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The Society’s annual report on the National Park Planning Committee

Of the four thousand or so planning applications received each year in the national park, approximately 450 are likely to be determined by the NPA itself, the remainder being delegated to the councils which have an agency agreement with the park authority. During 2014 the NPA’s Planning Committee determined 68 applications in addition to responding to consultations from neighbouring planning authorities and emerging planning policies at park, county, district and neighbourhood level. The 68 applications determined by the Planning Committee comprised applications either called in for determination from the “agency” councils on the grounds of “significance” or, within the “recovered service” authorities (Arun, Brighton and Hove, Wealden, Eastbourne and WSCC), because for various reasons they were not delegated for officer decision. Around 400 applications, therefore, were determined by NPA officers acting under delegated powers, the great majority of which were located in the “recovered service” areas. Reasons for applications to be reported to members for decision, rather than being determined by officers, include: an objection by the parish council, a minimum of five representations from third parties, or a request by a member of the NPA.

Within the 68, perhaps 33 might be regarded by the Society as particularly significant, involving, say, at least half a dozen dwellings, a commercial operation including equestrian or holiday accommodation, travellers, nursing home, agricultural silos, oil or gas exploration or extraction, recreation facility or a newbuild or conversion proposal affecting a particularly sensitive listed building or conservation area. Of the remaining 35 applications determined by the Committee, no fewer than 27 were located in the “recovered service” areas of Arun and Wealden. This report focuses on the 33 “key” applications.

Of these 33 the Society commented on 20, out of a total of 96 comments submitted altogether by our District Officers (DOs, the Society’s planning volunteers) in 2014, compared with a 2013 total of 80. Some, though not all, of the key applications on which the Society did not submit comments fell in areas of Hampshire with no current DO cover.

22 of these 33 key applications were recommended for approval in the officer report and were approved by members, while the remaining 11 were recommended for refusal by officers and were refused by the members. (There was one instance during the year of an application being recommended for approval but then deferred by members at the October meeting – an application to demolish the former magistrates’ courts in Lewes and replace with a three storey newbuild for Premier Inn and retail/commercial units – but this has not been included in the 33 decisions made as it was neither approved nor refused. A revised scheme was approved at the December meeting in line with the officer recommendation).

Of the 20 applications on which the Society submitted comments, 14 decisions were made broadly in line with our comments including, notably, in relation to an application for oil and gas exploration at Fernhurst. On five applications the Society had submitted an objection or had expressed caution and the need for improvements or conditions but was in effect overruled by the Planning Committee, in respect of: ground based satellite dish antennae near Winchester; insensitive conversion of farm buildings in Greatham conservation area; an amended scheme for housing at Drewitts Farm, Amberley; the Premier Inn, Lewes; and affordable housing at Coldwaltham (on design grounds and the accuracy of the case made for local housing need). In one instance – the construction of a water storage reservoir for a golf club – the Society expressed conditional support but the application was refused.

On a number of occasions the Society chose to address the Committee meeting to underline its views, having in some instances been invited to do so by local residents or other organisations seeking support or a more strategic perspective. In 2014, as in previous years, the Society has chosen to address the Committee on more occasions than any other body and our contributions do appear to be influential, frequently being picked up by local media.

The issue of the impact of the NPA on the decision making on the thousands of applications determined each year by the “agency” councils is a harder one to monitor. The NPA has been developing methods of measuring this “added value” and the Society has indicated to the NPA its keen interest in the methodology and the outcome.

 

Steve Ankers, Policy Officer

January 2015

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An improved A27? Grounds for concern and caution.

National park “Friends” group, the South Downs Society, today expressed a mix of concern and caution over government’s controversial plans to invest in major expenditure on the A27 trunk road in Sussex.

Said Society chairman, Robert Cheesman, “Our focus is always on the implications for the national park but this week’s announcement is very light on detail. Any schemes for a bypass at Arundel could have a major impact on the park, as could proposals for the A27 between Beddingham and Polegate. We’re pleased that the key role of the South Downs National Park Authority in any decision has been recognised and we will be working closely with them in responding to any specific proposals that may come forward. It’s also a plus that there doesn’t seem to be any move towards solving the congestion at Worthing and Lancing by encroaching into the national park.”

The Society says it will be considering the visual and noise impacts on the special qualities of the national park of any new alignment and traffic flows on the A27 in both the shorter and longer term, the potential effects on other routes within the park, the impact on non-car users, and the implications for climate change.

Says Robert Cheesman, “We recognise the congestion and accident problems along parts of this road but the South Downs National Park is a very special place and that has to be taken on board.”

rampion-colour

 

 

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Fernhurst to stay Frack Free

At its meeting on 11 September the National Park’s Planning Committee rejected a planning application from Celtique Energie for exploratory drilling for “hydrocarbons” (or, oil and gas) at a site in the park near Fernhurst, West Sussex.  This application had been highly publicised and very controversial as it has been widely assumed that, should extraction follow the exploratory drilling, it would be by “unconventional means”, or fracking.

Attendance at the meeting was by ticket only. From a large number of organisations and individuals who had expressed an interest in addressing the committee with their objections, local campaigners asked the Society to lead off.  At the end of the two hour meeting the committee unanimously resolved to refuse the application.

Whatever the company may have had in mind by way of future extraction, the committee was at pains to stress that it could only consider the specific proposal in front of it — for exploration –; but members clearly expressed what they viewed as fundamental conflicts between the proposed drilling and the purposes for which the National Park had been designated.

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National park friends group calls for action on eyesore

Shoreham cement image

The West Sussex Gazette has just published the following from the Society on its letters page

 

It’s hard to miss and even harder to resolve, but can we talk turkey about the old Shoreham cement works?

As the national park society for the South Downs National Park, our objective is conserving and enhancing the special landscape quality of the downs and its quiet enjoyment.  And, across the whole length of the park from Winchester to Eastbourne, there are no greater obstacles to that enjoyment than the sight of the old cement works in the Adur valley. With the advent of the new national park authority, its legal duty to prepare a local plan for the park, and the scope offered to communities through neighbourhood planning to shape their own future, we surely have an opportunity now to take action to clear this eyesore and establish a mix of acceptable land uses for years to come.

Realistically we can’t see the park authority trying to buy out the site from its owners to reinstate green fields. It has a value arising from current and prospective use and permissions and any agreed scheme will need to reflect that, but we operate a plan-led system and we need to make progress in establishing a master plan for the site which helps to meet local and parkwide needs. This is not where you would ideally start from in developing new commercial, housing or leisure uses in terms of sustainability, transport access or visual impact on the national park, but we are where we are.

We wish success to those in the local community, the district councils, the county council and at the national park in their planmaking endeavours. We hope local residents and others will contribute enthusiastically to the debate. This society will be keen to participate and will be looking for solutions that respect the location in the heart of our newest national park.

Steve Ankers, Policy Officer, South Downs Society

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Society attends new South Downs Centre event

On Sunday 27 July the society attended a special community open day at the new South Downs Centre in Midhurst.  The event, to celebrate the new facility and mark the start of National Parks Week, was attended by over 500 visitors.

The Society received a very positive response from people we talked to at our stand.  It was an excellent opportunity to talk about our work in protection of the unique landscape and the cultural heritage of the South Downs and we received a number of enquiries about membership and volunteering opportunities.

Some 50 people arrived via organised walks or cycled in from the surrounding area, with the Society leading walks in from Lodsworth, Stedham and Cocking.  The Fernhurst Society organised a walk in from Fernhurst.

A number of other local groups were at the event to talk about their projects, including The South Pond group, Coultershaw Heritage and Beam Pump Trust and Butser Ancient Farm.  Meanwhile young people were kept entertained with giant jigsaws, a mobile planetarium, sash making and face painting.

The Society is pleased to have been able to support the South Downs National Park Authority at this well attended event.

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The Society welcomes removal of overhead power line at Cocking

Southern Electric Power Distribution has taken down unsightly overhead power lines which marred the appearance of the otherwise picturesque downland village of Cocking, particularly views of the 11th century church. This scheme had been put forward by the Society and we have been swift to congratulate all those concerned.

The link below will take you to a press release from the South Downs National Park Authority which describes the scheme.

http://www.southdowns.gov.uk/about-us/news/press-notices/overhead-power-lines-removed-in-south-downs-village

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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.