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Sandleford – how it went wrong

November 27, 2017 8:32 PM
By Dr Tony Vickers

Alan Law has put his expected 'spin' on the story of how Sandleford came to be a Core Strategy housing site. But no matter how much you spin the contents of a dirty wash in a broken machine, the smell sticks!

In my note to Lib Dem colleagues after the Core Strategy was approved in 2012, I shared my impressions of the process: "Tremendously stressful for the Council's planners, great potential for corruption, very expensive for Council's taxpayers. So hard to be objective about 'sustainability' with so many factors to take account of - and such complex inter-relationships between them. Often the evidence base is laughably poor, yet we're told it is adequate for the purpose."

Our planning system is broken. The root cause is the Land Compensation Act 1961, which gives landowners total right to the uplift in land value that arises from planning permission (or in the case of Sandleford, in principle allocation for housing). It means that every such site has attached to it a huge 'premium' because the owner is given a local monopoly over its development, even before a developer has been contracted to build it out. Even a Compulsory Purchase Order is no defence for a public body trying to acquire cheap land that has a planning designation: Councils have to pay the landowner full market value.

Sandleford was a worst case, because it was a very large site (twice as large as the Council needed to meet its housing target at the time the Core Strategy was submitted for Examination in Public) promoted by a landowning consortium that has never resolved its own internal divisions. Anyone in the housebuilding industry will tell you (I began my working life with Wimpeys, so I know!) that once you have control over a site you control the flow and the sales price of new homes. You owe it to your shareholders. You owe nothing to the local community!

I was Liberal Democrat planning spokesman from May 2011 - a year after the Core Strategy was published for final consultation prior to the public hearings by a Planning Inspector. However I was one of two Lib Dem members of the Planning Policy Task Group (PPTG) from the very start of the process, although generally only one of us attended its meetings. We almost never voted in PPTG and in any case Lib Dems were always outnumbered and usually recommendations went through without even a 'nod' on our part. PPTG did not and could not decide anything.

I have kept all the minutes of those meetings. Until September 2009, we supported the process and the provisional strategic housing site selection. What changed this consensus was the 'scoring system'.

In mid 2008, PPTG unanimously approved a methodology for 'weighted scoring' of 11 short-listed 'promoted' sites (including Sandleford) for a first non-statutory public consultation which included that scoring methodology and ended that October. Officers presented the results to PPTG in February 2009, alongside a "Site Selection Framework" in which Sandleford scored last of the 11 sites!

We were told the "Sustainability Appraisal" (SA) to accompany the final draft Core Strategy would include several "Topic Papers" but we weren't given a written list of what topics these would cover.

We were told that the SA was just "part of the process for assessing the potential strategic sites". Nothing in the report to PPTG said that the scoring system would be changed and the minutes of that meeting record that the officer who presented the report said that the Site Selection Framework would be one of the Topic Papers. In response, PPTG asked "to see an explanation of the scoring system to be included" in the final version of this paper.

Although I supported the subsequent selection of Sandleford as one three "reserve" sites to be consulted on (Newbury Racecourse being the one 'preferred' site), it is clear that I and at least some PPTG colleagues only did so on condition that we would have a chance to approve the scoring system, which Lib Dems were confident continue to show Sandleford in a poor light.

When the final draft Options for the Future consultation paper was presented to PPTG in April 2009, no mention was made of the Strategic Sites Topic Paper or the method of assessing sites. It was emphasised that the Council was not taking a view on the Core Strategy or site selection, so no decision was required of PPTG other than to recommend its publication.

However when the paper was actually published, a "Combined Strategic Sites Appraisal (Phase 1)" document was published alongside it. This claimed "the site selection process … cannot be a precise science" and presented the 11 sites with no accompanying objective scoring system whatsoever. No wonder PPTG were told in Autumn 2009 that most consultation responses "related to the methodology used for assessing the sites": it wasn't what we and the public had approved.

Liberal Democrats from that point were deeply suspicious that the site selection was being rigged. Award of "preferred strategic housing site" status in the Core Strategy would come with a windfall of some £100m for the landowners - most of whom have never lived anywhere near Newbury. Surely such a giveaway on the part of the Council merited at least as much rigour, objectivity and audit trail as a typical Council contract worth 1/00th that value?!

The Strategic Sites Topic Paper did not feature in any PPTG printed agenda until after the final Core Strategy submission in early 2010. Lib Dems only voted for it to be submitted for Public Hearing because we were content with the remaining 95% of the Core Strategy and confident that the Inspector would be as suspicious of Sandleford's selection as we were. Our confidence was at first rewarded when he did indeed reject the planning officers' assertion that "the most appropriate way [site selection] can be considered is by officer interpretation … rather than solely relying on the sustainability appraisal". He specifically required the Council to produce more evidence to back its selection in the SA of Sandleford.

No wonder all promoters of other sites fiercely contested the Sandleford site selection. But the damage was done. The Inspector's job wasn't to ensure that the best site (or sites) were chosen. Rather it was to simply ensure that the process was not unsound. The Council produced just enough evidence to permit Sandleford cross that rather low threshold and we are left to clear up the resulting mess.

No matter what Cllr Law can say, the people of South Newbury know who was in charge throughout this process. It is our Conservative run Council and our Conservative Government's dysfunctional planning system, which is so skewed in favour of landowners, that we have to blame.