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

Two Letters

Many of you may already have seen the letter copied below that Laura Farris has sent out to interested constituents confirming her appointment with Michael Gove in the New Year.

 RE: Potential North East Thatcham Local Plan allocation

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.

Laura Farris has also shared a letter she has written to Lynne Doherty, Leader of West Berks Council, which we also copy below.

Dear Lynne,

I am writing to you following a public meeting that I held at the Bucklebury Memorial Hall on 31 August to discuss constituents’ concerns about the proposed North East Thatcham allocation in the emerging draft Local Plan.

Whilst fully acknowledging that as an MP I have no special powers to influence local planning decisions, I must say from the outset of this letter that I was struck by the strength of feeling from those who attended my public meeting and who wrote to me in advance of the meeting to express their concerns about the proposed North East Thatcham allocation. As their Member of Parliament, I want to accurately reflect their views to you within this letter, with many of which I agree.

The majority of constituents who have written to me about the proposed allocation for up to 2,500 homes at North East Thatcham in West Berkshire Council’s Local Plan Review 2020 -2037: Emerging Draft (Policy SP 17: North East Thatcham Strategic Site Allocation) have made clear that they do not wish to see any housing allocated to this site. This was the overriding view expressed on the night. They are virtually unanimous that this is an important site for West Berkshire residents - and one which should remain as undeveloped greenfield land.

There is also a view, which I share, that the Council should reconsider whether the housing target set out in the emerging Draft Local Plan is excessively high. A range of 520 to 575 dwellings per annum is currently presented (which equates to a target range of between 8,840 and 9,775 dwellings over the course of the Local Plan period). On top of this upper target range of 9,775 dwellings, there are also additional dwellings allocated for within the emerging Draft Local Plan – over and above the current 9,775 Council target - which equates to more than the 10% ‘buffer’ required by the Government. Constituents and I therefore question if too many houses are being allocated in the current emerging Draft Local Plan.

Notwithstanding this, I also recognise the inherent pressure that West Berkshire is under - and the housing allocation obligations which it must fulfil - and I have said I will go and speak to the new Housing Secretary, Michael Gove, at the earliest opportunity to discuss this.

I set out below the other key points that were raised on the night:

    1. Constituents wish to see brownfield land use maximised and they raised the potential adaptation of vacant commercial properties given the post-pandemic change in working patterns. They said that the projected number of dwellings achievable via future windfall sites seems underplayed in the current version of the emerging Local Plan.
    2. There was a strong belief that alternative sites, or combinations of sites, could be selected as allocations in the final draft Local Plan which would avoid the serious impact on the rural character of this part of the constituency. They are particularly concerned that the proposed North East Thatcham allocation is perceived to have been considered in much more detail than other sites, such as Colthrop, which would reportedly provide a bridge to solve the long-standing problem of lengthy delays at the level-crossing.
    3. There was a concern that the evidence base was flawed. Residents do not believe the bulk of new traffic would use the A4 accessed via Floral Way. They pointed to the fact that back routes through Cold Ash (to the A34) and Bucklebury (to the M4) are already well-established and frequently used alternatives at busy times. The proposed number of houses could place an unsustainable burden on these roads, which are not designed for such traffic volumes. They are firmly of the opinion that the current emerging draft Local Plan would be found to be unsound in its current state without SP 17 being removed as an allocation. They believe that a detailed Traffic Assessment of the wider rural road network should be undertaken to assess traffic safety implications. They also wish to see a detailed assessment of the impact such a proposed allocation would have on the existing long wait times for vehicles to cross the Thatcham railway line crossing.
    4. Further, without a detailed traffic assessment of the wider rural road network, constituents feel it will also be impossible to understand the proposed allocation’s urbanising impact on the rural character of the affected surrounding villages. Roads through these villages are ill-suited to additional traffic, being rural, single carriageway roads, with some blind bends, often lacking footpaths. Such potential urbanisation of surrounding villages has the potential to irreversibly change their character and constituents therefore ask that these effects be fully assessed before any allocations in the eventual draft Local Plan are finalised.
    5. Concerned constituents are also sceptical of the Council’s ability to secure their ‘wish list’ of infrastructure requirements, as set out in Policy SP 17. One of the primary aims of building on this greenfield site on the edge of an AONB is that it is essential for the necessary regeneration of Thatcham. Constituents consider assurances over infrastructure in the current evidence base to be unreliable, however. The lack of a cohesive Infrastructure Delivery Plan exacerbates the mistrust and scepticism over this point, including concerns over flooding impacts and education provision. They note, for example, that a new secondary school is only promised to be fully built out in Phase 4 of the scheme (and therefore question what certainty there can be that it will come to fruition). Constituents also cite the lack of infrastructure that Thatcham has seen over the last 20 years and believe it imperative that a full analysis is undertaken to better understand why. Wherever strategic housing allocations are made, it is vital that there is certainty that infrastructure will come on stream when needed.
    6. Constituents also made powerful points about their wish to protect this treasured greenfield site in order to safeguard the nearby AONB, Ancient Woodland and ecosystems for future generations. They are keen for more work to be undertaken to understand how valuable the site is in providing a green lung for Thatcham residents; and how widely appreciated the site and surrounding villages are by people from much further afield and across the wider constituency.
    7. Underpinning all of this is a fundamental perception that the Council did not undertake an adequate consultation with them. Residents are keen to ensure that future consultations involve a larger cross-section of society. I would like to know if external expert support could be commissioned by the Council to maximise future engagement. Given the level of concern on this point, I also wonder whether there is scope for a new round of consultation to be held prior to the eventual consultation on the draft Local Plan. In any event, I would urge the Council to continue to consider ways to deepen their engagement with residents across the constituency so that there is confidence in any final Local Plan.

 I believe this fully reflects the concerns that have been raised with me about the proposed North East Thatcham allocation in the emerging Draft Local Plan - and I respectfully request that these are fully considered by the Council.

Yours sincerely,

Laura Farris MP

These letters are a positive move welcomed by the Working Group.

Banners

You may see the Banners we have around the village taken down over the next few days. This is just so they are kept safe during the winter and not that the campaign is flagging! We will put them up again in the Spring for a fresh impact when we need to prepare for the next round of consultations.

Thanks, as always, for your support,

The Working Group

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