Political Leaders Discuss the Local Plan

Ben Fitter-Harding, Conservative Councillor

Local Plan to 2040 – What are our Options?

Local Plans are how Councils control development. Without them, everywhere is up for grabs and infill is much more likely, often resulting in sprawl that doesn’t deliver the roads, schools and doctors surgeries that are needed to support it.

Our Government target for new homes to include in the Local Plan to 2040 is 9,000. That figure is to include all of thesupporting infrastructure, which is paid for by the developers and sometimes supported by grants. Councils typically allocate a small number of large sites, rather than lots of smaller ones, so that the new development can pay for more meaningful improvements – things like bypasses and even hospitals.

Working within these parameters is very difficult. Not least because the Council is reliant on the sites thatlandowners submit to them – which are rarely, if ever, brownfield, and because providing infrastructure is eyewateringly expensive.

Canterbury, for example, is poorly served by its road network. But improving that situation, to the point where significant amounts of road space in Canterbury City Centre could be repurposed for walking, cycling and public transport, means trying to get developers to build enough houses that not only do they pay for the things that are needed to support them, but also pay for improvements to the wider road network that are long overdue.

This is the stark reality that Canterbury City Council presented to residents in its Local Plan Options consultation this summer. This essentially says that, for the Preferred Option of solving the district’s key transportation and airquality problems, somewhere between 14,000 and 17,000 additional homes would need to be built to 2040. Quite a lot more than the 9,000 minimum that’s expected of us…

Why did I, as Leader of the Council, support consulting on this approach? It’s transparent, and it’s honest.Transparent about how Local Plans work, and honest about what would be needed in our next one for the range ofoutcomes set out.

I know there is widespread support for better walking, cycling and public transport in our district, and that Canterburyis a real bottleneck to making this happen.

But simply closing roads or charging motorists will strangle our economy at a time when it needs our support. Major intervention is needed. Do I want more people to access our urban centres using ways other than the car?Absolutely. But I want them to do it because the other options are so much better, not because of some unrealistic utopian vision that results in more people sitting in traffic and people only being forced to use other means becausethe traffic is so bad or they can’t afford to pay a congestion charge.

I will never shy away from asking, and answering, difficult questions. I will always do everything within my power to find the best ways forward for our district to grow in a prosperous and sustainable way.

The next stage in our Local Plan process is to prepare and consult upon a Draft Plan. After such a frank consultation on what the options are for our district, I’m hopeful that this Plan will be a positive vision for our future. One that delivers the carbon-zero housing that our children will need to live and work here, one that makes it cheaper, easier and more environmentally sustainable to get around and one that better serves us in terms of employment, facilities and protected open space.

Do you have thoughts or questions about Local Plans and the Options that we have? Please email me: ku.vog.yrubretnac@redaeL

Nick Eden-Green, Liberal Democrate Councillor

Canterbury to double in size? Does size matter matter?

Well.  I’ll answer my own question first with a resounding ‘yes’!

Why?  Canterbury is essentially a small intimate city.  Its attraction to tourists and residents alike is the historic city centre celebrated by our World Heritage status.  This is our unique selling point.  It is our prime economic and social asset.  It is what makes Canterbury such a marvellous place.  And it’s under threat.

It’s already under threat from a number of poorly designed and unsympathetic new buildings.  I won’t name them but just look around yourself at buildings too high, not reflecting local architectural style or materials, ill fitted to their neighbours and quite simply badly designed.  This is coupled with lack of detail such as ugly modern shop fronts, garish lighting, stainless steel bollards, cheap steel lamp posts and railings replacing the heritage ones.  Then we have a lack of basic – housekeeping, litter, graffiti and poorly maintained street furniture.

But the real threat is from the Local Plan.  The existing Local Plan, which takes us up to 2031, proposes 16,000 more homes of which around 10,000 will be built on the southern, eastern and western approaches to Canterbury from Hersden to South Canterbury to Thanington.  This will increase the number of houses in the city by about 40%.  As most of these houses have yet to be built we have no real idea of their effect on us.

Lib Dems councillors alone voted against it.  We pointed out major faults, which are at last being recognised by the other parties.  In particular that it fails to address the traffic and pollution problems of the A28 and the other feeder roads into the city by increasing traffic. The housing is concentrated into large suburban housing estates which will not be sustainable in terms of local facilities and will rely on car transport onto the city. 

Furthermore, this housing will not be the carbon neutral, low energy eco homes which the government actually requires by 2050 or earlier.  Indeed, we are still allowing homes to be built with gas boilers which will soon be obsolete and with no solar panels or e charge points, rainwater harvesting and all the other energy and eco standards one would expect from a modern well designed dwelling.

All these homes will require extensive and expensive retrofitting.  The gas boilers will have to be ripped out.  Ground source heat pumps, which could easily have been incorporated at the building stage, will not be possible, meaning less efficient air source pumps.  Solar panels can be retrofitted but only if a southern facing roof is available.  Again something that could have been built in by good design.  What a waste of money that should have been avoided with thought and sensible planning.

The new draft Local Plan is due for publication soon.  If the preferred option proposed by the ruling Conservative councillors is followed, it will mean 17,000 more houses, centred on Canterbury.  The city will effectively double in size by 2040.

It’s claimed this is an attempt to deal with the Canterbury traffic problem. This was basically ignored by the present plan which relies on ‘modal shift’ expecting everyone to walk or travel by bike – or bus if you’re lucky.  With few joined up cycle lanes and housing estates miles from the city centre, car travel will be the only option for most people.  And here is the biggest problem with the new Local Plan.  It proposes bypasses, four at the last count, to solve the traffic congestion and pollution issues.

This is absolute folly.  We have created a problem by allowing 10,000 houses to be built with inadequate infrastructure and now we are proposing 17,000 more to try to deal with it!  When you’re in a hole stop digging!  Developers will cherry pick the most profitable sites.  They will not be planned.  Developers are invited to put forward the sites they own or control and the Council will simply approve some and reject others.  This is called town planning!    

These sites, generally between 50 and 4000 houses, will have few, if any, local facilities.  They will be tacked on, in an almost random manner, to the outer fringes of the city.  Too far to cycle or walk.  This means that residents who need to shop, go to the doctor, dentist or chemist, go out for a meal or a cup of coffee, go to school or a gym will have to go by car into the city.  None of these developments will be big enough to make these facilities commercially viable.  Nor will they be big enough to support regular bus services.

However many bypasses are built, they won’t help.  People will need to go into the city to access their daily needs.  Bypasses are irrelevant!

So what are the solutions?  First we must question the government figures demanding more houses.  The figures for Canterbury and other student dominated cities are being now challenged by the Office of Statistical Regulation so we must check the so called housing ‘need’ figure.

Second, if we do need 17,000 more houses should they really be concentrated on the outer fringes of Canterbury in a patchwork of sites faceless out of town housing estates?  Is not the answer to bite the bullet and build a new garden city or new town in east Kent to meet the needs not just of Canterbury but of the other east Kent towns under similar pressure? 

A garden city, built to decent eco home standards.  A ’15 minute city’ with access to all basic facilities within a 15 minute walk.  A truly self sustaining settlement of 20,000+ homes.  This is being done at Ebbsfleet where the government have chipped in over £530m for infrastructure improvements – 5 times more than the cost of an eastern bypass.

Third, turning to economic development, Herne Bay has long been recognised as most in need of regeneration.  If more housing is the answer to economic regeneration – and I seriously question whether or not it really is – then should we not be concentrating on the area most in need?

These are fundamental matters which I really hope local people, parish councils and residents’ groups will question so we have a Local Plan that, unlike the current Plan, is actually fit for purpose.

Dave Wilson, Labour Councillor

Councils need a Local Plan. What they don’t need is a plan whose growth targets are set centrally and dictated to them, forcing a reactive responsive which is the very opposite of “planning”. Yet that is the situation we have.

Like much else in this Government’s policy, the gap between proclaimed purpose and reality is vast. Saying one thing and doing something else entirely seems to be the whole modus operandum of Johnsonism, so we shouldn’t be surprised that while stating that he wants residents to have more say over how their district develops his Government imposes ludicrously inflated population growth targets.

Those targets in turn trigger a series of predictable results: more people means higher demand for schools, doctors and hospital beds. More electricity has to be supplied, more sewage has to be disposed of and, not least, there are more cars and a need for more roads.

Thus any Local Plan which is developed is immediately burdened with meeting a spiralling set of demands which have somehow to be accommodated. That challenge is supposedly sweetened by a mechanism should provide public infrastructure and gives Councils some additional but inadequate capital spend, the so-called section 106 (s106) payments and Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). But it still presupposes that major growth is needed, is desirable, and can be accommodated.

The new Local Plan for Canterbury may well be testing these assumptions to destruction,  because someone somewhere has decided that it is a “preferred option” to radically inflate the Government imposed growth target from 9,000 extra homes to a staggering 17,000 (or more) so as to build by-passes which are themselves needed primarily because of the existing planned growth. This, you can see, has the potential to create a self-inflicted spiral of growth with no end.

The Government imposes other rules and constraints on local decision making, too. Landowners, not residents, decide which land they want to offer for house building, meaning that any strategic control over development locations is subjugated to the profit motivation of those landowners. The system decrees that developers must make profits which they deem viable, meaning Councils have to fight for every penny of the s106/CIL monies they are supposed to get as of right, while developers engage in financial manipulations and legal challenges, using the country’s top legal experts against under-funded local Councils, forcing their planning teams to cave in on essential requirements.

Of those requirements the two most obvious are social housing provision and environmental impact. One of the many shortcomings of the process is that because it is developer led and profit driven, it provides almost no housing which is genuinely affordable. In housing market hotspots like Canterbury, what that means is that for all the housebuilding that is taking place, neither the Council nor anyone else is able to create homes for the 2,000 plus people on the housing waiting list, while all around them massive estates are being built, presumably for people moving into the district from London.

So far as the environment is concerned, while the emerging Local Plan to 2040 is a significant improvement on its predecessor, there is no escaping the basic fact that new building will take place almost exclusively on green spaces, mostly but not exclusively, farmland. Brownfield sites don’t get much of a look in because of the way landowners are asked to propose sites for development and the massive financial gain that converting farmland to housing provides. Of course if you’re building houses on the scale this Council is intending to then there simply aren’t enough brownfield sites to start with. Worse, it’s not only farmland which may be sacrificed by this mechanism but also woodland and other wild spaces, which are proposed for two bypasses and for additional housing to the north-west and south-east of the city.

On top of this there is any case a series of knock-on effects of housebuilding on this massive scale. Roads and hard standing outside houses reduce the ability of the land to absorb rainfall, increasing flood risks. Vital trees and hedgerows get cut down and not replaced. Vehicle emissions increase, both gas and particulate because a growth in households means a growth in cars and journeys. Our few remaining parks and open spaces become over-used. There may be window dressing by providing electric bikes, vehicle charging points and the creation of some cycle routes (linking to where, no one knows), and the provision of some sort of shuttle bus (but not the funding for it). But none of that can mitigate the fact that journeys from developments on the fringes of the City and other urban areas into the centres will mostly not be taken on foot or by bike. 

Worst, perhaps, is the challenge of sewage disposal. Currently afflicting the Stour and our coasts, the unforgivable lack of treatment capacity after 30 years of private ownership is now not only literally a stain on the country but a constraint on growth. There is, simply, no way that mains treatment capacity can be increased over the life of this Local Plan. Even now, under the existing Plan, the major developments at Sturry and South Canterbury are having to provide on-site treatment plants, with at least one of them needing solid waste to be transferred off-site by tanker, while smaller City centre developments have had to stop altogether. This is a third world solution, at best, and should be wholly unacceptable in the UK. Even at a practical level, these plants require maintenance and, in a short period of time compared to a real sewage works, replacement. How is that to be paid for? And what incentive does it give Southern water to ever address the stark issues of capacity that are at the root of the problem?

In short, the concept of a Local Plan as established under this Government and applied by this Council is at odds with sensible and genuinely local planning for growth and development. We can and must respond to prevent the worst aspects of the Council’s “preferred” option, not least the grotesque notion that more building can solve our district’s transport problems. And we ought to ensure that in future neither Government nor Council can impose such crass solutions, ensuring meaningful input and decision making by local residents is at the heart of truly sustainable long term development.

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