Shaftesbury Town Council followed the rules when it reversed its stance and chose not to object to Redrow’s new Littledown housing estate. The Council undertook its own investigation into whether it behaved properly, a decision that has been criticised.
Work to build 170 homes alongside the A350 on part of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is underway and this development has been controversial. “It raises questions of national importance, as regards the status of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and their protection from development,” said Shaftesbury Open Spaces and Tree Group member Bernard Ede. He believes that this matter is so significant, national media could pick it up. “I might have a hand in it doing so,” he said.
Last November, the full Shaftesbury Town Council objected to these house-building proposals. Councillors voiced their disapproval over the design and orientation of the homes and the urban streetscape, that differed from the ‘parkland’ style suggested by the previous site developer. One of the positive aspects of the scheme was the proposal to bury overhead power cables. Negotiations between the Town Council, members of the Open Spaces Group and the new developer, Redrow, followed.
In March, a smaller group of the Town Council Planning Committee voted on the plans again. This time, councillors voted by 3 votes to 1 not to offer any objection to the application. Cllr John Lewer was a lone voice in opposition to the Redrow plans.
Because Shaftesbury Town Council dropped its objection, Dorset Council, which has the final say on planning matters, didn’t debate the housing estate plans in a public council meeting. Instead, the approval to build 170 homes was given by officers under their delegated powers.
On Tuesday, resident Karen Tippins told the Full Council meeting, “You have denied us the chance to tell Redrow this is an AONB and you don’t build ugly houses next to an AONB.” And Bernard Ede told councillors on Tuesday that this had, “deprived proper scrutiny of the project.”
Dorset Council does consider Town and Parish Council responses to planning matters. Motcombe Parish Council wrote to express concerns about a lack of infrastructure to support ‘such a large development’ at Littledown. But Tim Cook says Shaftesbury Town Council wasn’t made aware that procedures had changed with the switch from North Dorset to the new Dorset Council. “For some reason, under their terms of reference, their constitution, there isn’t an automatic ‘call into committee of elected members’ for a decision on development of this size,” he said.
I asked Tim whether Shaftesbury Town Council should have known of the change in Planning Committee procedure? “With hindsight, that’s very easy to say. We should have been aware of it. At the time, when we took the decision, we were not aware of it,” he said. “Nobody had told us that this would not go to committee, and therefore we had the expectation that it would have done. Having spoken to other members and to our Clerk, nobody from Shaftesbury Town Council was aware that this system or the terms of reference had changed.”
Tim says he will make sure Dorset councillors debate controversial Shaftesbury plans in the future. “I can make an application for any decision to be called in and seen by elected members, rather than it being an officer decision,” said Tim.
Another criticism residents have made is that the March Planning Committee overturned November’s Full Council objection to the same application, which would be against the rules. Mayor Tim Cook argues that due process was followed because those estate plans had altered by March.
“There was a material difference between what we had seen back at the end of 2018 and by the beginning of 2019. There had been consultation with the developers. The concerns that were raised at the end of last year, we believe, had begun to be addressed, and that’s why the decision had changed. We followed the process that we have to follow every time, in that we look at what is on the table in front of us.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Mrs Tippins said that the March Planning Committee did not detail the objections made in November and whether they had been addressed. On Tuesday, Cllr Peter Yeo asked for the Town Council to change its rules to prevent a smaller committee from reversing the Full Council’s decision so soon afterwards.
The Mayor is against that idea. “There is no expectation that any decision, unless it is referred back to Full Council by a committee, will be looked at by Full Council,” said Tim. “We are not going to change the terms of reference of the Planning and Highways Committee, because if you do that, then that takes away their ability to make a decision quickly. To call a Full Council for one item is not good business.”
Following public comments in June, the Town Council agreed to Cllr Yeo’s call to investigate whether its actions over the second Littledown Planning Meeting vote in March were proper. The concerns addressed were whether the Council could discuss a matter for a second time, unless there have been failures of process. A second question asked whether a resolution could be reversed within six months unless there was a special motion. The Town Council was also questioned over whether they had been asked by the Planning Authority to submit an opinion at the March meeting.
The investigation concluded that Shaftesbury Town Council handled matters, ‘in accordance with established process and governance’. The Town Council investigated its own actions. That has been controversial in itself. “You cannot sign off your own homework,” said resident Karen Tippins. “It is so significant.”
Tim does not believe it would have been better to ask another authority to determine whether the proper process was followed. “I’ve looked at the evidence. The Clerk put together a report. All twelve members were circulated that report on the 26th of June and we are 100% in agreement, I believe, that our procedure has been followed. If anybody alleges or has any evidence to say that to the contrary, then they are welcome to put in a complaint,” said Tim.
Tim says he understands why people might argue that investigating your own complaint raises eyebrows. “I can understand some people’s concerns, and I would ask them, how much those concerns would lead them down the road to us bringing another authority or getting some outside body to look at this? That will come at a cost. If the community of Shaftesbury is willing to bear that cost, then we’re quite happy to let that go ahead,” said Tim.
Procedural issues aside, planning issues remain for some residents. Bernard Ede doesn’t think the design and landscaping of the estate reflects its situation on and adjacent to land within the AONB. He said that one of the positive aspects of the Redrow application was the developer’s plan to sink overhead power cables underground. It was presented as a ‘planning gain’, when the developers’ representatives addressed the March meeting. “Redrow indicated that they were going to do it,” said Bernard.
Since then, like the current overhead power lines, that status of that promised enhancement has been up in the air. In June, the Town Council understood that the cables wouldn’t be sunk. Now, the Mayor has pointed ThisIsAlfred towards documentation from Dorset Council Planners. It reads:
“Significant discussion has been had as to whether the cables could be re-routed underground beneath the A350, in addition to the cable length to be re-routed across the site. The developer has shown a significant willingness to explore whether this fundamental aim would be possible but owing to the lack of space and land ownership on the eastern side of the road, together with structural matters relating to the stability of the pylons, it has not been possible to secure this. The remainder of the cables running across the site and into the adjacent AONB would be re-routed underground.”
Whether that represents the ‘planning gain’ that had been hoped for will remain to be seen. On Tuesday, Cllr Yeo warned of the potential for, “damage to the reputation of the Council again.” It seems that with Littledown, like other recent Shaftesbury housing developments, the public debate could continue well into the construction period and perhaps beyond.