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17th December 2021

Campaign Update - 17th December 2021

In October I wrote to Michael Gove in his new ministerial role.  His staff replied recently.  The message is that government rules on housing numbers are less set in stone that WBC contend.  The reply also reinforces the wish, from central government, for brownfield development to be preferred.  It is our hope that WBC listen and revise their thinking to match local needs and choose developments that save rather than destroy our precious environment.

We know that Laura Farris met Mr Gove this week and look forward hearing about their exchange.

My letter as follows:

Dear Mr Gove,

I write to you as a resident of Bucklebury, in West Berkshire, and as Chairman of the Bucklebury Parish Council Working Group campaigning against a West Berkshire Council (WBC) proposal to develop 2500 homes on greenfield productive farmland near the North Wessex Downs AONB. 

74% of West Berkshire is AONB. Much of the remaining land lies within flood plains or the recently extended Atomic Weapons Executive exclusion zone. There is little land available for new homes and the disproportionate allocation from central Government for West Berkshire is forcing extensive greenfield development that is counter-cultural and politically toxic.

I bring this matter to your attention to urge re-examination of housing allocation in areas such as ours and ask for a different and more farsighted approach to housing development - one which places the environment at the centre of decision-making.  The residents in West Berkshire are not against new homes, we welcome them because they are an economic driver for our local economy.  However, they need to be dispersed into places where environmental damage is minimised.

In his closing speech to the Conservative Party Conference, the Prime Minister declared "how much room there is to build the homes that young families need in this country. Not on green fields, not just jammed in the southeast, but beautiful homes on brownfield sites in places where homes make sense.” In addition, a recent Government press release (Thousands of new homes to be built and derelict land transformed, 12th October 2021) you are quoted as saying, "Making the most of previously developed land is a government priority and it will help protect our cherished countryside and green spaces.”

I would be pleased if you would ask your officers to look closely at the number of homes required in West Berkshire and ensure that the number is compatible with the available brownfield land.  This will ensure that WBC is able to plan in a way that is sustainable and compatible with the PM’s and your public statements.  Our MP, Laura Farris, has a full understanding of our unique constraints and I know will be delighted to meet you to explain.

If your diary permits, the Working Group would be delighted to welcome you to visit to WBC’s proposed greenfield site to allow you to assess the damage their current proposals will have to the countryside.  A visit will support your re-examination, provide a better understanding of local concerns, and see the alternative potential that West Berkshire offers for building back better.

Yours sincerely

Peter Spours

12th October 2021

Copies to; Laura Farris MP, Cllr Lynne Doherty WBC

The response from Mr Gove’s staff:

 Dear Mr Spours,

Thank you for your letter of 18 October to the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP about the proposals to build 2,500 homes on agricultural land near the  North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We have been asked to reply on behalf of the Secretary of State. We hope you will appreciate that we are not able to comment on specific development proposals due to the role of Ministers in the planning system. We hope, however, that the following information is useful to you.

The Government is very conscious of the effect that development can have on local communities and on our environment. We recognise that it is important to strike a balance between enabling vital development and growth, including the new homes we need, while continuing to protect and enhance the natural environment. The National Planning Policy Framework makes clear that the purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.

To help achieve our manifesto commitment to deliver 300,000 homes annually by the mid 2020’s, and one million homes over this Parliament, it is important that local authorities plan positively to meet their full housing needs. Our National Planning Policy Framework introduced the standard method for calculating local housing need which gives a starting point for local authorities in identifying the housing need in their area. It is important to emphasise that local housing need does not set a target for the number of homes to be built. Local authorities take into account land supply, environmental constraints, (such as Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), and cooperation with neighbouring authorities on whether need should be shared, before deciding their housing requirement. This recognises that not everywhere will be able to meet their housing need in full.

This Government strongly encourages the re-use of suitable brownfield land, especially for development to meet housing need and to regenerate our high streets and town centres. As set out in the National Planning Policy Framework, planning policies and decisions should give substantial weight to the value of using suitable brownfield land within settlements. We have introduced mandatory brownfield registers, resulting in every local authority in England publishing a register of brownfield land suitable for housing in its area. These registers identify over 28,000 hectares of developable land, enough for a million homes. We are also putting significant investment into brownfield redevelopment through the £4.35 billion Housing Infrastructure Fund; the £4.95 billion Home Building Fund; the £400 million Brownfield Housing Fund and the £75 million Brownfield Land Release Fund. There is no doubt, however, that brownfield sites vary greatly in their suitability for re-use. Local authorities are best placed to identify sites and to decide if they are suitable to redevelop.

Turning to your request for a re-examination of the housing numbers assigned to West Berkshire, each Local Plan, including the figures that form the basis of the housing requirement, is subject to public examination in front of an independent Inspector, who will impartially determine whether it is legally compliant and sound. For a plan to be found legally compliant the local planning authority must show that all procedural requirements have been followed, and the local planning authority have complied with the duty to cooperate. Once found legally compliant, the plan is then examined to see whether it is ‘sound’. These tests of soundness are set out in the National Planning Policy Framework. For a plan to be considered sound it must be positively prepared, justified, effective, and consistent with national policy -  including the policies on the protection of areas subject to environmental constraints, such as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The National Planning Policy Framework sets out that great weight should be given to conserving the landscape and scenic beauty of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Parks and the Broads, and that the scale and extent of development within these designated areas should be limited. The Framework also makes clear that in these areas planning permission should be refused for major development other than in exceptional circumstances, and where it can be demonstrated that the development is in the public interest.

Finally, we are sorry that the Secretary of State is unable to visit the site of the proposed development at the current time, due to a busy round of Parliamentary commitments. We would, however, like to thank you for extending this offer.

With thanks again for writing in on these matters.

Yours sincerely

Planning Policy and Reform Correspondence Team