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A303 Garden City – update and response from SSDC Leader

Since our articles on the A303 Garden City, we have had a lot of feedback. However we have now had a detailed response, in a personal capacity, from the Leader of South Somerset District Council, Ric Pallister which we wanted to share with you . It is particularly interesting that since our comments on the size of the development were made, the final application has been reduced, from 15,000 houses to 10,000 units, which seems like a radical shift in a relatively short period of time. The following though is the full statement from Mr Pallister:

South West Strategic Developments Ltd has formally submitted to SSDC their option of creating a new Garden Town in South Somerset.  The next step will be a thorough and objective analysis of the submission in order to determine if it meets the Government’s criteria of being both credible and financially viable.  The analysis will also consider if it can deliver on our housing need, is matched with the strategic employment requirements for South Somerset and the wider County and fits with our economic profile.  All of this will be carried out as an integral part of the Local Plan review process. 

This is not just about building homes and hitting numerical targets, it is about meeting the workforce needs of our existing and future businesses in sustainable locations where people want to live and can access work.  That objective analysis will not only focus on the issues and constraints but must necessarily involve other key stakeholders, particularly with respect to the proposed location.  Because of the planned improvements to the A303 and the potential impact of 10,000 new homes (the total number of homes has been reduced by 5,000 in the final submission) on the highways infrastructure, County Highways and Highways England must be consulted. Representatives of the MOD and RNAS Yeovilton will also need to be involved regarding the acceptance or otherwise of the proposed dual civil / military use of the airfield and its infrastructure.  Additionally the Environment Agency will need to be consulted regarding the existing flood zones and water management in the proposed development area and Homes England will also have a major say over the potential for the scheme to attract national infrastructure funding.  Finally it must have the support of our County Council and, most importantly, the Local Enterprise Partnership through whom all Government growth and infrastructure funds are channelled.

The developer has likened the proposal to three existing new settlements in the South West; Cranbrook in East Devon, Sherford in South Hams, and Taunton.  Of those only two are truly new settlements and both of those are on the immediate edge of the Peninsula’s two cities, namely Exeter (pop130,000)for Cranbrook and Plymouth (pop 265,000)for Sherford.  These new settlements are designed to connect with existing large employment bases and both have established Universities on their doorsteps. In the case of Taunton (pop 65,000), the Garden Town (5,400 new homes) is very much an extension of the existing town rather than a stand-alone settlement. Yeovil’s population is circa 45,000. It is worth reflecting on the fact that Cranbrook took more than 19 years from concept to the delivery of the first home and Sherford even longer.  Despite very high levels of Government funding, even as late as 2012, Cranbrook had to have a fresh injection of another £20m to progress the town as the economic down-turn slowed development.  In two phases, Cranbrook will deliver 2,900 new homes in phase one and around 3,600 are planned for phase two, well below the 10,000 proposed for South Somerset.  In Sherford, 5,500 new homes are planned to be built out over the next 20 years and the planning alone took a further 15 years.    

No-one is dismissive of the concept or the dream of a new settlement, it is exciting and imaginative, but in the Government’s own words, it must also be “credible” to get past the first base. The task now will be to do the detailed work on this concept to determine if it is credible and if it is, then where a new town should be strategically located.  However, one thing is very certain.  The complexity of developing any new settlement means that this proposal will not deliver a single new home in the life of the Local Plan Review (by 2034).  With demand rising day by day, new homes will have to be built in South Somerset regardless and we have to find and agree the locations for a minimum of around 6,000 additional homes across the District to be built by 2034, well before any new town could even start to offer viable alternatives.

Much has been said in recent years about South Somerset’s “failed” Local Plan and it is worth just examining that statement. The Local Plan was adopted in 2015 and we now represent one of just 36% of Local Authorities with an up to date plan.  The other 43% still haven’t even published a draft plan, despite Government threats and pressures.  We have an objectively assessed Housing Need figure and in front of the Local Plan Inspector the development industry stated how many homes they would build each year.  Broadly, that is being achieved, however in 2008 we saw the economic crash and developments across the UK stalled. The shortfall in that year and through to about 2012, created a backlog of unmet need that had to be added to the annual housing target.  Despite getting close to the line, to date the backlog has proved to be an insurmountable problem that will only disappear when the clock is reset through the adoption of a new Local Plan.  Of the 36% of local Authorities like South Somerset with an adopted Local Plan, more than half, like us, cannot demonstrate a 5 year housing land supply.  In essence that means that 78% of Local Authorities in England are in the same position or much worse.  Despite not having that 5 year housing land supply SSDC has been successful at defending planning appeals and to date no new strategic development has taken place in locations that are not consistent with our adopted Local Plan.  Reality shows that the lack of a 5 year land supply has not made a material difference to the decisions we have taken and inappropriate developments have not been granted on appeal.

Ric Pallister OBE

Leader

South Somerset District Council

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