Rural Friendly Neighbourhood Plans

The issue of building new homes in Suffolk at a rate higher than ever seen before, has rightly sounded alarms about the inappropriateness of many of the developments across the county. In South Suffolk alone, the list of major proposals and the number of homes includes Chilton Woods 1,250, Brantham 300 to 600, Bildeston 300, Shotley Gate 285 plus 60 person nursing home, East Bergholt 144, Gt. Waldingfield 93, and Holbrook 80. Many of them in sensitive locations, or in areas where the truly local need such as for starter homes has not been adequately addressed.

The wishes of local people can be taken into account through the ‘Neighbourhood Plan’ scheme now underway in some localities, but additionally, residents associations have sprung up to exert pressure outside of the formal processes. This is indicative of the strength of feeling and also a warning that the current planning model, and indeed the whole philosophy behind the provision of housing, may not be fit for purpose in the face of housing quantities imposed by government diktat. In order to have new housing fitting the actual requirements it may be necessary to refocus the planning process onto the local needs assessment as the prime driver.

That is, first to ask the question:

  • what kind and how many houses are needed to fulfil local organic growth from first-timers and for locally based downsizers or retirees?

Then, when the local housing needs have been assessed, any additional demands can be scrutinised in the order:

  • new housing for economic stimulus and new job opportunities
  • housing for prestige, vernacular, or novel architectural merit schemes
  • accommodation for urban overspill or national population increase

In this way the types of housing growth can be clearly distinguished, and the growth plan viably contained. Importantly, the rollout of the whole series of development can also be made conditional upon key services and essential infrastructure keeping pace with the new housing build. If this suggested revamp of the approach to planning seems expansive, then that is because of the unprecedented scale of the challenge of providing for genuine needs without permanently losing the rural character which we cherish.

There is heavy pressure upon local councils to push through planning permission for new housing to accommodate actual and anticipated population growth. Housing is already in high demand to cover social trends such as split family units, people living longer, and the demand for second homes. Last year, Babergh council unanimously backed a plan to increase the number of homes in the district by 6,000 by 2031. The ‘Neighbourhood Plan’ scheme is designed to help the area targeted for development to have some influence over the mix of types, location, and styles, of the houses on the development. Although it cannot easily influence the number of houses.

East Bergholt is well advanced in preparing its plan, and I have contributed to it, working with the Parish Council. The questionnaire and survey which forms part of the overall plan revealed a very strong preference for small developments of up to a maximum of fifteen houses, but did not object to developments in principle. Whilst it is possible to object to a development proposal without a plan and succeed, such as happened at Bildeston recently, local authorities have to give due consideration to the neighbourhood plan. It is a welcome additional defence in the long saga of maintaining our rural standing in the face of remotely imposed urban-style housing quotas.

Steven Whalley