They were dismayed that the decision of the Committee went overwhelmingly against them. I appreciate their disappointment and I want to explain why I could not support the planning application. All I’d say is, keep calm guys. It’s not the end of the road for your relocation. There will be other opportunities.
Planning decisions have to be based on the material facts, the extent to which they conform to policy (see footnote). If they don’t, local authorities lay themselves open to expensive appeals, or even more expensive legal challenges in the courts – and create precedents which can have damaging effects on other communities in the county. Everything has to be done by the book, just like a trial at court. Planning policy isn’t designed to thwart aspirations and good ideas – it is to ensure that building is approached in a coherent manner, to correct standards and to maintain the quality of the environment and economy, for the benefit of the entire community.
Even so, in the minds of the general public, planning decisions are often judged on emotional grounds. And so it is in the with this proposal for 100 houses on Ledbury’s ancient cricket pitch. The decision whether to approve this or not was always going to be controversial. Here are the reasons why I voted against.
1. The planning application as presented is to build 100 houses on a designated and protected open green space, one of Ledbury’s few remaining. It is noted that no community consultation has taken place among the town’s residents concerning the loss of this ‘green lung’.
2. The Cricket Club relocation to Ross Road, while desirable as a concept, is not presented as a ‘linked’ planning application. Without this, the Planning Committee could consider only the housing application put before them.
3. No firm details – or guarantees - are provided concerning the alternative cricket pitch facilities in the future, simply the promise of a further planning application in due course. I am mindful that developers have a nasty habit of reneging on expensive commitments for community facilities, once they have achieved their main objective, which is to gain outline planning permission.
To these concrete objections, I would add several important further considerations.
4. Ledbury Town Council is currently challenging Herefordshire’s Core Strategy for 800 houses to be built on land north of the railway viaduct. The Town Council meanwhile is also engaged in a major community consultation exercise to establish where housing should be built in future. If the Town Council jumps the gun and approves this application now, it would be contradicting its own objections to the Core Strategy even as it submits them for inspection. It would also be signalling that it is not genuinely committed to those community consultations for the Neighbourhood Plan - which are now at such a critical stage.
Allowing this scheme to go ahead would give a green light to other speculative developers interested in making a fast buck with housing development applications anywhere and everywhere around the town. The precedent could lead to a building free-for-all in Ledbury. It would have effectively negated the careful planning case that is being put forward at this very moment concerning the conservation of Ledbury’s character and quality of life. I was not prepared to jeopardise that.
5. Regardless of the needs of the Cricket Club, the loss of the open green space, would be an irreplaceable loss to the well-being of the town for generations to come. If housing is to be built in Ledbury it should in my view be on land which does not encroach on our open public spaces, of which we have so few. If the Cricket Club needs new facilities, then of course, they should be supported in that endeavour – and there are clearly other options for their growth and development depending on the eventual shape of the Core Strategy (which will emerge early in 2015). If the town council were to signal its consent for this green space to be built upon for planning gain elsewhere – this precedent would be be used in argument for other areas of green space threatened by development – such as the Recreation Ground. Be careful what you wish for.
6. Ledbury’s Sports Federation – chaired by Town Mayor Cllr Bob Barnes, who is also the Chair of Ledbury’s Neighbourhood Plan – has campaigned for additional sports pitches to be provided in town. The aim has always been to secure more open recreational space in Ledbury, not simply replace land lost by infill housing development such as this. It is inexplicable therefore that he, alongside Cllr Allen Conway, spoke in support of this application.
Just last year when it emerged that developers were eyeing up the cricket pitch for housing, Cllr Barnes said: “Ledbury is very much short of green spaces. For a town of this size, we only have 25 per cent of what we require. This would be a disaster.” At that stage, he was of the opinion that the land would be protected from development for the next fifteen years by the Local Development Plan and the Neighbourhood Plan, once it had been agreed by the community. So what has changed in the last year?
Read the full story in the Ledbury Reporter (8.3.13) here.
7. If as seems likely, some housing is built beyond the viaduct in future, a key challenge will be to integrate this far-flung outpost of Ledbury with the rest of the community. One of the elements of the long term plan under consideration, is to provide sports pitches within that new district. Perhaps therefore the Ross Road option might not be in the very best interests of Ledbury’s community as a whole, and a new pitch near to the new housing might be a better solution in terms of sustaining Ledbury’s sense of community.
Taking into account all these factors, I believe that the Cricket Club should bide its time until all the aspects of the planning equation have been considered. It won’t be long to wait before there is clarity, and a good decision for the long term interests of everyone can be achieved.
As a footnote, I must comment on the assertion by a town councillor at the meeting, that of the 100 houses, 35% of them will be devoted to social housing. He and his supporters argue passionately that such a deal would be huge benefit to people on lower incomes, who are forced to leave Ledbury because of high property prices, and the lack of available housing here. I entirely support that sentiment and want to see more social housing.
It doesn’t however, take close examination of the planning application as presented and its supporting documents to see that there is no evidence to support this claim. The document states baldly: ‘the applicant agrees to provide a level of affordable housing in line with planning policy.’ There is no mention of social housing (ie rental or co-ownership properties managed by housing associations.) Unless and until I see those magic words ‘35% social housing’ written in the terms of the planning application, I will take any such verbal promises with a big pinch of salt. History tells us that they mean nothing.
Turning down this planning application is not end of the world for the Cricket Club and is in the best long term interests of Ledbury and its residents. Good things, for everyone in Ledbury, are not far off, that's if we play our cards calmly, patiently and intelligently.
Two years ago, Mr Eric Pickles the Communities Secretary, effectively tore up the planning rule book and instituted a presumption that planning permission for housing developments should be granted - unless there are compelling reasons to turn them down. The move was billed as a way of cutting down on local authority red tape and getting the economy – and house-building – on the move. From a massive 900,000 word policy framework, English planning policy was drastically pruned to an easy to digest, 60 page document.