Rushlake Green Village Leaf

Loose Leaf Interview

District Councillor Roy Galley, talks to us
about the

CORE STRATEGY

of Wealden’s long-term plan - the so-called Strategic Development Framework

 

The interviewer’s fear of an own goal

It was with some trepidation that I journeyed recently from Rushlake Green to Nutley, on the edge of Ashdown Forest, where lives Councillor Roy Galley who represents the Danehill, Fletching and Nutley ward of Wealden District Council. I was on my way to interview Cllr Galley about the Core Strategy (a central plank of Wealden’s planning & development aspirations for the next 20 years), which is his responsibility as Portfolio Holder for Strategic Planning and Housing Delivery’.  My apprehension was that, in attempting to interview Cllr Galley about the document, I would become lost in the complexities of his answers. Because the proposal is not exactly light reading. It comprises 88 pages of meticulously researched and painstakingly comprehensive planning proposals for the future of Wealden. Even after reading it through several times, I found myself able only to retain the broad thrust of the ideas it contains. However in reality, to my relief, I found that a conversation with Cllr Galley uncovered the common sense and practical thinking that lies at the heart of the strategy.

Cllr Galley would argue that the Core Strategy is quite simply the ‘strategy’ bit at the ‘core’ of the Wealden’s Local Development Framework (LDF) for the period up to 2030.  The Core Strategy submission was approved by Wealden District Council at its Full Council Meeting at the end of 2010.  And for Cllr Galley, though far from the end of the story, this does mark the conclusion of a process that he personally has been involved in, as portfolio holder, since 2008.

 

Who needs another strategy anyway?

My first question to Cllr Galley was about the need for the new Strategic Framework in the first place. Why do we need one and what’s different from the planning guidelines that have been developed in the past? Cllr Galley began by explaining that we’ve had local plans for a long time. “For many decades, governments of both parties have required local authorities to set out a plan of what land they regarded as being suitable for housing development, what was suitable for employment and what guidance on how planning applications would be decided. These were generally done every five years”.

Things changed with the 2004 planning act, which asked councils to do plans looking ahead 15 years or more. In response, Wealden set to work on a plan that would take them from 2006 to 2030. Cllr Galley pointed out that this new, longer-term, plan goes much further than the old 5-year plans. “It’s what we as a local authority, with input from the community, think Wealden should look like in 20 or so years”.  So whereas the previous plans were focused simply on what land was ‘suitable’ for development, the Local Development Framework is much more of a joined-up blueprint for how housing and employment development should be balanced with the overall needs and direction of the Wealden community and environment.

 

How do we know it will work?

I put the question to Cllr Galley – “how can you be sure that Wealden will develop along the lines you envisage?” The answer, as Cllr Galley had to admit, is that the Council clearly does not have dictatorial powers to enforce development as suggested.  But, as he said: “we will monitor its progress and the Government does require the Council to do an annual report on the plan. So we will use that report as a mechanism to inform ourselves annually about how progress is being made against that plan.” In that context, what happens if developers just don’t take up the opportunities provided in a particular area of the plan? “What the plan is saying, is that if you want to build houses in, say, Heathfield – then there are areas where it is likely you will get permission and broadly speaking, apart from small windfall developments, in other areas you won’t be able to.” So if there is any appetite for development, it will fall within the plan, and be limited to the scale indicated in the plan for the period ahead.  “And it’s also saying to developers and local communities – we think in terms of housing and employment needs, the existing infrastructure, and protecting the environment and so on, this is a good place to develop, and this is the scale of growth that will be sustainable”. Which is why, in developing the plan, Wealden started with a very comprehensive and detailed analysis of the whole Wealden area, the main towns, and all the local villages and communities. The analysis examined what is good now, what needs to be protected, and what more will be needed in terms of housing, employment, retail activity and communities services.

The big idea that seems to emerge from the strategy is that new housing should be concentrated near Wealden’s main towns – where the infrastructure, and employment potential, mean that the new housing is sustainable and affordable. This also reduces the carbon footprint caused by out of town development.

In Heathfield specifically, this means a plan for 160 new houses in an area to the North East of the town centre. The plan also envisages new business space and an increase in the retail space used in the town. But again, how can Wealden be sure that businesses and retailers will be attracted to the areas where commercial development is seen as being needed? The answer seems to be that this is, just what it says on the tin: a ‘framework’ within which local partnerships such as the Heathfield Partnership alongside Heathfield Parish Council, and other groups, can encourage regeneration and growth in the knowledge that this will be part of a balanced and coordinated vision for the whole of Wealden. Cllr Galley points out: “the market will work, the way it will work. And although housing will bring in people, it won’t always bring in work. But we do know that some small businesses in the area find it difficult to find premises, or to grow into bigger premises. What we’re trying to do is to make things as flexible as possible for growing enterprises” – so the plan will make business more space available, but on a scale that is sustainable, and in keeping with local needs.

 

Where does the Council hope this will take Wealden?

“In some ways, we want Wealden in the future to stay the same (say’s Cllr Galley). We want to preserve this rural character, with its very distinctive landscapes and architecture. We want people to come into this area, in twenty years time, and feel that this has retained a rural feel and that it’s not just like a suburb of London. It is something unique and quite different – and yet we managed to meet the housing needs of local people, particularly local youngsters growing up, who want to stay here. And we’ve provided job opportunities that have allowed these people to stay. So whether it’s a plumbing and electrical firms serving the needs of the local community including commuters, or an IT start-up generating wealth here, or something to do with agriculture or forestry – we want to open up the possibilities to encourage that”. One burning issue seems to be the question of how we re-invigorate our town centres – many suffering from the shifts away from 20th century shopping patterns. “We have five main towns of varying sizes in Wealden. We want them to thrive and develop and continue to have a retail presence – despite the pull of Eastbourne and Tunbridge Wells and so on. And in looking at those towns, we can see Uckfield and Hailsham growing more than the others. So one of the exciting things, but also one of the big unknowns, is the question of whether we can generate enough wealth and market interest in these two towns to allow us to modernise and upgrade their town centres.”

 

Why has it taken so long to develop the Framework?

It seems that the work on the plan began around 2004, when the planning act was passed and Wealden hoped to have the plan in place by 2006. But in reality the initial scoping, research and development took a lot longer than anticipated, with progress further slowed by the need to undertake two massive consultation processes, one in 2007 and one in 2009. Which is why it wasn’t until December 2010 that the full Core Strategy was finally presented to the Council.

 

Is the housing target too much or not enough?

I noticed that, of the 9,574 new houses allowed in the 24-year-plan there was the assumption of 4,889 built either since 2006, or already approved for building today. This leaves 4,685 to be built over the remaining time to 2030. The Government has estimated a population growth for this area of 19,000 over the same period – which could equate to demand for 16,800 new houses. So does this make Wealden’s target of around 9,500 for new housing a bit too modest? Particularly if around half are already built or in progress? At this point Cllr Galley refers back to the argument the Council were having with the previous government on this. He explains that: “the main problem with going any higher is that we don’t have the infrastructure. Our road network is creaking and there are areas we already need to do something about that. More importantly water and sewerage issues are critical in some parts of the District. So while we will have to make some investment in infrastructure (schools, medical centres, roads, water, sewerage, etc) to support our development goals – it’s generally agreed to be manageable at the level we’ve set.  Whereas, if we were to go for a higher level of housing we’d be into multi-million pound spending on new infrastructure, which we couldn’t expect developers to fund, and there’s no public money to do it.  So we think we’ve got it about right.”


Is the housing going to be right for local people?

Cllr Galley is acutely aware of the current challenges local people have in finding somewhere to live. “The fact that people have got to bear in mind when they say that we need to build houses is this. Even if you’re quite well off in this part of the world, and your son or daughter want to buy themselves a property, its extremely difficult” So how has that informed the Framework? “Developers would like to build four and five bedroom upmarket houses, but our great need is to keep youngsters and provide the social rented accommodation that’s needed locally, so that’s why for example we now say that there needs to be 35% affordable housing in any development of five units or more” (Previously the figures were 30% affordable housing in any development over 10 units – which meant many new projects coming in ‘under the wire’ and avoiding the obligation altogether.

 

To what extent has this really been developed in agreement with local Councils?

Throughout the long and protracted consultation process it has, says Cllr Galley, been all about getting it right for the whole district.  “For example, in the early stages one possibility that was explored was the idea that the housing should be concentrated in one new development – a new town – with all the necessary infrastructure and services concentrated there. But when looked at as a whole, it was clear that District needed the investment to be focused around the five main towns so that existing residents could benefit from the additional investment, jobs and facilities that come with housing growth.” Cllr Galley doesn’t pretend that this strategy development has been carried out without intense local debate and some contention, and not all Councils will be 100% happy with the final plan. But after all the consultation, and taking advice from experts in highways and other bodies, the Council ultimately had to opt for the best option on the balance of evidence, for each area concerned.

 

What happens next and how will it be communicated?

“The immediate next stage is that the full Local Development Framework will be published in February on Wealden’s online system, at which point people will have six weeks in which to make ‘representations’ on any aspect of the final document.” This is important because although there has been consultation previously, this will be the first time local people have the opportunity to comment on the specific options chosen for the final framework. Those comments will be considered and then the document has to go to the inspector. The question of how to get the ideas across more widely is still under discussion and Cllr Galley appears to have an open mind on this. “At some of the earlier stages, the Council did send out leaflets to the whole Wealden population, but that process is very expensive and not always particularly effective. The Local Development Plan will be communicated to Town and Parish Councils, and it will be available online”. We, at Village Leaf will obviously do our bit, but perhaps it may be possible to involve groups such as the Heathfield Partnership in developing ideas for how this piece of work, which could have such a big impact on the future of Wealden, could be explored and engaged with locally – which brings us on to localism . . .

 

What impact will the localism bill have on these aspirations for Wealden?

The Localism Bill (currently going through Parliament) seems to be all about taking control away from the bureaucrats and passing it into the hands of people at a local level. That could feel quite undermining for those in local government. So what does Cllr Galley generally feel about the Localism Bill, from what’s been seen so far? “The principle is fine, because far too much is currently decided in Whitehall. I am all in favour of the ideas at the heart of it. I think there will be a much more relaxed view of letting local government get on with it. What I’m not sure about is the exact impact of some of the detailed proposals. There will be a community right to build, and there will also be a community right to purchase local assets – well maybe that will happen. But whether people will be able to dig into their pockets in a time of recession, we will have to see.” From Cllr Galley’s viewpoint, the impact of the Localism bill is still a bit uncertain. “But there will be more potential for local communities to develop their own local development plans and this is not necessarily at odds with the overall framework. I suspect that in practice most communities will want less development rather than more. But there will be some local communities where there is an appetite for more development. Places like Punnetts Town where they have a local school and may want to encourage younger families. And I think there will be some organic growth where sites become available. For instance when something like an old timber yard closes down, or a garage closes, it often makes sense for the land to be used for housing. And those sorts of “windfall developments” will always happen.” So the question then is this: If someone decided to try to build a large scale commercial development, in the middle of a small village community, would the Council say that as it was outside the framework, it just couldn’t happen? Cllr Galley’s answer to this was significant: “If the Parish Council said this is what we want, without the support of the local community, I think it would be dead in the water. But if the village voted and said yes, this is what we want, then it could happen”. Even if that was at odds with the principles at the heart of the Local development Framework – impact on carbon footprint, proximity to infrastructure etc? “Yes, if the local community wants it.”

 

In conclusion

As I take my leave of Cllr Galley, I am struck by how importance it is for all of us - as individuals, and as communities - to decide what we really want for our community, and have our say. From the point when Core Strategy is made fully public in February, we have just six weeks to make our concerns known, and to do that, we will have to understand what the strategy is aiming to do, how it will be put into practice, and what impact it will have on us locally.

 

We’d like to thank Councillor Roy Galley for giving us such a frank and open insight into the development of the Core Strategy, at the heart of Wealden’s Strategic Development Framework. We hope that this piece, and our accompanying ‘Loose-Leaf guide to the Core Strategy” will give you a better understanding of the plans that will have such a big impact upon all of us, over years to come.

We also hope, in the near future, to do a similar piece on the Localism Bill.

 

Click here for more on the Core Strategy

 

Quick details about representation:

The period in which individuals and organisations can make representations about Wealden’s Core Strategy runs for six weeks from Monday 14 February and will end on Monday 28 March.

All proposed submission documents, including Wealden District Council's Proposed Core Strategy and it's accompanying Sustainability Appraisal will be available to view and download on the Council’s website, www.wealden.gov.uk from Friday 11 February 2011.

Reference copies of the proposed Core Strategy, together with accompanying Sustainability Appraisal, various background papers guidance notes and representation forms can also be viewed at the following locations:

Wealden District Council's offices at Crowborough and Hailsham.

East Sussex County Council offices in Lewes.

Public Libraries at: Crowborough, Forest Row, Hailsham, Heathfield, Polegate, Uckfield, Wadhurst and Willingdon.

Town and Parish Council Offices at: Crowborough, Forest Row, Hailsham, Heathfield and Waldron, Maresfield, Polegate, Uckfield, Willingdon and Jevington.

CLICK HERE for more on representation