to be rejected by the South Downs National Park Planning Committee when it considers the application. If gas is found in sufficient quantities, the controversial fracking technique may be used to extract it – and, as well as the likely setback to meeting the country’s climate change targets, there are major concerns about the risks, experienced elsewhere, of seismic activity and the pollution of underground water sources.

Says Robert Cheesman, “Government is telling local planning authorities not to worry about these uncertainties but as a Society – with both a large and a small “s” – we are entitled to reassurance.”

The South Downs Society has today submitted its response to the planning application, pointing out that the choice of a location within the national park has not been justified. The Society’s comments have also included its strong concerns over landscape damage, unacceptable levels of lorry traffic, noise and light pollution, loss of tranquillity, threat to local archaeological heritage and impact on enjoyment of the national park and its network of rights of way.

 

Posted on

National park group seeks greener green energy from wind farm

South Downs National Park friends group, the South Downs Society, today called for a better deal for the Park from energy giant E.ON and their scheme for a huge offshore wind farm.

A public examination by government appointed officials is now under way into the proposals – known as the Rampion wind farm — for nearly 200 giant turbines, out to sea but clearly visible from the Sussex coast. Environmental organisations have generally welcomed the commitment to generate much needed energy from renewable, sustainable sources but fear that the sight of the massed ranks of turbines will seriously detract from the age-old pleasure of looking out to sea, especially from the Sussex Heritage Coast around the Seven Sisters cliffs and Beachy Head.

E.ON have said that they will put all their power transmission cables underground if they are given permission to build the wind farm, but green groups like the South Downs Society are still concerned.

“Of course we’re pleased that the cables would go underground,” says Society chairman, Robert Cheesman, “but, first, we need to be satisfied that the best route has been chosen. It seems that E.ON’s preference for taking the cables through the national park has been made on financial grounds, and that’s not good enough when one of our most treasured landscapes is at stake. And second, the cabling process itself will be a huge operation, meaning major disruption to the landscape, to wildlife and people’s enjoyment.”

The Society has this week submitted its comments to the Examining Panel and has requested the opportunity to address a public hearing on the impact of the proposals on the national park – on the Downs themselves from digging the cable trenches, and on sensitive seaward views.

“The company knows there will be damage. Their own landscape consultants have told them that,” says Robert Cheesman, “and our aim, if they are given the go-ahead, is to compensate for that by seeking the best possible package of environmental and access improvements.”

The examination of the proposals will conclude by January 2014, with a decision from the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change expected next summer. If approved, construction is anticipated to begin in 2015 and the wind farm could start generating electricity in 2018/9.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted on

Planning for the Future, Building on the present

South Downs Society’s Council has approved a new strategic plan for 2013-16 and an associated action plan for 2013, setting out what we hope to achieve in the current year. A fresh action plan will be produced each autumn.

The strategic plan reflects the Society’s charitable purpose, namely, “The conservation and enhancement for the public benefit of the beauty and amenities of the South Downs in and within the vicinity of the South Downs National Park”. It seeks to build on the success of the Society over the years by focusing on two features which distinguish the Society from all other voluntary and many statutory bodies interested in the South Downs: firstly, the Society is concerned with the whole area of the National Park and its setting; and, secondly, its interest is holistic and is not restricted to particular features, such as landscape protection, nature conservation, access, cultural heritage or economic and social wellbeing: all aspects of the South Downs are of interest to the Society and we are the champion and advocate of the National Park.

Against this background, the strategic plan identifies three themes which will inform our work over the next three years:
• being recognised as the critical or challenging friend of the National Park Authority (NPA);
• developing an informed and distinctive voice; and
• establishing clear rules of engagement with the NPA.

These themes reflect the need for us to work closely and effectively with the NPA, while retaining our right to take our own, independent line on issues which affect the South Downs. This involves us in making sure that our engagement with the NPA, our comments on relevant planning and access issues, our responses to consultations on the National Park Management Plan and our participation in the work of the NPA is professional and well-informed. It also emphasises the need for us to speak with authority for the large and diverse group of people who love the South Downs, some of whom may not yet be engaged in our work, or even aware of our existence.

The first action plan, which is organised on the basis of the three strategic themes, sets out 27 new tasks to be achieved in 2013, in addition to the Society’s regular and continuing programme of walks, talks and events. The action plan, which builds on and does not replace, our existing, well-established programmes, aims to make the Society better known and to attract and retain new members, including younger members and people from a range of backgrounds. Responsibility for achieving the actions has been assigned to individual Council members and officers. At each meeting, Council will review progress against the targets in the action plan and seek to ensure that they are all achieved by the end of the year. The strategic plan and the action plan 2013 are available on the Society’s website. The public, interested organisations and members of the Society are encouraged to read these documents.

SDS Strategic Plan 2013 to 2016 – view document
SDS Action Plan 2013 – view document

Posted on

All at Sea over Marine Conservation?

“Friends of the National Park”, the South Downs Society, today (25 March) poured lukewarm water over government’s latest plans to protect maritime wildlife.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been consulting on proposals to create a number of special Marine Conservation Zones round the coast to protect key habitats and species including fish, but environmental organisations have deemed the plans insufficient.

Says South Downs Society Policy Officer, Steve Ankers, “We’ve been waiting for these proposals to emerge for a long time. There have been endless studies and meetings of interested parties. The urgent need for increased protection has surely been made and I have to say we’re disappointed with what the government’s come up with.”

The Society regards the English Channel close to the Sussex coast as the backdrop to the South Downs National Park and its health and wildlife diversity as fundamental to the public’s enjoyment of this special landscape. Although agreeing that the creation of special zones is a positive move, the Society believes “geographically limited and partially protected sites” will not be enough by themselves.

“We’re pleased that there’s to be a protected area just west of Beachy Head,” says Steve Ankers, “but it’s going to be much narrower in extent than the voluntary conservation area we’ve had in place there for a long time and it doesn’t even take in the tidal estuaries of the Ouse and the Cuckmere. And they say they’re not at this stage taking forward proposals for another zone just east of Beachy Head, which is a major setback.”

The South Downs Society is particularly unhappy that early ideas for setting up some “Reference Areas” amongst the conservation zones with an even higher level of wildlife protection have been dropped to satisfy commercial interests.

“These proposals are a start,” says Steve Ankers, “but we were expecting much more. Let’s hope that this is just the beginning and the network of Marine Conservation Zones will rapidly grow in area and species coverage and do the job that needs doing. And let’s hope it’s properly funded and not just paying lip service.”

http://www.defra.gov.uk/consult/2012/12/13/marine-conservation-zones-1212/