One of the main themes of my campaign will be the reform of national planning policy to help us build Sustainable Communities.
Here’s my 76 second briefing:
As we grow economically I will work to ensure we have commitments to sustainable housing, transport and public services for our communities, rather than the development free-for-all overseen by the Conservatives.
We reform to balance the emphasis on economic ‘sustainable development’ currently embodied in the National Planning Policy Framework with respect and appreciation for social and environmental sustainability. We also need to empower local communities, rather than having planning decisions dictated by Whitehall.
To achieve these reforms I’m backing The Manifesto for Planning Reform proposed by Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland. The full manifesto is here: http://gregmulholland.org/en/
The main six points are as follows:
1. Prioritise Brownfield Development
2. End Land-Banking
3. Give Local Plans a Chance
4. Better Engagement with Local People
5. Greater Protection for Local Assets
6. Regional Planning not Centrally Imposed Targets
These essential elements of reform offer a solution to the planning nightmare currently facing communities in Oxfordshire. These plans will help deliver a planning system that empowers communities rather than belittles them and sets Oxfordshire on a sustainable path rather than condemning us to over-development.
Empowering Local Communities
No-one knows the needs of a local community like the people who live there. Parish and Town councils should be heavily engaged in the planning process and should be encouraged to set out their long-term visions for their communities through their neighbourhood plans.
Those neighbourhood plans, rather than the national policy, should form the touchstone for local planning authorities’ determination of applications for development.
Once a planning authority has made its determination the scope to appeal that decision by a developer (since communities very rarely appeal a decision) should be limited to circumstances where the authority has acted illegally. We must end the war of wallets which sees wealthy developers pursue appeals against impoverished councils knowing that they do not have the financial resources to fight effectively in the courts. A report by estate agents Savills showed that 75% of all planning appeals for ‘large’ housing developments between March 2012 and March 2013 had been allowed, after local councillors had initially voted down proposed developments. This shows the way in which the carefully balanced planning system has been tipped in favour of developers and against local communities. This must be addressed.
20,560 Reasons to End the SHMA Nightmare
In the Vale of White Horse the Strategic Housing Market Assessment has predicted that the district will need to build 20,560 between 2011/12 and 2030/1. This works out as 1028 homes per year. This is before the District considers taking housing need from other Districts, principally Oxford City.
To the untrained eye, these numbers appear ridiculous. Since the White Horse arrived some 3,000 years ago, we have only managed a total number of homes in the Vale of around 40,000. The SHMA suggests that we increase this by 50% in the next fifteen years!
Hemmed in by the restrictions of the National Planning Policy Framework the Vale of White Horse and South Oxfordshire DC have enshrined these numbers and principles in their Local Plans in the face of vociferous local protests.
Even if we wanted 20,000 new homes, it is almost certainly undeliverable. As Liberal Democrat Leader on the Vale of White Horse District Council Richard Webber explained at the Council meeting:
“From an average build rate of 550 houses per annum, (last year 400 and only once in the last 30 years 700), we are now in the Local Plan for consultation seeking to achieve an average build rate in excess of 1000 new homes per annum. With the advent of the SHMA, the number could go up by another 3-400 per annum. If Oxford City wins its fight to pass over some of its SHMA allocation to the Districts, we could be over 1500 per annum, nearly 3 times our current average. Not for nothing is Oxfordshire the home of Alice in Wonderland.”
I believe the SHMA is the Beeching Report of the 21st Century. A document that is trumpted as ‘progress’ by civil servants, only to be found to be a mistake years after implementation. As is so typical, the local people will be proven to know better than the crystal-ball gazing suits.
The good news is that unlike Beeching, it is not too late. The NPPF needs reform to prevent the unnecessary concreting of the countryside. This can only happen by electing MPs to Westminster who believe in the reform agenda.
Liberal Democrats have been fighting for reform of the NPPF during this parliament. Greg Mulholland (Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West) presented a private members’ bill to suggest sensible reforms to the NPPF in 2014. You can read the full reforms here but they include prioritising brownfield land, empowering communities and cooperation between planning districts. I asked Faringdon Town Council to press our Conservative MP (Ed Vaizey) to support the bill. His response was: “I’m afraid I can’t join you in supporting the Bill. I supported the NPPF when it was introduced and still do as it simplifies planning, helps protect the Green Belt and AONB and paves the way for councils to take control of planning”.
Mr Vaizey clearly underestimates or misunderstands the impact of the NPPF in this area. In contrast, as a Town Councillor and a resident of this area, I see the damage that the SHMA and NPPF have the potential to do to our communities.
If elected, I will fight for reform of our planning system, with more emphasis on neighbourhood planning, greater decentralisation of decision-making and a commitment to localism that pays more than lip-service to local people’s views. I will fight to:
1. Reform of the NPPF to decouple local plans from the SHMA figures;
2. Emphasise the social and environmental aspects of sustainability rather than just the economic;
3. Put the power to determine planning applications back in the hands of local communities;
Getting Around Wantage Constituency
Sustainable Transport is another key area of concern that I will champion in Westminster.
But we are blessed with a train line that could be put to work to help ease the congestion on our roads. By opening Grove and Challow Stations, as well as adding a station at Milton Park we could relieve the congestion on the A417. By making this line a convenient connection between Oxford and Swindon we could take traffic off the A420.
There are talks underway to move forward with the Bristol-Oxford service which would open up the possibility of reopening Grove and Challow. But feedback from people in those negotiations suggests that Ed Vaizey is dragging his feet. Despite being elected on the promise of moving this issue forward, he has delivered nothing in ten years, and appears to have lost interest. I would work with neighbouring MPs to make delivery of stations to Wantage constituency a key priority. Even with our current population we need a rail service. If our population grows in anything like the way predicted by the SHMA, East-West rail travel to Oxford, Milton and Reading and London becomes an absolute necessity for a sustainable community.
On a more local level I will champion cycling and the delivery of cycling infrastructure. Cycling is a healthy, efficient and enjoyable way to get around, and is particularly appropriate for our market towns and large villages. There are excellent plans for cycling hubs in Faringdon, Wantage and Wallingford. We need to see the investment required to deliver these schemes and support for people wanting to travel by bike. Cycling can help local businesses and helps create the safe, attractive communities that we want to live in.
Finally I will champion bus transport in Oxfordshire. We are facing cuts to budgets and services which will leave village communities stranded and a lack of transport options between our towns forcing more cars onto the roads. Bus transport is funded by the County Council, who project that an increased squeeze on the central government grant would make it even more difficult to sustain current services, let alone increase them. If the Conservative party gain a majority in the next general election their published budget plans will put even greater pressure on councils.
If elected I will fight to protect local bus services by preventing the ideologically driven cuts being proposed by the Conservatives.