Every Council has to have a plan setting out its proposals for the future of its area. Such plans have had a variety of names over the years and the latest term is a 'Core Strategy. They tend to be updated every 10 years or so and Tandridge District Council, along with most other Councils, is in the process of doing that.
In the past these plans were mainly local affairs but recently the Government has increasingly begun to try to control what goes into them. The reason is that the precise wording of the plan has a profound influence on how individual future planning applications are dealt with, whether they are granted or rejected. However much a group of concerned residents may object to a new housing estate being built or a new industrial estate being opened, if that kind of development meets the criteria in the local Core Strategy it is very difficult for the Council to block it.
Where new houses will be built is a big part of the proposed new Core Strategy. Tandridge has been set a target in the South East Plan to build 125 new houses a year for the next 20 years. At present it is more than meeting that target without encroaching on the Green Belt partly because there is a constant stream of small unplanned sites coming along in and around the urban areas in the district. These are known as 'windfall sites'. The Council already has a supply of sites under construction and with planning permission (but not started) of about 840 houses to meet more than the first five year requirement of 625 houses (125 x 5) and expects this figure to rise to around 1000 when it calculates the figures for the year 2007/08.
The problem is that the Government has recently decided that windfall sites should be ignored in Core Strategies. It is insisting that Tandridge identifies enough specific building land to fulfil its targets for the next 10 years as if windfall sites didn't exist. Ignoring reality in that way is very dangerous as it opens the Green Belt to attack.
Tandridge started work on its new Core Strategy several years ago. At that time windfall sites were accepted. Tandridge Council's Planning Dept have been taking advice from the Government Dept in charge of this process, the Government Office for the South East (GOSE) throughout this procedure but it wasn't until GOSE wrote to the Council on the 27th February 2008 that Tandridge were told for the first time that its plan might be found 'unsound' because it had included the windfall sites.
The Core Strategy has to be approved by a Government Planning Inspector. The meeting on the 3rd April was for that Inspector to decide if the plan was going to be allowed to go ahead and to be considered in detail later this year or if it was now so 'unsound' that it should be immediately thrown out. If that had happened it would have had two main consequences.
The first would have been that the Council would have had to start all over again which would have put them back four years. The danger in that is that it would have left them trying to decide planning applications using its old and outdated Local Plan (the old name for a Core Strategy) which would have left them very vulnerable to appeals by developers. Applications would have got through which the Core Strategy might have prevented.
The second is that the Council would have had to immediately carry out a 'Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment' That involves listing every possible site in the area however unwelcome, including all those previously suggested by developers. Inevitably that would include the two Green Belt fields - that is the field at the end of Wheeler Avenue and the field behind Chichele Road and Bluehouse Lane.
Once the Land Availability Assessment list was prepared, each site on it would then be judged to see if it met the Government's criteria for development. The key one at present is 'sustainability'. Any site within walking distance of a town or public transport is almost automatically considered 'sustainable'. Therefore the Bluehouse Lane site would be top of that list with the Wheeler Avenue field not far behind. It was for that reason that so many developers were trying to persuade the Inspector to throw out the draft Core Strategy. And because the Government is so keen on finding new building land within the Green Belt, we suspect that is the reason GOSE were recommending to the Inspector that the Core Strategy be rejected.
The process of seeing whether the Council's proposed Core Strategy will pass the Government's tests of 'soundness' is convoluted.
On the 3rd April the Inspector held the first of several meetings. That was an important one as the general mood was that the Core Strategy would be rejected. But, in the event, it did get through to the next stage.
At that first meeting the Inspector repeatedly said he was not going to look at specific sites.
The next meeting took place on the 22nd April. When we received the agenda we were surprised to find that it showed that the Inspector intended to carry out site visits to all of the sites the developers had put forward.
As a result the meeting on the 22nd April was dominated by residents asking him why he was making these site visits. The reason given was that is was a legal requirement.
At that meeting the Inspector announced that he had instructed the Council to advertise the 12 sites under attack. Members of the public were given six weeks to write to him giving their views - until June 5th.
The advertising of the sites consisted of an advertisement on the Public Notices page of the Surrey Mirror, a letter to Parish Councils, some other groups and residents near to the sites. Because we think that's not sufficient we are circulating a leaflet to as many people as possible to make sure they know what's happening and that they need to write in to say why these sites should not be developed, why the Council's plan is 'sound' and why building on the Green Belt is not necessary. Letters have to be in by June 5th
The hearings start again on June 23rd when the Inspector will go into the Core Strategy in more detail.
We need to keep an eye on what happens and why and make sure no reasons arise which would allow the Inspector to reject the Council's plan at any point in the process or change it so that the Green Belt can be built on. We need to make sure that the right aspects are considered at the future meetings and we need to make sure that the public's views ARE listened to.
The Inspector's report will be issued later this year and it is binding on the Council. At any stage the Inspector could insist on changes which make the Green Belt vulnerable. And he could still reject the Council's plan as 'unsound'.
So far 8 local authorities in England have had their Core Strategies declared "unsound". (That compares with 22 which have been passed) It means that huge sums of public money have already been wasted - we don't want Tandridge to be added to that total.
Please write in by June 5th and help save the Green Belt