Comment ID 723
Document Section Consultation Document Sustainability Appraisal, Habitats Regulation Assessment and Equality Analysis Sustainability Appraisal SA View all on this section
Respondent Wessex Farms Trust View all by this respondent
Agent Tim Gent
Response Date 10 Jan 2014
Do you consider the Proposed Main Modification is Legally Compliant? Yes
Do you consider the Proposed Main Modification is Sound? No
If you have responded that the Proposed Main Modification is unsound, do you consider the Proposed Main Modification is unsound because it is:
  • Not Justified

These representations are submitted on behalf of the Wessex Farms Trust (WFT) which is an owner of part of the land at Keyford allocated for new development in the Local Plan. WFT has taken a strong and central interest in forward town planning at Yeovil for over ten years and was present at the local plan examination in May last year. It has a number of comments on the proposed main modifications and these are summarised in this note which starts with a short review of the current position before assessing its performance and what needs to be done from this point forward.

1.0 Background

1.1 As South Somerset’s primary settlement and undisputed focus for growth, the examination of the Council’s local plan spent some time on strategy for Yeovil. Specific focus was on the level of growth that it can and should accommodate and how that growth should be distributed in and around the town. Based on the analysis of responsibility, potential and performance, the Council’s directed an amount of housing to Yeovil which triggered the need for substantial greenfield development. It selected one area to the south of the town as the preferred location for this development and called this the Yeovil Sustainable Urban Extension or SUE. At the SUE high quality growth was proposed based on 2,500 new homes, employment land, a mixture of facilities including a new primary school and open space. According to the Council, this incorporated growth for the plan period and beyond.

1.2 The examination considered this proposal in some detail and in July 2013 the Inspector reported his Preliminary Findings. In these he concluded that the "....that the broad principle of a sustainable urban extension is sound...". However, he was not able to conclude on the basis of the evidence presented (and specifically on the basis of the Council’s sustainability appraisal or SA) that the right location had been selected. He described four main issues:

  • the weight attached to agricultural land.
  • the approach to landscape – especially with respect to the potential for mitigation.
  • a lack of consistency over the protection of the historic environment.
  • a lack of clarity over the scoring of biodiversity and geodiversity.

1.3 The Inspector has therefore requested further SA work from the Council. The Inspector did say that this may show that the best option for the required SUE was that selected and examined– however, until he had that extra information (which should be based on a genuine reassessment of options and their performance) he could not be certain. He made no other comments on strategy or level of growth (for the town) apart from the reference to a SUE being sound. His references also continued to refer to a size (for the SUE) of 2,500 homes.

1.4 This is referred to by the Inspector as the First Issue (of concern) in his preliminary findings

2.0 The Council’s Response

2.1 The Council’s response has been to recognise the Inspector’s concerns and to make an attempt to address them. It briefed and appointed expert consultants to review the SA work and assist with a fresh examination of the options for growth and their performance. The Consultants also advised the Council on general strategic growth options and issues.

2.2 Rightly or wrongly the Council also welcomed (publicly) what the Inspector did not take issue with (at this stage) and emphasised that it considers it can continue with the plan subject to the adjustments that it proposes now.

2.3 The Council’s position is explained in a series of Proposed Main Modifications to the Plan (or PMMs), the explanation that supports them and the intelligence and analysis that they rely on. The key messages from this combination of documents appear to be:

a) An acknowledgment that the Council’s previous analysis was deficient in its starting point, its execution or its presentation (either because of the Inspector’s conclusions or for other reasons).

b) The abandonment of the concept of growth beyond the plan period and plan only for what is required until 2028 (or 13 years by the time the plan is adopted). According to the Council this has the immediate and significant implications by reducing the level of greenfield growth required around Yeovil from 2500 to 1565.

c) As a result it has gone back some way in to the process – especially with respect to the identification and assessment of options. This also responds to the Inspector’s requirement for a genuine reassessment of the situation.

d) To do this though, it considered, on the basis of advice from its consultants (which criticised clarity and consistency in explanation and analysis in the SA rather than the presence of structural flaws), that it could use broadly similar criteria and a significant amount of data (that could be "topped up" where necessary).

e) That review initially (to the Council and its consultants) found no clear favourite for the accommodation of the level of greenfield growth required around Yeovil.

f) As a result additional criteria were used which included a series of delivery measures (to reflect the equally compelling need for development to commence and proceed quickly to meet clear needs – as expressed by the Inspector, the Council and the NPPF), the scope for integration into the town and the potential for mitigation where this was required.

g) The combination of existing and new criteria sees the Council and its consultants find a new solution for the level of growth required. This is to distribute, broadly evenly, the 1565 new homes needed on greenfield land to two locations – one to the north (known as Mudford) and one to the South (which it calls Coker – when it is known locally and shown on maps as Keyford).

h) This allowed the Council to complete a review and addendum to the SA which its consultants now consider to be compliant with requirements, guidance and legislation.

i) Changes to policy for Yeovil are then made together with changes to the proposals map – although the same basic approach to site identification is made and broadly the same level of detail is included in policy and guidance.

j) At the same time the Council makes it clear (in the modifications) that the housing figure for Yeovil is an "at least figure" and emphasises in its response to the Inspectors Points of clarification that it will adopt a permissive approach to applications so that delivery need not be stalled by a further round of development plan document preparation.

k) As a result, and according to the Council, its general strategy (and hence its local plan) could continue to adoption so long this new analysis was accepted. The Council considers this can be done confidently and safely based on the growth requirements it has to satisfy now. It claims the support of properly qualified experts, especially with respect to the revised Sustainability Appraisal.

3.0 Fitness for Purpose

3.1 WFT recognises the challenges facing the Council. On the one hand it is charged with promptly delivering needed and necessary strategic growth and on the other with following a procedure which is long, complicated and rigorously policed. Equally, we have the local plan Inspector requesting an important (and potentially far reaching) re-evaluation of a significant part of the plan’s strategy for its main town, at the same time as raising concerns about the speed of delivery and implementation, whilst warning the Council not to rush or make hasty decisions.

3.2 The Council has clearly wrestled with these dilemmas. It has appointed consultants to deal with the Inspector’s main concerns about the SA and has reconsidered a large number of growth options around the town. In this respect a concerted attempt has been made to make the plan better (in the Council’s opinion at least).

3.3 Our view is that this attempt:

a) Is not rightly founded. The Inspector did not ask the Council to find a solution for 1565 dwellings but for the 2500 homes the Council had included in its plan. This is clearly the task set by the Inspector – see paragraph 52 of his letter which is repeated below:

"I am not saying that had these four concerns been adequately addressed, then the Council would not have identified land to the south of the town for a sustainable urban extension – it may well still have scored best. However, on the evidence submitted I cannot be sufficiently certain that the most appropriate location for a sustainable development of about 2,500 dwellings has been selected."

b) Remains poorly articulated in some important places. Despite the concerns from the Inspector and the advice from its consultants (Enfusion) about clarity and consistency, the Council’s key messages and conclusions are sometimes difficult to follow. This is especially the case in its Proposed Main Modifications document which will be core to any re-opened examination. The SA itself appears to be broadly compliant (but see below).

c) Can, however, identify a clear favourite for growth in any event and whatever the scale (unless that requirement is tiny which it clearly is not). This decision can be based on truly independent analysis and substantial data. The location is Keyford which performs well against the initial SA criteria if that assessment is properly carried out and reflects the conclusions of the previous local plan inspector which have been very well rehearsed and have not been challenged.

d) That performance can only improve with the addition of the extra criteria on delivery, longer term scope and mitigation potential. Keyford is in the hands of a very small number of owners who are all completely aligned in direction and proposal. They have carried out substantial analysis of the site and of the high quality mixed use scheme that can be delivered there. It will be a development that the Council and the town can shape and be proud of rather than just accept.

e) Can therefore be much stronger in three dimensions – in its conclusions on the Keyford area, in the language it uses about the development it proposes, and in the policy it then includes about the development area. On the second point, it is clear that new housing of a substantial scale is urgently needed and its development is a national and local priority – for the clear reasons explained in the NPPF. This dimension is largely missing from the plan as it stands – which continues to feel most comfortable on environmental issues rather than the social and economic needs that the town is clearly facing.  

3.4 These are substantial concerns and on the face of it (and particularly with respect to the decision to radically drop the growth requirement itself rather than in response to the Inspector) the plan could become fragile. This has clear and significant disadvantages. However, because of the demonstrable potential at Keyford (which can be realised quickly) and because of the changes that can be made to the plan’s content and its explanation, it is possible to rescue the plan and proceed to adoption.

4.0 The Keyford Opportunity

4.1 As stated above and notwithstanding the concerns over the SA process, we can be confident about the development potential at Keyford and its opportunity to deliver a high quality urban extension early on in the plan period.

4.2 The principle of development and extension to the south of Yeovil has been addressed (and accepted) previously during the assessment of the previous Local Plan. The Inspector’s analysis from that plan provides a number of relevant and clear messages. These are very well considered and rest on a comprehensive range of issues which include landscape, visual impact (setting to Yeovil), sustainability, agricultural land and heritage and ecology. The Inspector unequivocally supported (and prioritised) growth at Keyford to the south of the town (and in an almost identical location to that identified in the Council PMMs).

4.3 There have been no changes in policy or condition that alter this analysis – in fact many of the key issues now point more clearly in favour of development in this location. The position is underscored by the growing emphasis on the good things that new housing can do (and the clear need for it) rather than the impacts it causes. The urgent need for the swift delivery of this housing in Yeovil, South Somerset and the rest of the UK is compelling (and is recognised by the Inspector and the Council).

4.4 As a result, the area around Keyford continues to offer the potential to deliver a high quality development, creating an living and working environment which respects the surrounding landscape and acting as a true extension to the town. The mixed use development at Keyford can deliver new homes a primary school, local centre, health centre, employment land, commercial land and open space.

4.5 There are specific quantitative and qualitative dividends to be realised from the development, including:

  • The creation of a socially and physically cohesive community which integrates well with the town.
  • A sustainable form of development with good public transport, cycling and walking linkages to Yeovil and beyond.
  • A range and mix of dwellings and land uses to encourage self containment.
  • A landscape strategy which delivers attractive open spaces, reinforces local landscape features and respects biodiversity.
  • An attractive (and different) readily accessed area of new employment for the town which will provide a range of local job opportunities for new residents.
  • A number of local community and education facilities which meet day to day needs of new and nearby existing residents.

4.6 There are no fundamental delivery constraints to the site, which, put another and more positive way, means that development can commence quickly. This is important given the amount of the plan period that has already elapsed. Given the substantial work that has already been completed it an outline planning application could be submitted shortly (with the support of the Council’s indicated permissive approach which is welcome and necessary).

What changes do you suggest to make the Proposed Main Modifications legally compliant or sound? 5.0 Conclusions and Recommendations

5.1 The need to start delivering is important and is a key responsibility for the plan and the Council. Three other (connected) points are equally clear:

a) The first is that the plan must make the right quantitative provision for greenfield development at Yeovil. Whilst it is tempting for the Council to conclude that its proposals have the support of the Inspector, this is not clear, especially as the Inspector asks the Council to continue to plan for sustainable urban extensions of 2,500. The Inspector has not yet explained his reasons for this but it could well indicate that a higher overall figure for Yeovil is needed. This is hinted at by the Council stating that its provision for Yeovil is an at least figure, but is not followed through in the plan's allocations.

b) The second is that the conclusions of it and its SA about option performance can and should be more clearly stated - either because the growth requirement increases (as set out above) or because there is an obvious frontrunner for growth of any scale of (approximately) 800, 1500 or 2500. This is the Keyford area which - especially at the lower end - has been independently assessed in detail and franked for substantial mixed use and housing led development.

c) That policy needs to be devised and introduced now to allow the plan to proceed to adoption. Because the plan can rely on Keyford, this site must be prioritised for release, however that policy is set and whatever the scale of the development the edges of the town are asked to accommodate.

5.2 The mechanics of how the plan can be changed deserve discussion. This is a key responsibility of the reopened examination and the papers that can be issued and, if possible, agreed in advance. At this stage and in advance of any firm conclusion being possible on issue a) above, the main options are as follows:

a) To allocate 2500 homes for the reasons explained. According to the SA the only place this can be allocated in a single area is south of the town.

b) To allocate 2,500 and direct the allocation to two or more sites, with between 800 and 1750 at Keyford (this may require the identification of future directions for growth).

c) To allocate 1565 and concentrate on Keyford or distribute as set out in the PMMs with or without an indication of future direction for growth.

d) To make changes to the plan's policies and proposals maps.

5.3 The option for further delay without some positive conclusion on allocation (even if this is a preliminary release) should not be considered. This is because the need for the homes contained in the SUE is urgent and can - in substantial part and whatever the scale or distribution of growth - be delivered at Keyford (in the area broadly identified in the PMM's). This was the conclusion of independent and rigorously assessed analysis and the context which triggered that decision is just as relevant today.
If your representation is seeking a change, do you consider it necessary to participate at the oral part of the examination? Yes
If you wish to participate at the oral part of the examination, please outline why you consider this to be necessary: WFT is a key land owner of part of the Yeovil SUE. It and Its advisors have substantial expertise in development strategy and development management in and around Yeovil. The WFT has consistently been a key contributor to the debate about Yeovil's future.