When the people of Cirencester learned about the plan to meet the Cotswolds housing needs by a mistaken policy to rely on one huge estate of 2350 houses they opposed its immense scale. Cirencester is a Cotswold market town with a wealth of history dating back to the Roman Empire. Its layout and design is characterful; its infrastructure is limited and not equipped to accommodate the huge scale of a proposed development for about 6000 people. Something less than half that size would avoid the town being overwhelmed and would still allow housing targets to be achieved.
“Yes, we need more houses “
Nearly everyone in the town accepts that more houses are needed but believe that the plans are disproportionate and unfair. Along with the other compelling reasons to reduce its size we now need to explore a legal case. Funds are required.
Too many on one site
Cotswold District Council developed a local plan without any community involvement until it was virtually fully formed. in 2014 the plan was uncovered and put out for formal consultation. At the same time another consultation was initiated; the “ Bathurst” outline application, which itself is the major plank of the local plan. From way back in the 2000’s without public knowledge and with scant scrutiny the local plan and an application for a huge site were being progressed hand in hand. In 2014 the public were mightily confused by the council and the land owning developer launching two separate and complicated consultation exercises. There was overwhelming anger and concern at the idea of building 2350 houses on one single site in Cirencester. The prevailing view was “ too many – and in the wrong place” and there was a perception of collaboration between the Officers drawing up the local plan and the landowner/developer. 3000 people signed a petition that required the council for the first time to listen to public concerns.
The regulatory public consultation processes
During the last four years Save Our Cirencester have led a community supported campaign against the sheer scale of the strategic site. Cotswold District Council and the developer, Lord Bathurst, have been constantly reminded at public meetings, council meetings, articles and letters in national and local press, leaflets, radio and TV interviews, of public opposition to their plans Even so, the most effective way of being able to influence decision making was through the regulatory processes. Despite obvious confusion and duplication and a woefully inadequate online access system, thousands of comments opposing the local plan (and subsequently the outline application) were made by the public.
At the time of writing, the examination of the local plan ( EIP) has taken place (at which Save Our Cirencester and other parties gave evidence) but the Inspector has yet to finalise and publish his report.
In a highly unusual move the Council decided to resolve the application in advance of the Inspectors report. Their first attempt in a meeting on September 26 failed and the decision was deferred. To the hundreds of members of the public at the meeting the councilors appeared badly informed and unwilling, or unable, to make a decision. Eventually after a 12 hour meeting the councilors, many of whom made similar points to those made by the public, were led to believe that there was a matter, the bus access point, that could be used to defer the decision. At a second meeting in January, where advice given by a QC employed by the council featured strongly, a vote to approve the application by 17 votes to 9. With no foreknowledge of the QC’s presence, there was no one in the meeting to countervail the QC’s very influential interventions.
What reasons have people given for opposing the scale of the Bathurst development ?
Criticisms of the way the application has been handled
A lack of transparency and misleading statements by CDC.
Unreasonable promotion of the site by Officers and Councillors ignoring other viable sites
The number of houses would be two and a half times more than, and the highest of any town of, a similar size in the country
This single site will create a high level of severance caused by its inadequate access plans.
This severance is exacerbated by a trunk road dual carriageway separating the estate from the town.
Other smaller, better, closer and more sustainable sites were not properly assessed.
Instead, there was a premature focus on this tract of land, owned by Lord Bathurst, as far back as 2008 – but only known to the public in 2014 when the local plan was uncovered.
The objectively assessed need number for Cotswold District was established to be 8100 yet was increased for no apparent reason to 8400 homes.
As things stand in the plan period the forecast housing supply is 9600. That is 1200 more than needed. The council claim that this excess is strategically justified.
Yet the Inspector, in a surprising move, literally minutes before the application meeting was to start, requested that the number to be built in the plan period should be reduced by 550. The explanation given supports the view that the scale is too big.
Given the vexatious nature and harmful effects of the Chesterton development one has to question the Officers staunch and unbending support of a plan they had themselves conceived behind closed doors.
It is claimed that so-called improvements to the road network will be able to mitigate the effects of thousands more cars – going even further to predict that journey times will be shorter than without the development. This is nonsense.
The council have refused to accept that more cars on a road (which will now have ten sets of traffic lights and “at level” crossings) will make things much worse. They have hidden behind dubious data produced by Gloucestershire County Council.
Concerns about traffic-borne pollution have been dismissed despite new evidence on the threat to health, especially to young children.
Instead the council has relied on a DEFRA report which is 8 years out of date, which itself is based on 13 year old data.
The environmental impact assessment on which the local plan relies, and the application’s sustainability report, claims that benefits outweigh the harm to the town. This is patently not the case.
Nearly all the new infrastructure is directly required by or related to the development itself. In fact of the Section 106 items which number 39, only 5 can be considered to be of any benefit to Cirencester and the monetary value is worth less than £100,000 and probably considerably less. Moreover none of the S106 obligations are secured in any way against default.
Cirencester is unlikely to become a significant jobs provider. The new community will become a “dormitory” with its residents commuting out long distances to the major job centres. This will mean that the objective and NPPF requirement for inclusive communities will not happen.
The voting pattern on the application revealed a bias against the interests of Cirencester by all the councilors who live elsewhere. Such a remarkable vote suggests that planning considerations were secondary to self interests.
In summary, Cirencester has little prospect of being able to assimilate the overwhelming burden of people, traffic and demands on its infrastructure without significant harm
Why do we need help ?
The local plan process and Bathurst application was lengthy and complex and the planning authority and the applicant employed the professional services of experts in many fields to support their case and rebut objections. Those campaigning against the massive scale of Chesterton had no such assistance. Yet we were sustained by the firm belief that what was being proposed was inherently wrong. The conduct of the process, the attitude of the council and the growing conviction and valid objections reinforced our campaign. From what we learned and experienced during our campaign it appeared that that the policy was flawed from its inception and that the process was deficient. We want the decision on Chesterton to be overturned. We are also very concerned that S106 obligations, involving tens of millions of pounds over many years may be reneged upon. We also believe that the council has not negotiated in the best interests of the town. To pursue this we need to raise funds to pay for legal advice to tell us whether we have a viable case in law in these matters.
The legal help required
We require a solicitor to review the local plan and the outline application and representations and objections made.
The solicitor will consolidate evidence and prepare a document pack for a barrister.
The barrister will then be able to advise whether or not there is a prospect of a legal challenge and the route such a challenge should take. Advice will be sought on making a late challenge to the local plan main modifications and also highlight whether the community should have S106 concerns.
The costs of the above will be £5200. The benefits of this first stage will be real clarity as to whether the community has done all it reasonably can to represent the wishes of the community to resist the scale of the Bathurst development. Depending on the outcome of this first step there may be further funds for professional and legal advice required to progress legal action.