Dorset Council Turns Down New Estate On Shaftesbury Slopes

In a surprise move, Dorset Council Planning Committee members have disregarded officers’ guidance and turned down an application to build a new estate beside the Shaftesbury to Gillingham road.

Over 200 written objections were lodged over the plans and Shaftesbury Town and Motcombe Parish Councils also opposed the development, but Dorset Council planners had recommended approval. ThisisAlfred was at the meeting.

Charlotte and Nicholas Mackay (centre) with Shaftesbury Civic Society chairman Roy Mitchell (right) and secretary Jackie Upton King (left)

In the last year, Charlotte and Nicholas Mackay have got to grips with England’s ever-changing planning system. They have been fighting proposals to build up to 23 homes on a 1.2-hectare triangle of paddock, hemmed in by the B3081 and New Road in Enmore Green. The couple have written dozens of letters, put up banners and stood in the streets with petitions.

“It has absolutely absorbed our lives for the last year. It will affect our complete livelihood. It has also affected the lives of so many people in Shaftesbury and particularly the residents of New Road,” said Charlotte.

The site from the Gillingham approach

On Tuesday afternoon, councillors meeting as part of the Northern Planning Committee of the new Dorset Council refused planning permission for the controversial development. Charlotte had not expected that result, even though 207 people and organisations had written to oppose the plans.

“I didn’t realise it was going to be a unanimous outcome. I am surprised, actually. I thought we’d have more of a fight on our hands today and I didn’t really realise that the Council would be so much on our side,” said Charlotte.

The site

The government expects councils to be able to offer enough land to meet local home building targets for five years. North Dorset has identified just over three years of land supply. That means that planners have to accept what can be argued to be ‘sustainable’ development at some sites, where building might not have been allowed before.

Eight affordable homes were proposed as part of this development and the planning officer explained that this had, ‘tipped the balance’ towards approval, because this accommodation is in short supply. But while addressing the meeting, Charlotte had argued that the homes would be built above a spring line and that was like, “building a sandcastle on the beach when the tide is coming in.”

Phillip Proctor, also speaking to oppose the plans, referenced a listed Victorian trough at the side of the land. He explained that this stonework marked the presence of underground springs, celebrated by the traditional Byzant procession. That led Cllr Carole Jones to question whether the affordable homes, which many councillors felt were important, could actually be delivered if the site’s development faced costly geological challenges.

Victorian trough

Site access was a sticking point for many councillors. Some felt the new estate would be isolated. The developer’s agent revealed an offer to pay £3,000 to repair nearby footpaths. But, in responding to councillors’ questions, Highways officer Ian Madgwick confirmed that there was no continuous path to Shaftesbury and residents would need to cross the busy road near the bend.

As there would be few pedestrians, there was, “no question of a light or pedestrian crossing,” he explained. There would just be dropped kerbs.  Charlotte warned that this proposed ‘crossing to nowhere’ would be on a stretch of road where police monitoring had revealed that 45% of motorists exceed 40mph.

Everyone who spoke in the public part of the meeting had objected to the plans, with the exception of the developers’ agent, Matt Holmes. He argued that proposals had been adapted to address concerns over building height at the northern end of the site and that they could comfortably fit all the properties on the plot.

But most speakers voiced concern over the development spoiling Shaftesbury’s green approaches. Charlotte had referred to a ‘crisis for our sacred slopes.’ Although planners showed pictures which suggested that the estate would not be visible when looking down from Castle Hill, Cllr Belinda Rideout wasn’t convinced that there would be no visual impact.

“Shaftesbury is a hilltop town and that’s how it should remain,” she said, before suggesting that housing development here would put the town on a ‘slippery slope’. She had echoed Phillip Proctor’s warning that this estate could encourage developers to build on ‘the next bit, and then the next bit.’

The meeting heard that there are two planning documents that could help protect the slopes. The former North Dorset District Council’s Local Plan needs updating, but officers confirmed that there are still relevant polices in that blueprint which could be used to limit development. Cllr Tim Cook, one of Shaftesbury’s representatives on Dorset Council, argued that ‘the slope polices are there for a reason’.

Concerns had been also raised over the threat that development could pose to ancient ash and oak trees, some of which have tree preservation orders on them. Officers said that they couldn’t talk about trees at this stage. They pointed out that this planning meeting was to discuss the access to this land, which would enable development, rather than the detail of design or layout.

After a long debate, Cllr Belinda Rideout proposed turning down the application. She argued that building houses here would affect the appearance of Shaftesbury’s lower slopes, could jeopardise the listed, historic trough and she felt that the site was isolated from the town. Officers had helped her in phrasing her objection in terms of the Local Plan policies that the development would not meet, and Cllr Cook seconded the proposal.

As it came to the vote, Committee Chairman Cllr Sherry Jespersen wanted members to understand that they would be overturning officers’ recommendations and, “we don’t do that lightly,” she advised. Councillors opposed the application unanimously.

Councillors rejected the plans

As this new Dorset Council committee now includes members from West Dorset, Charlotte was pleased that local representatives spoke up for Shaftesbury. “Certainly, we were very lucky that we had one or two locals who really did know the site, who have driven on that road, who appreciate the approach to Shaftesbury, who appreciate that it is actually the face of Shaftesbury,” said Charlotte.

Cllr Tim Cook was pleased by the outcome. “I am happy with the way the committee looked at this decision,” he said.

Shaftesbury Civic Society has campaigned against the development and Secretary Jackie Upton King was also happy with the result. “I am really delighted that they thought very thoroughly about the desecration of the slopes and that they can still actually return to the old Local Plans, despite these constraints around land supply,” said Jackie.

At the start of the session, Jackie had urged the new councillors to seize the opportunity to make a difference. She felt that her words had been heard. “I would very much hope that a new committee will bring some fresh thinking and will have the courage to look at the planning and say, ‘this is not fit for purpose’. It is not actually supplying what we need in terms of housing. It is just allowing developers to make money out of our wonderful county and out of our special town,” said Jackie.

And after an entire year of campaigning, the Mackays can take the night off and open a celebratory bottle. Charlotte doesn’t think today’s meeting will be the end of the matter, but she is hopeful that the Shaftesbury Neighbourhood Plan will soon offer additional protection.

“It will probably go to appeal, but by then we will have more grounds, because the emerging Neighbourhood Plan is going to full consultation. That will have more enforcement on the slopes policy as well, which states that there should be no development above a contour line of 150m. The lowest part of the development starts at 160m, so we feel that that area will be very much protected,” said Charlotte.