After consultation with community members, I conclude the the SPD isn’t actually a help to anyone. Not to the community, and not to the developers. Not to Vale Cabinet members or Vale officers. In fact, the SPD isn’t a benefit to anyone, that I can see. And so I will be urging Vale Cabinet to abandon it, put no further money or scarce resources into it all, and let us get on with considering Mace’s planning application as the next Main Thing.
Here’s what I’ve said to support this opinion.
This Botley Centre SPD was intended to make it easier for applicants to gain planning permission. It was supposed to do this by expanding on current policy, refining it to make clearer our local needs and aspirations so that permission could be granted to applications that met these criteria.
But the work didn’t begin from the policies in the current local plan and building possible scenarios from there. Instead, the effort began with the aspects of a failed planning application by addressing those qualities that caused the planning committee members to refuse it. The SPD should have begun from the base of the current Local Plan 2011 and how a local service centre in Botley could meet the needs of the current and future residents. Instead it has tried to retrofit the needs of a particular developer. Any careful read of the SPD will see that it doesn’t stem from local service needs, but from a developer’s need to profit from the redevelopment of the site.
This work began in April 2015 as an intention to create a Design Brief for Botley Centre, starting from those aspects of Doric’s failed application that led to its refusal. Vale hired a consultancy with expertise in design and architecture, which makes sense when creating a Design Brief. In June 2015, for some reason, the Cabinet Member for Planning Policy decided to change the aim to an SPD rather than a Design Brief, but kept the same consultant and offered no further guidance to them (that I can see). As a result, we have a planning policy document that has been challenged legally and is likely to be challenged again for its unlawfulness in terms of sustainability appraisal and creating new policy. The poor work on it has led to rework and a second consultation, and thence to a need to modify the land sales contracts to extend the deadline date for the developer. Poor work, rework, delay, legal challenges, added expense. We started from the wrong place: a failed planning application, rather than the needs of a community and the Local Plan. We changed aims mid-journey without a re-evaluation of how our activities related to our goals, and we’ve ended up with a planning document that helps neither the developers/applicants, as Cabinet intended, nor the community where this massive change is going to happen. It’s been criticised by Oxford City, Oxfordshire County, as well as by local residents and organisations.
I refer you to the consultation response (and annexes) from West Way Community Concern, which covers the main issues. I endorse and reiterate everything they say.
Here are my major concerns, in no particular order:
- The Design Guide 2015 holds equal weight as a material planning consideration to this SPD (and any other SPD). The Design Guide is well considered and comprehensive. The Equalities team say they rely on its policies to provide development guidance for all things equalities related. Residents rely on it for all things design related. The Planning team should adhere to the Design Guide. If they will do that, then this SPD offers nothing further in terms of design principles and equalities considerations.
- The land use scenarios focus on student accommodation. Student accommodation isn’t mentioned in Local Plan 2011. It comes solely from Doric’s failed planning application. Student accommodation doesn’t support the local community’s needs of a local service centre. It supports developer profit, and thereby supports the land sale price Vale has negotiated with Doric. The SPD obviously is intended to support this developer with these plans and this land sale contract. Had this SPD been developed prior to any expected planning application, it would have looked very different, and probably would have been fairly constructed and valid.
- Scenarios include student accommodation for students at Oxford’s two universities. Oxford City have many planning policies regarding student accommodation, refined over their years of experience with the special challenges of providing such housing. Vale have no such policies. If we are to venture into provision of student accommodation, Vale should study Oxford’s polices and devise our own policies to inform car ownership, impact on the districts provision of affordable housing, pastoral and health service needs, special design considerations, who can live there, management plans, etc. It’s irresponsible to consider attracting hundreds of students to a semi-rural community without policies in place to guide the plans.
- There should be an analysis of reasonable alternatives for the site. One reasonable alternative, to do nothing, should have been included. BDP declared (in writing and to the Scrutiny Committee) that a low-intervention alterative was rejected via feedback from the community. That’s not true. The DTZ documents show that this scenario was rejected prior to any public workshops. This raises the question of the lawfulness of the Sustainability Appraisal.
- It’s been admitted that the SPD pays no attention to the western end of the ‘study area’ because the development interest is in the eastern end. Therefore of what use is the SPD to the Botley Centre in its entirety?
- In their original terms of reference, the consultants BDP were instructed to include plans for phasing any comprehensive development, in order to preserve access to vital shops and services. They didn’t do that. But the developers have come up with a way to phase construction, and have presented it to the community this month for feedback. The SPD is no help here.
- The consultation on this SPD has been fraught with problems. It’s a legitimate question whether there was a true intention to consult. The evidence base wasn’t published in time for the consultation, in spite of repeated requests for it. Hundreds of people spent thousands of hours of their lives studying the draft SPD to provide thoughtful, relevant and helpful responses. Vale acknowledged that they hadn’t really used any of the feedback, discounting the considered responses as ‘views of a vocal minority of older residents’. In fact, I question whether Vale officers and Cabinet member read any of the responses. At Scrutiny, much of what they heard appeared to be a surprise. It’s ironic that the response from the very developer that all this effort was meant to serve was missed out entirely and not considered in the consultation report.
- The issues of lawfulness identified in the lawyer’s letter in Oct 2015 (mentioned by West Way Concern in their response) were also identified in the various responses Vale received and they were also brought up at Scrutiny Committee. Vale paid no attention until a letter came from a lawyer.
- The site boundary in this SPD is based on the site boundary in the emerging local Plan 2031. That’s creating new policy and is unlawful. The SPD site boundary should be the one used in Local Plan 2011.
- There is therefore a legitimate question of whether this is really an Area Action Plan (new policy being introduced for a specific area), which requires public examination under the planning inspectorate, as opposed to an SPD which is limited to expanding existing policies.
- If this SPD is adopted, then once the new Local Plan 2031 is adopted, the SPD will have to be rewritten. This SPD is intended to help the next application from Doric, which is expected in Jan 2016. I think it would be a poor decision to pour more money and scarce resources into the creation and revision of this document.
- In order to avoid charges of conflict of interest (Vale as landowner who profits from the property sale, and Vale as local planning authority who writes policy and grants permission for development on that land), the decision makers for the land sales contracts were supposed to be kept entirely separate from the decision makers of planning policy and planning applications. That effort has failed. The Cabinet Member for Planning has been integrally involved in the land sale contact discussions. Earlier this year, discussions regarding whether to extend the contracts deadlines for another year involved both the Cabinet Member for Planning and the Chairman of the Planning Committee. This is the conflict of interest I warned about from the beginning, and was assured they were being kept entirely separate. That so-called “Chinese Wall” has proved permeable. We can help to rectify this by abandoning this SPD and not putting Cabinet members in the position of such a conflict of interest.
- DTZ, the consultancy hired to do the planning policy work of viability for this SPD, are the same company hired back in 2012 to do the risk assessment of the original property sales decisions. So they were working on planning policy this year while having access to the land sale contract details from previous years. That breaches the divide between property and planning.
- A key limitation of any SPD is that it cannot introduce new policy. I think we would be better off relying on our saved policies to determine any planning application, and abandoning this SPD as being unhelpful, of questionable lawfulness, and a waste of resources.