Faversham Town Council met on 13 October at QE school to approve the draft of the Neighbourhood Plan to be submitted to Swale Borough Council. James Freeman (head of planning at Swale Borough Council) was also present to respond to questions, but Richard Eastham (the consultant responsible for the revised plan) was not. There were about 100 people in the audience.
There was no amplification and a lot of what was said by councillors could not be heard clearly, so if any of this report is inaccurate, please address your complaints to the Town Council. The official minutes should be on their web page before the regular council meeting on 22 October.
After three years, and with nothing having happened for three months after the close of the statutory consultation, the approval process is now being hustled through with what some consider to be unseemly haste. The revised plan under discussion was dated 10 October, giving little time for councillors to give it full and detailed scrutiny, and the consultation statement written in their name was still incomplete (they were assured that the responses that were missing from the previous version would make no difference to their conclusions, which seems a little presumptuous).
The usual arguments were presented: (1) we need a Neighbourhood Plan to protect the Creek from the ravages of developers under the NPPF, and (2) this is the only possible Neighbourhood Plan because anything else would be rejected by the Independent Examiner. The council only wishes things could be different but its hands are tied. There has to be housing where people don’t want it because (1) the NPPF has a presumption of sustainable development, and sustainable development means housing, (2) the landowners want housing, and (2) Swale does not have a 5-year housing land supply – the implication being that this makes it impossible to turn down any site which a landowner puts forward for housing development, no matter how small or unsuitable it may be.
Questions about the validity of these presumptions remained unanswered, but instead were countered by further reference to Swale’s housing land supply. Swale’s problem now emerges openly as a (or possibly the) prime determinant factor behind the site use policies in our Neighbourhood Plan.
The land value issue (that the merest possibility of residential development grossly inflates land value and puts it out of reach of anyone wanting to use the land for other purposes) was glossed over. It was argued that the only way to get social or public benefit was to allow developers to make enough profit for some of the dregs to trickle down.
Many members of the audience felt that, at the very least, some concession should be made on the Ordnance Wharf site, given the strength of feeling, volume of evidence and reasoned arguments against residential use, and the well-developed and widely-supported proposals for alternative uses.
The consultant had said that the new draft could not have options for the site – but it was never intended that it should. The idea (or so many people thought) was that it should include whichever option was preferred at the consultation – which emphatically (87%) was the non-residential option. The consultant, however, had concocted a new version which he described as “common ground”, but which included residential use. He had claimed this would not be incompatible with industrial activities at the neighbouring Purifier Building (while conceding that he knew very little about the requirements for working on large wooden boats) and that part of the ground floor could be used as a small community centre.
Objections that this was unrealistic given the nature and limitations of the site, that it was an insult to the local community, and that it had not been consulted on since it was not in the previous draft, had been made in writing before the meeting. It was also pointed out from the floor that the site would be difficult to develop profitably for housing and would accommodate very few units, making a negligible contribution to the Swale housing land supply.
Councillor Campbell (speaking commendably clearly and audibly) presented a logical case for removing residential from the list of permitted uses, including the unacceptability of ignoring the consultation feedback, effect on land value, and the small size of the site. But her resolution was supported only by Councillors Hawkins and Culham (councillors for Davington ward, which includes the Brents/North Preston estate).
From the floor, there was vocal condemnation of the council’s intransigence, and members of the audience held up placards reading NO HOUSING ON ORDNANCE WHARF. Some councillors responded with their usual astonishment and effrontery that anyone should have the nerve to protest.
Following representations from Councillor Simmons and others, the statement that, with the exception of the blue listed building, all other buildings on the site could be cleared has been deleted. The possibility of three-and-a-half-storey blocks of flats remains, however, despite public opposition and in-depth arguments on grounds of conservation and concerns about flooding. Councillor Campbell proposed an amendment that upper floors need not necessarily be used for residential purposes, which was accepted.
Councillor Campbell proposed a lowering of the height limit for any development on this site, to no more than two storeys, given its position at a pinch point on the creek, and also questioned whether this narrow point was the right place for heavy-duty moorings. Councillor Mulherne said that residential development would be two-storey; it would just be on top of another storey to raise it above flood level. It was generally agreed that low-rise residential development on flood plain would not be viable, and the option “well, don’t build it there, then” was not considered, so Councillor Campbell’s amendment was not approved.
Councillor Campbell asked why there was a newly-introduced policy for Ordnance Wharf saying that modern design would be encouraged, and why this applied only to this one site. Councillor Payne expressed the opinion that this was the one site where modern design would be suitable. The wording was changed to “considered” rather than “encouraged”.
There was a somewhat inconclusive discussion of the plan’s silence on the future of the Shepherd Neame and Morrisons sites. Various other amendments were made, or possibly not made; most of them were inaudible.
No longer being able to prevent filming, the council had decided that the person doing the filming may not move, on the grounds that a moving film-maker is disruptive and cannot be tolerated. The mayor proved the point by repeatedly disrupting proceedings to complain about the film-maker moving around, and twice suspended the meeting until he stood still.
The consultant has revised the plan such that, in order to get planning permission, any developer will have to demonstrate conformity with a range of objectives, policies and intentions, and has placed greater emphasis on the maritime aspect. In theory, given a competent and vigilant planning authority, this should act as a constraint on unbridled development, and should for example guarantee that there will be genuinely mixed development rather than just housing. In practice, developers may argue that these constraints will make their development unviable, and therefore they must be excused from meeting the obligations.
The council voted (with two votes against, from Councillors Campbell and Culham) to approve the plan. It now goes forward, subject to proofreading amendments, to Swale Borough Council. Swale has to arrange an environmental assessment and a viability assessment, which may require more changes to be made. There will then be another six-week consultation, before the end of the year, after which further changes may be made – but, as with the last consultation, these are unlikely to be substantial, since substantial changes would require another round of consultation. If the response is negative, therefore, it is possible that reasons may once again be found for ignoring them.
The final plan, the full consultation statement, and other supporting documentation will then be submitted to an Independent Examiner. It has been suggested that this will take place in March to coincide with the examination of Swale Borough Council’s own draft Local Plan – this is what is driving the timetable.
At the time of the examination, representations may be made in writing to the examiner, who may hold a public inquiry if he/she deems it necessary.
The examiner will then decide if the plan should go to referendum as it stands, or subject to certain obligatory amendments; he/she may also recommend other amendments which would be advisory only. He/she will decide how wide the referendum area should be. On current schedule, it is expected that the referendum would be in autumn 2015.
The steering group
The steering group was formally suspended. The Mayor thanked members for their work and said that chairing the group had been a terrible ordeal. The town councillors who had been members of the steering group will now devote their energies to helping to secure funding for an opening bridge.