Public Meeting on proposed Housing Development at Thatcham Northeast

Friday, 2nd December, 7pm at the Memorial Hall, Upper Bucklebury.

We are holding a public meeting to describe the latest plans from West Berks Council for their Local Plan and particularly the proposed development at Northeast Thatcham. We hope you can come and share your views so that they can be included in the Parish Council response.

WBC are expected to approve a plan at their full council meeting on 1st December and that will start the clock for a consultation expected to last until mid-January. It is vital that as many of you as possible send objections to WBC during this consultation period because this is the last opportunity to make your views known to the planning inspector who must consider them.

It is almost exactly a year since the WBC proposals first came to public attention.   During that time, the Parish Council committee – Bucklebury says No, have fundraised, recruited experts and evaluated the ecology of the site. We will update you on that work. At the meeting on 2nd December, our planning consultant, Andrew Black, and Graham Pask, our ward councillor will be there to answer questions. Laura Farris, MP, has a prior engagement but has invited us to brief her on the views expressed.

We will update you on the themes of the parish council’s objections at this meeting and will subsequently use email and Facebook to provide information to assist you in your letters.

We urge you to join us on 2nd December for this very important meeting about the future of Bucklebury.

Latest update from the Working Group:

Many of you will be aware the issue of the next stage in the Local Plan consultation process has been delayed until the summer.
 
Following the public meeting she held last August Laura Farris MP has written to West Berkshire Council giving her views and expressing her concerns over the proposed development of 2500 houses in NE Thatcham. Last month she met with the Leader of WBC and our Ward Member, Graham Pask, to discuss the matter. We await WBC’s reply to our MP but we know there have been changes amongst the senior WBC officers having responsibility for planning.  We are led to believe that this will result in a fresh perspective and reappraisal of the draft Local Plan.
 
The development is so big that WBC must produce a 30-year plan for Thatcham.  When Thatcham Town Council met the planning officers at their meeting it was disclosed that this is ‘work in hand’ – we look forward to reading this vision.
 
There are also signs Central Government may adopt a more flexible stance to the future housing numbers required in West Berkshire and that the emphasis on brownfield development may assist us. These are all positive indicators in our fight against this proposed development but are no reason for us to lower our guard.
 
While Thatcham Town Council lead on the traffic implications around the thousands of new houses, we are engaged on the environmental impact and are using the delay in the Local Plan process productively.

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

As you are aware, I held a public meeting in Bucklebury in August 2021. As discussed at the time, a pause has been placed on future local plans following the Government announcement that was made shortly before the meeting, which gives us more time.

Since the meeting, I have had a number of discussions with Councillors regarding the matters discussed and sent the attached letter to Lynne Doherty (the Leader of West Berkshire Council). Perhaps most importantly, I have made an appointment to meet Michael Gove, the new Housing Secretary, in the early new year. 

You may also be aware that the Government has given further indications that it does not wish to see overdevelopment in the South East or on greenfield land. Indeed, the Prime Minister addressed this point in his speech to the Party Conference in October. I am aware of other local authorities who have suspended local planning until more clarity has been given by the Department. I hope to persuade Michael that an area like West Berkshire, dominated by AONB, flood plain and the special considerations relevant to Aldermaston, cannot sustain the current housing designations and see whether I can achieve change from the top.

I will of course keep you updated with my progress once I have spoken to him.

Laura Farris MP
Member of Parliament for Newbury

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