Examination of Hart’s Local Plan

WVPS supported the Rural Hart Association in opposing the proposal from Hart District to include in the new Local Plan a “New settlement” in the Winchfield/Murrell Green area.  Murrell Green sits on the River Whitewater.

This is a report on the Examination of Hart’s Local Plan from Tristram Cary of the Rural Hart Association

Dear Supporters
The 10 day Examination-in-Public of the Local Plan finished just before Christmas, and the Inspector, Jonathan Manning, is now writing up his report which is due to be delivered to Hart sometime in February.
It is hard to predict what the Inspector’s report will recommend, because he made a point of digging into the evidence without drawing conclusions – and he warned us all several times NOT to jump to conclusions based on his line of questioning. However, on balance we think the Examination went well from the point of view of the Winchfield Action Group and the Rural Heart Association. Below are some of the key points that have a bearing on the New Settlement and Green Field development generally:

General

The Inspector, Jonathan Manning, was very thorough and fair. He had done his homework, and was quick to detect flannel and to insist on accurate answers to his questions. But he also found time to let everyone have their say. I think we can be confident of a fair report. The Rural Hart Association was invited to participate in Matter 3 (Housing: The Objectively Assessed Need), Matter 4 (Housing: Spatial Distribution) and Matter 10 (Retail and Town Centres). RHA was represented by Mark Dodds (Director of Planning and Development at Lambert Smith Hampton) and me. Winchfield Parish Council and their consultants were invited to participate in most of the twelve Matters, so between us we were able to represent the interests of rural Hart across the whole spectrum of the Local Plan.

Matter 1: Legal Requirements

The Inspector pushed Hart hard to demonstrate that their Sustainability Appraisal was adequate to justify the Local Plan and, in particular, the choice of Murrell Green/Winchfield over alternative sites for a New Settlement. The Inspector did not seem to be impressed with Hart’s response, and if he finds the Sustainability Assessment unsatisfactory then this is likely to lead to a recommendation for significant changes to the Local Plan (see conclusions below), or a significant delay while the Sustainability Appraisal is re-worked.

Matter 3: Housing Numbers

There was a fairly even split between those who want the housing numbers to be higher (mostly the developers) and those who want them to be lower (those who oppose building on greenfield sites and want to keep Hart rural). It’s hard to predict what the Inspector will recommend, but probably not a substantial change to Hart’s recommendation of 388 new dwellings per annum for the plan period.

Matter 4: Spatial Distribution of Housing

This was a key session where Hart’s decision to commit to a New Settlement in Winchfield/Murrell Green came under severe pressure from the Inspector who asked how Hart could possibly commit to a specific site when there was no satisfactory evidence that the plan was ‘deliverable’ or that the site was better than any alternative site. Hart’s defence was basically that the New Settlement strategy (SS3) was not yet a plan for a New Settlement, but just a strategy to find a New Settlement within the Winchfield/Murrell Green area of search. But this seemed to cut no ice with the Inspector who said that if there was as yet no site for the New Settlement then it was even less possible for Hart to know that it was a better site than any of the alternatives.

Matter 10: Retail and Town Centres

In this session we (RHA) were able to make our case that the regeneration of Fleet and the other urban areas with mixed-use (residential, retail and leisure) developments could provide a significant number of new houses (over 1000 in Fleet Town Centre) and at the same time reverse the long-term decline of Fleet as a vibrant and commercially-successful town centre (a trend which Hart acknowledges in the Local Plan). We were further able to demonstrate that such mixed-use developments could attract private investment (based on the response of developers to RHA’s plan to regenerate the Hart Shopping centre). And finally we stressed that Hart’s premature committment to a New Settlement was a barrier to the regeneration of Fleet (because developers are reluctant to invest in regeneration schemes which are not actively promoted by the Council in the Local Plan). I am sorry to say that the Inspector did not grill Hart very hard about their failure to provide a convincing plan to regenerate Fleet or the other urban centres. Nor did he clearly acknowledge that the plan for a New Settlement (which is not needed in the Plan Period) would be a barrier to regenerating Fleet (which Hart accepts is needed in the Plan Period). However, he did challenge Hart to justify why their policy to regenerate Fleet was so short on substance, and why it excluded the possibility of residential development. And he also asked Hart to include the consideration of residential development in the plan for Fleet (ED5).

Matter 11: Infrastructure

The Infrastructure session was important for RHA’s cause because the Inspector questioned whether Hart’s Infrastructure Development Plan demonstrated a sound understanding of the infrastructure costs of the Plan, and in particular the plan for a New Settlement in the Winchfield/ Murrell Green area of search. Hart had to fall back again on the mitigation that the infrastructure costs of SS3 could not be known at this stage because the site of the New Settlement was still unknown within the area of search. This allowed the Inspector to ask again how, if the infrastructure costs were unknown, Hart could know whether a New Settlement in the Winchfield/Murrell Green area was a better proposition then the alternatives.

Conclusions

We have been warned by the Inspector not to try to predict the recommendations that he will make in his report and so we will not do so. However, based on our discussions with Lambert Smith Hampton and the other attendees, we think the following notes are relevant:
  • The Inspector clearly feels that SS3 is too prescriptive (when the quality of supporting evidence is so poor). So his recommendations are likely to soften the categorical nature of SS3 (“Permission will be granted for a New Settlement in the Winchfield/Murrell Green area of search” etc).
  • The Inspector is also concerned that the plan for Fleet is not ‘positively prepared’ and does not include any provision for residential development. It is possible that the Inspector will recommend that a proper ‘Masterplan’ for Fleet should be developed as a high priority, so that the potential of Fleet for residential development can be assessed before (or at least in parallel with) planning for a New Settlement
  • The Inspector asked Hart at several points in the Examination whether it would be practical to delay the decision to embark on a New Settlement until the first review of the Local Plan at the five year point (c. 2024) or even, if necessary, to bring forward the review by a couple of years to say 2022.  Based on the Inspector’s serious concerns about the quality of the evidence justifying a New Settlement in the Winchfield/Murrell Green area, it seems possible that the Inspector may recommend that any commitment to a New Settlement should be removed from the Plan at this stage, and reviewed after a few years.
  • A delay to the decision about the New Settlement for a few years may not sound like much of a result, but it would be a significant step forward, especially if the delay was linked to a requirement to assess the regeneration of Fleet (and the other urban centres) as an alternative source of new housing. A delay would also put pressure on Hart and Fleet Town Council to accept the growing realisation across the UK  that mixed-use redevelopment of Town Centres is the best way to reverse their decline.
We must now wait and see what the Inspector’s report recommends. But in the meantime, Fleet Town Council’s plan to build a new Theatre complex on Gurkha Square (to replace the Harlington Centre) has been withdrawn as a result of Fleet residents’ strong objection to funding the theatre out of Council Tax for the next thirty or forty years. This represents a good opportunity for Fleet residents to a) put pressure on Hart and Fleet Town Council to recognise that developers are prepared to fund leisure facilities as part of a mixed-use residential development and b) to encourage the Council to back the scheme to redevelop the Hart Shopping Centre (which includes a commercial cinema).
I am very grateful for the generous contributions that so many of you have made towards the Design Study for the Regeneration of Fleet. A summary of the Design Study is here, but please let me know if you want to see the full report – it’s too bid to attach to this email without causing a lot of delivery failures. The Design Study has demonstrated convincingly that Fleet can be regenerated without taxpayers support with mixed-use developments which would provide additional affordable homes, improved retail facilities, extra public spaces and leisure facilities. Furthermore, Lambert Smith Hampton has now had two expressions of interest from developers who would like to invest in the proposal, but only if Hart’s Local Plan is modified to express a commitment to working with developers to bring forward such a scheme.
Thank you for your continued support.
Tristram Cary
Chairman
Rural Hart Association

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.