Shaftesbury Civic Society has urged councillors representing Shaftesbury to be more proactive in protecting the town from further estate building.
Two members of the watchdog group spoke at Tuesday’s Town Council meeting to share their opinion that Dorset Council planners might not be effectively conveying strong opposition to further development.
“It was Enmore Court that prompted us to get involved,” said Nicholas MacKay, as he explained why he and his wife Charlotte joined the Shaftesbury Civic Society. The couple live near the site of 23 proposed homes next to the Shaftesbury to Gillingham Road. “There are other developments going on in the town, which are equally important. The thing about Enmore Court is that it’s on the slopes. That is the face of Shaftesbury,” said Nicholas.
Nicholas has maintained a keen interest in planning matters. He was professionally involved with retail store applications and laughed when I suggested that he could be considered ‘a poacher turned gamekeeper’. Since the couple have become key players in the Civic Society, Nicholas has paid very close attention to planning applications. He had driven past the new Redrow estate on the A350 at Littledown when we spoke, and the sight of the construction work had made him feel down.
“Seeing this vast open space being ripped up by bulldozers and big boxes going up – there’s no design, there’s no feeling in it. Shaftesbury is known for its open, airy feel. It’s on the side of an escarpment. There are open views and this is another one that’s been closed off,” said Nicholas.
Nicholas and Charlotte spoke at last Tuesday’s Shaftesbury Town Council meeting, as any resident may. They explained that they are concerned about the Enmore Court proposals and also plans to build 55 homes alongside Higher Blandford Road. They oppose a third, smaller estate, which would be accessed off Paddock Close, near the Half Moon pub.
Councillors on the North Dorset District Council or Dorset Council planning committees debated all of these applications and turned all three down. When the developers were refused planning permission, they exercised their right to appeal the decisions. That means that the Bristol-based Planning Inspectorate will now have the final say on whether those new estates are built or not.
That’s worrying Nicholas. “It’s one person and their decision on the day. They can make a site visit. They might see it on a nice hot summer’s day. They might see it in the pouring rain. Many planning inspectors make a decision, which is contrary to another planning inspector. They have a different view,” he said.
Nicholas has another concern. When these applications first went to either North Dorset or the new Dorset Council, the planning officers recommended approval. It was the elected councillors who overturned the officer’s recommendation. “Two of those applications have been recommended for approval by the case officer, with one of them being unanimously refused at committee. The other was refused by committee, again, against the case officers’ advice. The developers have gone to appeal. That means the case officer who will be running the case on behalf (of Dorset Council) and defending the decision by the committee has to change his view and contradict his recommendation. I think it’s very difficult to put another hat on,” said Nicolas.
We asked Dorset Council’s press office for their response to Nicholas’ concern last week. They replied today with the cryptic, “We want to give you a comment, but the timing is not great, and can’t give you one now.”
Deputy Mayor, Piers Brown, who is also a Dorset councillor, shared his view at Tuesday’s meeting that Dorset Council officers do act in a professional way and carry out councillors’ wishes.
Nicholas fears that the officers are being half-hearted, rather than robust, in their response to the planning inspector. The applicant who wants to build on the Higher Blandford Road land wrote that the council’s argument against the proposed estate to the planning inspector was ‘lightweight’.
Nicholas thinks that our Town and District councillors need to keep an eye on what happens after they vote on a planning application. “The elected representatives should be scrutinising what’s leaving the council offices. I’d like them to talk to the case officers and check what’s been going out. The planning committee is not the end. Applications are appealed and they’ve got to be followed through,” he said.
Nicholas told the Town Council that the role of elected representatives is to see that officers are upholding council decisions, not the other way around. “The dog wags the tail,” he said. And whilst Cllr Alex Chase advised the MacKays that the Town Council had been ‘very strong’ in its written feedback to the planning inspector on the Enmore Court and Higher Blandford Road appeals, Charlotte still asked for urgent action. “It really has to be taken overnight,” she said, explaining that the final appeal judgement could come at any moment.
The last opportunity for people and bodies who have already responded to add final comments on the Enmore Court application is tomorrow, 9th October.
In the Town Council meeting on 1st October, Mayor Tim Cook assured the MacKays that he would keep them informed. He repeated that to Alfred on Thursday. “I will have conversations with my colleagues who are on the Northern Area Planning Committee. I made a commitment at that meeting on Tuesday night to contact the Planning Department to find out all the information that has been collated in defence of that planning decision and proposed Enmore Court development. I will look at those and then talk to Mr and Mrs MacKay as to where we go next. I will make sure that we do defend the decision that the members have taken,” said Cllr Cook. As of 8th October, the MacKays say that they have not heard back from the Mayor.
Mrs MacKay encouraged the Town Council to fight harder to protect Shaftesbury. “We can’t cope with any more development. We’re not prepared to take this any longer,” she told the meeting. But speaking to Alfred, Cllr Cook felt that the Town Council’s powers were limited.
“As a Town Council, we need to make sure that our views are heard. That’s as far as we can go. Once our views are made, they are then fed into the process of any planning development. We are only statutory consultees. In layman’s terms that means Dorset Council ask us for our view. Dorset Council has no legal requirement to act upon that view, only to listen to it,” said Tim.
Nicholas says that anyone who shares his concerns might find that joining one of the various civic groups operating locally might be the best way to address over-development. “It is nice when people join up to the Civic Society. It’s a very big voice. It’s becoming bigger. I would suggest joining any organisation – CPRE is another example or Open Spaces. There are so many opportunities to actually have a voice,” he said.