Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Ours is the world’s oldest democracy, which means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “government by all the people, direct or representative… tolerating minority views”.
Democracy is hard won; it requires those in power to actually listen to people, adapting strategies and policies accordingly – something which Parliament can be slow to remember, as we are seeing at present. If members of the public aren’t listened to, what is the point of voting?
Ipswich’s Labour MP, Sandy Martin, who displaced his Conservative rival with a majority of just 836 votes in 2017, doesn’t appear to have got the message. He told local radio, when discussing his views on Brexit, that he ‘knows better than his constituents’ in supporting a second referendum. Now that is real arrogance, when 57 per cent of Ipswich residents voted Leave…
However, such arrogance is not confined to Parliamentarians.
With May’s local elections looming, Mid Suffolk and Babergh district councils have decided to delay submitting their joint Local Plan for debate at Full Council meetings – for the third time – amid concerns that the lack of a cohesive strategy could enable speculative developers to make applications which are unsuitable or unsustainable.
“The plan is crucial to ensuring homes are built where our communities wish to see them.. as part of demonstrating the councils have a five year housing land supply,” explained a Green councillor on Mid Suffolk. “These constant slipping timetables are costing our countryside’s future. Neighbourhood plans are consequently not being taken into consideration in large scale applications.”
Last December, a case aroused fears of ‘rural destruction’ when outline plans for 295 new homes on agricultural land by a major national developer, increasing the size of Debenham village by one-third, was recommended for approval by officers at Mid Suffolk.
However, following pressure from the Parish Council, which had already defeated the same developer’s plans for 640 new homes and spent six years developing a Neighbourhood Plan with Mid Suffolk, the application was rejected by Planning Committee, chaired by a county and district councillor, who is also Leader of Suffolk County Council (how does he find the time?). The committee agreed the application “represented unacceptable harm due to the disproportionate scale of proposals and highly valued views”. Nevertheless, an appeal is expected to be lodged imminently, challenging the lack of a Local Plan.
Elsewhere, Babergh also refused an application, for 24 new homes, despite “the council not having a five year housing land supply, the adverse impact on the special qualities of the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) demonstrably outweigh the benefits of the development.” Another appeal is surely pending. But Babergh did approve plans for about 20 units (final numbers subject to archaeology) in Chelmondiston, a village on the Shotley peninsula, despite the site being prominent within the AONB; a further application for 94 new homes on agricultural land within the AONB, in the same village, is likely to come forward shortly, following an exhibition on the proposals. Villagers are not ‘nimbies’, having supported schemes providing affordable housing, but they are concerned at traffic levels, and putting their own Neighbourhood Plan at risk.
Approved plans for 285 new homes, a nursing home and a hotel, as well as some commercial properties, on the derelict HMS Ganges naval base at Shotley, also within the AONB and now vacant for decades, remain in limbo following the collapse of the iconic Mast, which was supposed to have ‘protected status’. As well as the lack of affordable housing, objections to the plans cited increased volumes of traffic along the peninsula’s narrow lanes, which is a major concern.
Nevertheless, other approved schemes are now under construction, without any highway infrastructure improvements – despite part of the main road alongside the River Orwell subject to serious flooding at seasonal high tides, leaving people stranded for an hour or more. Planners and developers also appear to ignore the impact of high winds causing the Orwell Bridge closure, with thousands of vehicles at a complete standstill for hours across the local and wider region, including the A14 to Felixstowe.
Whilst new housing is welcome in the right places, all these developments on the Shotley peninsula could mean at least an additional 1,000 cars travelling at peak times, some turning into one of the busiest – and narrowest – residential roads to Ipswich town centre or railway station. A further large site, abutting the same route, recently changed hands for commercial development, inevitably adding further pressure to the local road network.
I emailed Ipswich’s Labour leader, enquiring whether he was a consultee on these schemes, bearing in mind the potential detrimental effect on the town’s already gridlocked roads (and residents’ health) which is allegedly costing the local economy about £17m. He didn’t respond.
So, given all these environmental pressures, with demand for more housing, and the need for councils to meet their targets, why the delay in debating the joint Local Plan? What is there to hide?
There is widespread support across the region for protecting the environment, with cynics amongst the local electorate suspicious that the two councils’ joint Local Plan will further compromise some of the most sensitive locations, including within the proposed new AONB designation which is about to be approved. In April 2018, Suffolk County Council’s Cabinet “warmly welcomed the long-held ambitions” to extend the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB, “bringing new opportunities for conserving Suffolk’s outstanding landscape and the communities within it… supporting tourism and related employment opportunities.”
The Cabinet paper noted that “proper identification of Suffolk’s most important landscapes should guide decision making in line with National Planning Policy Framework”.
In December 2018, Natural England approved the proposals to extend the AONB boundaries by 3,793 hectares, with the Secretary of State to make the final ruling by the end of January / early February.
Consequently, there should be plenty of time for Mid Suffolk and Babergh to make any adjustments to their joint Local Plan, taking the extended AONB designation into consideration (if it hasn’t already done so after years in consultation), in time to publish and debate before May.
Voters have a right to have clarity on future planning strategies, not least for the coming four years. It is a matter of trust. So, as responsible democratic Conservative councils – just do it. Publish.
NOTE: Following a successful appeal against refusal of 49 new homes in Woolpit, with the Planning Inspectorate ruling that Mid Suffolk ‘could not demonstrate 5-year land supply’, the council has just announced a six week consultation on its latest housing supply statement. If approved, it will be able to prove that it does have a 5-year supply by the end of March, prior to the local elections.