Friday, 31 January 2014

Guest Post: Northumberland Conservatives Response to the Local Plan

Cllr Peter Jackson, leader of Northumberland Conservatives writes...
The Conservative Group on Northumberland County Council has carefully considered the Northumberland Local Plan Consultation Document.

Individual members of the Conservative Group have raised specific issues during the consultation period and these following points highlight some of the key issues about which we hold concerns and objections.

1. Population Growth. Our main concern from the outset of the exercise has centred around the population growth figures as presented by the Council. Whilst the report quotes government forecasts that Northumberland’s population growth is likely to increase by 4.2% over the plan period, the draft Plan suggest an increase of 10.3%. It is not clear to us how that figure has been reached, nor how it is justified by objective analysis. In addition the assertion of a shrinking working age population is not born out by ONS figures. So the suggested need for an extra 24,310 houses is in excess of need.

2. Economic Growth. We feel that the thrust of the document is based on the notion that the economy of the County would be revived by house-building. However, we are not persuaded that new house-building necessarily leads to sustainable and long-term local jobs, or that adding to population growth automatically creates an increase in sustainable jobs.

3. Employment. Given the imperative need to reinvigorate those areas of the county where unemployment levels are far higher than the national average, the economic development direction of the Council and partners should be focussed in those areas as a priority. However the Preferred Options approach is to concentrate development on areas more attractive to the developers in Central Northumberland.

4. Rural Development. Northumberland Conservatives believe that there should be positive support also for appropriate small business development in rural areas. This would include encouraging the expansion of existing local enterprises, farm diversification, and assisting new local enterprises. Moreover, in some specific rural locations, for example, Seahouses and Belford, appropriate employment sites should be encouraged. With the introduction of High Speed Broadband rural businesses will be at the forefront of economic activity and job creation through the plan period.

5. The draft strategy appears to encourage an uneven population growth – 6% in the rural North and West whilst the Central Delivery Area has a figure of 12%. Northumberland Conservatives do not agree with this approach.

6. We question the sustainability of that 12% figure as it is likely to encourage a further increase in the existing commuter population that live in Northumberland whilst working in the urban areas within Newcastle. This merely highlights our previously made point regarding the unmade case that increased housing and population in Northumberland will inevitably lead to economic development and jobs growth in the county.

7. Affordable Housing. We support the overall percentage target of 30% as the element of affordable housing within new building development, and remain supportive generally of our long-held view that we must do more to encourage the building of social and affordable housing. Furthermore, we feel that there should be greater emphasis given to measures which would encourage rural affordable housing for lower paid residents living and working within the rural economy.

8. Protection of the Green Belt. We do not agree with the deletion of sections of the Green Belt. It is less likely, in any case, that there would be a need to change the current boundaries if the likely population growth figure of 4.2% was utilised. It is our view that significant sites for development remain on brownfield and previously developed land.

9. Specifically, we support the views of Hepscott Parish Council in relation to the need for a Green Belt boundary around the southern edge of Morpeth which would provide greater protection against development at Stobhill.

10.Community Empowerment. We would hope that local communities are empowered sufficiently to influence specific decisions around additional building in small rural villages and individual settlements. The housing allocations need revision in the light of local plans and local needs. For example, the emerging draft Alnwick Neighbourhood Plan suggests that more housing could be allocated there than the plan identifies, thus rebalancing serious objections of excessive development in other communities.

11.Existing Planning Approvals. We feel that there is a lack of detail around numbers of existing planning approvals which have not yet been built or delivered.One particular example of this is shown by  the treatment of the Cramlington area. Far from Cramlington having no potential for housing growth as claimed in the consultation document, we have knowledge of at least 1,900 extra plots for housing development which have current planning permission.

Also we would prefer to see more detail as to levels of potential brown-field sites which should automatically provide first choice opportunities for house-building and development. These figures need to be taken into full account when calculating the need for extra housing numbers in the plan period from 2011 to 2031.

12.Consultation.So far as the Consulation process is concerned and how it has been delivered, we acknowledge the efforts made by officers of the County Council to consult widely. However, a large  number of residents have complained that the online electronic means of replying to the Consultation has been difficult – and has prevented some from completing their responses. Likewise, those living in the more remote rural areas have been prevented from attending events because of distances involved, and in some cases lack of public transport.

13.Timetable.Finally, we remain concerned about the published timetable for the remainder of this process. It is essential that sufficient time is taken to consult widely, thoroughly, andappropriately over Minerals and Renewables, as both are crucial to the future of our county and for our residents.