South West Policy Project Officer Update Report January 2014 Yet another year of system changes, but development plan progress

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South West Policy Project Officer Update Report

January 2014

Yet another year of system changes, but development plan progress

It has become my convention to begin the first Update of each new year with a brief reflection on what has happened over the past year. 2013 has seen the formal ‘revocation’ of the draft South West RSS ; further progress in getting Core Strategies/Local Plans in place ; significant activity on the Neighbourhood Planning front, with the region very well represented in the national context as far as pioneering plans completed was concerned ; and new Planning Practice Guidance emerging [ at least in draft form]. The influence of the region’s six LEP’s has continued to grow steadily and there has been significant activity around the region’s coast, with the designation of 12 new Marine Conservation Zones and the start of work on the South Marine [Spatial] Plan for the stretch from east Dorset to south Devon. On the energy front, Hinkley Point C has come significantly closer to being a reality and photo-voltaic energy ‘farms’ have become big news , but offshore wind power generation has suffered a set back with the cancellation of the Atlantic Array. Finally, and true to form, just before Christmas, the Government used the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement to announce [amongst other things] more ‘prescription’ for how to revive ailing city centres and high streets ; more infrastructure investment to ‘unlock new large housing sites ; and proposals to toughen up the ‘special measures’ regime. At the same time, it launched consultations on a review of the 2008 Planning Act regime; measures to improve development plan making; a draft NPS on National [Road & Rail] Networks; and shale gas production.

This Update begins by looking at the planning of our high streets ; moves on to look at infrastructure ; the rise and rise of the LEP’s ; marine and coastal planning ; developments on the energy front, including the emergence of shale gas exploration and extraction ; the latest work by Natural England and others on National Character Area Profiles ; and the draft NPS for the National Networks. It concludes by reviewing progress on Cornwall’s Eco-town.

Re-imaging our High Streets

The last 12 months have seen a number of high profile national campaigns to help our ailing high streets ,such as the Daily Telegraph’s ‘Reinventing the High Street’ [ launched in April by, of all people, Tesco’s Sir Terry Leahy !] and continuing pressure on the Government by Mary Portas, who appeared before the Commons Communities & Local Government Select Committee in September with robust answers to concerns about the effectiveness of her Portas Pilots scheme. In addition, there have been reports by planner John Parmiter, of Peter Brett Associates, in May, advocating a new ‘town centre investment management’ approach, in which these areas are brought under unified control to facilitate real change ; by ‘retail veteran’ Bill Grimsey, in September, which suggested that high streets could no longer rely on shops to survive, but had to diversify, in a ‘hi-tech future’, to meet health, entertainment and housing needs as well ; and by the ‘Distressed Town Centre Property Task Force’, in November, which suggested that town and city centres should be designated ‘national infrastructure’, in order to open up significant funding opportunities not otherwise available. Then, in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, on 5 December, came central government financial and planning action in the shape of a decision to put a cap of 2% on the business rate increase for 2014-15 [ it would have been 3.2% ] and to extend the higher level of small business rate relief until April 2015 and of development management measures to permit greater flexibility in change of use from retail to leisure uses .All of these have made 2013 the ‘year of the high street’, and for us in the South West, this all came together in our final CPD Conference, in Bath, on 6 December on ‘Re-imaging our High Streets’.

In the context of an ever changing retail sector and formal government policy in the NPPF still seeking to promote ‘town centre first’, a range of expert speakers looked at past history, the various 2013 reports; progress following the Portas Review ; some local case studies and some prescriptions for the future. It became clear that planners needed to help ‘positive change’ to take place and there were examples nationally and more locally of how successful ‘retail places’ could be nurtured. Bath, for example , was one of 162 centres in the UK making use of the government promoted Business Improvement District ( BID) mechanism, whilst Wiltshire Council was working hard to promote and develop four of its major town and city centres – Chippenham, Trowbridge, Salisbury and Calne - within the context of its emerging Core Strategy. Using a partnership approach, ‘visions’ had been put in place for each of the first three, whilst in Calne, a more overtly community-based way forward was being tested.

Overall, it was clear that despite such examples of positive action, with planners centrally involved, and the undoubted success of the Portas initiative in putting the high street firmly on the agenda – with particular local benefits in the South West in Liskeard, ‘Great Bedminster’, Bristol, and Tiverton [ the region’s only ‘Portas Pilots’ ] , all of this was really only a start. Major issues, such the typically fragmented ownerships and the need to establish the kind of overall control of assets in order to encourage investors, not to mention the thorny matter of business rates, all need to be resolved in order to see a future for our high streets.

A big week for infrastructure

It seems that in planning nowadays, the matter of infrastructure is always a key consideration. The Government raised its profile once again with the publication, on 4 December 2013, of the latest version of the National Infrastructure Plan. This 152 page document is less [wish?] ‘list-heavy’ than its predecessors, and sets out the 40 top infrastructure investment schemes in England and Wales .It confirms the setting up, ‘early in 2014’, of a specialist planning court to deal with judicial review matters and welcomes the Insurance industry’s commitment to invest £25bn over the next five years as part of a ‘UK Insurance Growth Action Plan’.

Also flagged-up in the NIP is a proposed review of the 2008 Planning Act regime, with the aim, in the light of experience, of shortening the currently complex and lengthy pre-application phase and of ‘streamlining’ the Development Consent process. The Government is anxious to help deliver both key projects [ such as nuclear power stations and new power lines ] and ‘more ordinary development’ in a more streamlined fashion. There is also to be consultation on measures to improve [ for which read ‘speed-up’ !] development plan making, including a ‘statutory requirement to put a Local Plan in place ‘ [ some might have assumed that this was already implied within existing legislation and regulations, but it is a move which a number of South West authorities will need to watch carefully !]. On consultations, there are plans to reduce the number of ‘unnecessary’ statutory consultations [ though quite where the line will be drawn here is not easy to predict ] and plans for single point of contact across a range of bodies for planning authorities. There is to be new legislation which will mean that where an authority has failed to discharge a planning condition ‘in time’, the development will be treated as approved. Finally, and rather less easy to visualise, there is reference to the Government working with councils to develop a pilot project designed to pass a share of the [ financial] benefits of development directly to individual households.

The continuing rise of the LEP’s

Previous recent Updates have already charted the emergence of the region’s six Local Enterprise Partnerships as major players in the strategic policy arena. [ See May, July & November 2013 editions ] On 12 December 2013, hard on the heels of the critical, but constructive All Party Group report on LEP’s and local growth strategies, published at the end of October [ see November Update ], a conference organised jointly by the South West Forum and South West Stakeholders looked at the emerging relationship between the LEP’s and civil society, where there were seen to be both opportunities and challenges. A whole range of civic society bodies, co-ordinated for example by the National Council of Voluntary Organisations ( NCVO) ,is now, like local planning authorities, seeking to ‘engage’ with their respective LEP’s, since it is now clear that these Partnerships are here to stay, at least for the near future. For their part, the Partnerships are themselves engaging increasingly with the big sources of finance – from central government, from Europe and now, Big Lottery Funding There now evidence of increasing central government emphasis on supporting those representing big cities/conurbations – not good news for most of the South West, apart from the West of England. At the same time, the Government appears to be moving towards public sector support via smaller ‘local’ schemes, facilitated by the LEP’s, rather than via massive national programmes.

Our LEP’s are now taking on the role of ‘channelling’ major public sector funding, including the Regional Growth Fund and, most recently, that within the 6.2bn Euro EU SIF Programme for 2014-2020, for which three of them have just submitted their draft strategies for handling their respective shares [ see November 2013 Update ].These allocations range in size from 593million Euros for Cornwall & The Isles of Scilly, to 80m for the Heart of the South West, down to 38m for Gloucestershire. However, overall, the budget for local economic growth in the South West has been hugely reduced compared to that in the RDA days. Another issue would appear to be that of establishing a credible ‘business case’. This the LEP’s must do as part of their respective ‘strategic economic plans’ as well as in their bids for particular funding. They are currently not strong on equality matters[ LEP’s are required to promote equal pay and opportunities within their areas ] , but are working hard to develop their social inclusion strategies, usually expressed in their documents under headings such ‘People’. Their work has only had limited input from the housing and land use planning sectors and some, and even less input from the representatives of local civil society and some, if not all, of them are now re-thinking their governance structures, to address such issues as public accountability, highlighted in the All Party report, and the need for more local community engagement.

Overall, although the main thrust of the Conference was intended to be looking at the relationship between civil society – in its many dimensions, and the region’s LEP’s, it soon became clear that there are just as many issues for the Partnerships themselves in working out how best to engage with the multiplicity of central government departments and agencies with whom they are expected to work ! Much is being expected of the LEP’s , not least in coping with funding systems themselves undergoing significant changes, and as the RTPI nationally pointed out in its evidence to the All Party group, more joined-up thinking and spatial awareness across Whitehall Departments and co-operation from all of them and from non-departmental bodies, will be required to achieve sustainable economic growth. This will in turn, require integrated local planning on the ground, with LEP’s and local planning authorities working together. In the South West, the Partnerships are already drawing heavily on planners’ skills, especially those within the County and Unitary Planning Departments .

The South West gets the lion’s share of the new Marine Conservation Zones

Further statutory protection for the environment within the seas around our coast took the form of the formal designation, by DEFRA, on 21 November 2013, of 27 Marine Conservation Zones,(MCZ’s) of which 15 are off the coast of the South West. In the announcement, by Marine Environment Minister George Eustice, we are informed that these new zones cover an area ‘roughly three times the size of Wiltshire’ [ though how many people, there would be, even among South West residents, able to relate to this, must be questionable !] The figure is actually some 10,000 square km and these zones now join over 500 other marine protected areas in the UK, to which central government was committed under the Marine & Coastal Access Act, 2009. MCZ’s are designated under Section 116(1) of this Act.

My March 2013 Update referred to the then on-going DEFRA consultation on proposals to designate 31 MCZ’s within English inshore and offshore and Welsh offshore waters - a significant reduction compared to the 173 identified back in September 2011 by four ‘regional projects’. One of these, ‘Finding Sanctuary’ looked at potential sites around the coast of the South West , and all 15 of its proposals have now been confirmed.

The 12 Inshore Zones [ waters out to 12 nautical miles ] stretch from ‘Chesil Beach & Stennis Ledges, off the Dorset coast , all the way round to ‘Lundy’ in northern Devon, and they range in size from ‘The Manacles’, off the southern coast of Cornwall, 3.5 sq km to the ‘Skerries Bank’, off south Devon, 250sq km. Most are contiguous areas, but some, like the Isles of Scilly, comprise up to 11 spatially separate areas. Generally, each zone has one ‘conservation objective’ which applies to all the natural features there being protected. There is a separate document, with a designation map and explanation for each zone and an overall Explanatory Note about the designation process and how the zones are to be managed. Lundy has long been recognised for its ecological importance and became England’s first Marine Nature Reserve back in 1986, which has now been ‘converted’ into a MCZ.

The 3 Offshore Zones [ waters beyond 12 nautical miles and out to 200 ] are ‘The Canyons’, a 661sq km area 330 km off the south west tip of Cornwall and the most remote of all the 27 new zones ; ‘East of Haig Fras’ , 400 sq km in the Celtic Sea, 67 km north of Lands End ; and ‘South-West Deeps (West)’, 1,800 sq km along the edge of the Continental Shelf, 230 km south west of Lands End.

South West energy

Nuclear power

Though it has been somewhat caught up in the high profile national debate about future energy sources and energy policy, Hinkley Point C has recently moved a step closer to reality thanks to a Chinese finance agreement. It was announced by Chancellor George back in October, whilst he was in a place called Tishan, that ‘the UK Government had agreed’ to China investing in our new nuclear power plants .Amongst other things, this has paved the way for a significant Chinese stake in the Hinkley Point project, to replace that formerly held by Centrica. The deal appears to have been made possible because EDF was already working in collaboration with a major Chinese power group on a new plant there. In a different spin, the Government hailed these negotiations as ‘ triumph for British diplomacy’, as they potentially open up China’s rapidly expanding nuclear energy market [ 17 plants so far , with a further 30 or so planned !] to British companies, as well as ‘ helping to keep electricity bills down for British consumers’.

Quite what kind of ‘deal’ this will work out as remains to be seen however. The eventually agreed ‘strike price’ for HPC’s electricity, of £92.50 for every megawatt hour generated, over a period of 35 years [ almost twice the current wholesale cost of electricity ], is higher than the Government had been hoping for. This would however come down to £89.50, should EDF go ahead with a second new plant at Sizewell in Suffolk. It was also confirmed in October, that the cost of HPC had risen to £16bn, to include provision for the accommodation works already carried out. Then, in December, it was confirmed that the whole HPC deal is to be investigated by the European Commission, to determine whether or not it breaches EU rules on state subsidies for private companies – a process that could take until summer 2015. South West MEP, Sir Graham Watson, has expressed every confidence that the UK Government has addressed these matters and stated that whilst the Commission’s inquiry may delay the project, it ‘will not derail it’ ! EDF has, understandably, yet to make a final decision to go ahead.

Meanwhile, the future of the Hitachi project at Oldbury-on-Severn, remains unclear. Horizon withdrew its interest here last year, but would still appear to be involved, with Hitachi, in plans for a new nuclear plant at Wylfa, Anglesey. Tucked away in the latest version of the National Infrastructure Plan, published in December [ see above ], in a section on the UK Guarantee Scheme for major infrastructure projects, is the announcement of a new co-operation agreement with Hitachi and Horizon to support the financing a new Wylfa plant , ‘subject to due diligence and ministerial approval’.

Solar power

In January 2013, plans were announced for one of the largest solar PV energy ‘farms’ in the UK so far. This £500m, 38 MW project, involving 160,000 solar panels on 200 acres of the former RAF Wroughton Airfield just south of Swindon was being proposed by Swindon Commercial Services (SCS) in partnership with the Science Museum, which took over the maintenance of the airfield in the 1970’s when it began to use the hangers to store some 30,000 large objects not on display in London. The land is classified as part light industrial and part agricultural. Public consultation took place at this time, with a view to submitting a planning application in April, but this was delayed due to change of status of SCS.

In June, it was admitted that SCS, a company which had been spun out of Swindon Council back in 2010, had failed to win bids for the expected range of public sector contracts, with only those for the Council’s waste collection, pothole repairs and street cleaning being secured. All these services and the staff involved were then transferred back to the Council, with the remainder of SCS left to concentrate on renewable energy projects. Following the submission of the planning application and further public consultation during the summer, the Council granted approval on 11 December 2013, for what had become, by then, a 40 MW scheme, with 150,000 solar panels over an area of 170 acres, making it the largest solar PV farm of its kind to gain a planning consent to date. Benefits were said to include a secure and reliable income for the Science Museum to help its work and a community benefit fund, with the potential to ‘generate’ [ ! ] around £40,000 a year for local projects in Wroughton. Swindon Council has, however, itself referred its decision to the Secretary of State because of his ‘declared interest’ in solar power projects in October, when he rejected a planned 24 MW scheme on an airfield in Suffolk on grounds of environmental harm. The Wroughton site is within an AONB and significant concerns have been expressed by Natural England !

Offshore windpower

Meanwhile, in the Western Approaches, another renewable energy scheme appears to have been abandoned. It was announced in November 2013 that the planned ‘Atlantic Array’ offshore windfarm had been abandoned. This scheme, by Bristol Channel Energy Ltd [ a subsidiary of RWE NPower ], involved between 187 and 416 turbines, with an installed capacity of 1,500 MW, located 13 km off the northern Devon/ Somerset coast and 16km off the South Wales coast and with a proposed landward National Grid connection at Alverdiscott, four miles east of Bideford. Having been originally proposed in Spring 2010, the scheme had reached the stage of being submitted to the National Infrastructure Planning Unit of PINS as a scoping report, requesting ‘an opinion’.

Fracking for shale gas

The RTPI believes that it is crucial for those local authorities found to have significant reserves of shale gas within their areas to develop appropriate planning policies for dealing with exploration and extraction within their local development plans. Within the South West this means essentially ‘historic’ [ pre- 1974] Somerset – no doubt much to the relief of authorities in Cornwall, Devon, and most of the rest of the region !

On 17 December 2013, DECC published ‘Next steps for shale gas production’ as as consultation document following on from the findings of an SEA report, by AMEC, setting out the potential economic and environmental effects of further oil and gas extraction activity in Britain, including that of shale oil and gas. There would appear to be huge potential for shale gas extraction by fracking [ rock splitting deep below the surface by high pressure water injection to release the gas ], with a figure of up to 25% of the UK’s current gas demand delivered in this way within a decade or so, being quoted. The consultation runs until March 2014.

The first major confirmed gas reserve is on the Fylde Coast in Lancashire, identified by Cuadrilla. Here, fracking was resumed in December 2012,[ subject to new controls to ‘mitigate seismic activity risk’ !] following an 18 month suspension while an investigation was made into earth tremors felt back in 2011. Since then, there have been high profile demonstrations at another Cuadrilla site in Balcombe, West Sussex. Other companies now want to explore in Fermanagh, Vale of Glamorgan, Kent, Sussex and Somerset. and perhaps, here in the South West, the documented experience of the Dorset County planners in successfully dealing with major scale oil extraction in the Isle of Purbeck area, some five done decades ago, should be quickly dusted off ? [ see also, the RTPI’s useful ‘Facts about fracking’ 20 Dec.2013 ]

National Character Area profiles

A day seminar in Bath on 20 November 2013 organised jointly by Natural England and CPRE Branches in the South West, provided an insight into the work now being carried out to revise and ‘refresh’ the data within the 159 or so [English] National countryside Character Areas.(NCA’s) Each of these area profiles is accompanied by a ‘Statement of Environmental Opportunity’(SEO) and together, this data - now to be produced comprehensively in digital form for the first time – and using the new ‘ecosystem services approach’ , can be freely used by anyone to help shape environmental projects and aid decision making. A particularly exciting development was the prospect of being able to link all of this into other data on human health, well-being and prosperity.

A guide to the new NCA Profiles is to be produced by Natural England in 2014, which will ‘signpost’ uses and applications, such as the use of SEO’s to help stimulate debate about appropriate development and change. The seminar went on to look at a number of local case studies, including the use of NCA information in the Mendip Hills [ NCA 141]; by the Exmoor [NCA145] and Dartmoor [NCA 150]National Parks, to inform the ecosystems work there ; and in the Somerset Levels and Moors [NCA 142] by the Avalon Marshes Landscape Partnership. Also referred to was the growing importance of the new Local Nature Partnerships (LNP’s) , who were now starting to engage with the NCA data, as also was English Heritage, in its work on historic landscapes

Overall, there was plenty of evidence that not only were the NCA Profiles getting better from a data point of view, including new detail at the scale of local authorities, parishes, wards and even individual farms, they were also being increasingly used. To an extent, the Seminar was ‘preaching to the converted’, but the new NCA work offered the hope of being able to bring others with a different, ‘development-based’, outlook and brief into discussion to help everyone achieve better solutions for change.

National [ Road & Rail ] Networks

Just as the Government announced its intention to review the whole NSIP/Planning Act 2008 regime, another National Policy Statement (NPS) has emerged. The ‘Draft NPS for the National [ Road & Rail] Networks’ was published for consultation by the DfT on 4 December 2013. It sets itself a major challenge – ‘to provide the right balance between a well-connected and high performing road and rail network, with sufficient capacity to meet the Country’s [ England] long term needs, whilst protecting the environment and minimising social impacts’. It also includes the following statement in justifying the need for developing these networks – ‘ such networks are drivers of growth ‘ which ‘in their current state, without development’ will’ act as a constraint to sustainable economic growth, quality of life and wider environmental objectives’. Readers will probably agree that this statement sums up the situation in the South West exactly !

As usual, there is a package of documents for this consultation ; the 21 page Consultation Document itself ; the Draft NPS [ published as an 88 page Annex A ] ; an Appraisal of Sustainability [ 500 + pages as five further Annexes] ; and an Appropriate Assessment under the Habitats Regulations [ Annex G with just 17 pages]. The Draft NPS contains an introduction followed by chapters on the need for network development ; wider Government policy ; assessment principles ; and [ the biggest chapter] ‘generic impacts ‘, covering emissions, biodiversity, geological conservation etc. There are also maps showing firstly, levels of congestion on the current strategic road network [ little congestion shown in the South West, compared to other areas of England, apart from short stretches of trunk road in Dorset, Devon and Wiltshire and predicted future serious congestion on the M5 just south of Bristol ] Secondly, there are maps of the strategic rail network [ in which the South West features very little – just London – Swansea , Bristol north to Birmingham, and London down to Salisbury ]

The Consultation Document contains 9 Consultation Questions. The number has been kept short, but, some of them are very big ones, such as’ [ 2] Does the draft NN NPS adequately explain the Government’s policy for addressing need as set out/ If not, why not ?’ Helpfully however, each question is prefaced by reference to the relevant chapter in the draft NN NPS. The consultation period ends on 26 February 2014.

This draft NPS does not cover HS2, which is being handled by means of a hybrid bill. There are however, some related references to this project, such to new networks and strategic rail freight interchanges ‘ which will be needed as a result of the extra rail capacity and connectivity which HS2 is expected to generate. Finally, sitting alongside the NPS, but not forming part of it, is a promised statement of the Government’s current investment programmes for the road and rail networks – ‘ Road & Rail Investment Strategies’, providing details of funding and timing.

Progress once again on Cornwall’s ‘Clay Country Eco-town’

Back in 2012, developer Eco-Bos decided to put its original plans on hold as a result of the economic downturn, and since then, Cornwall Council has been seeking ways to progress the project. Following a bid for financial support to DCLG early in 2013, a £1.4m grant has now been secured, which will support the next stage – a new master plan and planning application for the West Carclaze site, including 1,500 new homes , a new primary school, local centre, employment space, green space, and new cycling and pedestrian routes. Cornwall Council will now be working with Eco-Bos and other partners on this first element of the new eco-community, involving significant local community consultation, as well as local Town and Parish Councils and a specially set up ‘Peoples’ Panel’.

Geoff Walker

RTPI SW Policy Project Officer 12.01.14

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