Parish Council comments on the Housing White Paper

This is the text of the submission by the parish council to the government’s proposals for planning reform that were set out in a recent White Paper ‘Planning for the Future’ Government White Paper Consultation.  It has been copied to our MP, to Wiltshire Council and to local parish councils:

These comments on the Planning for the Future white paper come from Semington Parish Council which represents around one thousand people in the West Wiltshire village of Semington, and the nearby small settlements of Little Marsh and Littleton.  Wiltshire is a county of old villages like ours, each of which is connected to other villages by ancient tracks, by-ways, green lanes and drove roads, most of which are now rights-of-way.  Typically, they are also now connected to larger settlements by the road network as well as by these routes.

Semington is linked in these ways to the towns of Melksham to the north, and Trowbridge to the south.  They are between three and four  miles away.  These towns are important to Semington as centres of employment, commerce, transport, secondary schooling, further education, health and leisure.  We are well connected to these towns but we are separate, and culturally distinct, from them.  Significantly for us, there is another distinct village settlement between Semington and each of the towns.

Semington Parish Council and the community we represent understand the need for additional housing, including affordable housing, and our policy is to promote appropriate housing development within the community.  Looking back over the period since the Second World War, there are numerous examples of such development in the village.  All have been relatively small additions to the village housing stock and this has allowed the village to grow whist retaining its integrity as a settlement and as a community.  We have been assisted in this by the policies of the various planning authorities within Wiltshire over the years.  Currently, the Wiltshire Council policy is to promote sustainable housing development.  This means favouring the building of housing in urban settings where there are employment, commerce, transport, education, health and leisure facilities, and restricting development in villages like Semington where there are not.

Over the last twenty years there have been a number of examples of Semington Parish Council and the Wiltshire planning authority co-operating so that new housing is developed in the village.  Currently, for example, we are waiting for the building of 24 new homes (including affordable homes).  This project was a collaboration between a small local developer and the village, where there was extensive collaboration and discussions with the Parish Council and local people.  This development met with village approval because it was seen to meet our housing needs and was appropriate in scale and design.  We have been told by our local Wiltshire councillor that this collaboration was exemplary.  Our good record of working with Wiltshire Council is one of the reasons that the Parish Council decided against developing its own neighbourhood plan.

Over the same period (2015 to the present), however, there have been two attempts by national property developers to obtain planning permission for large housing developments outside the Semington village settlement boundary.  Had these been approved, they would, together, have increased the village housing stock by over 25%.  Each was aggressive in approach, and characterised by a disdain for discussions with local people.  It was something being done to us, not with us.  In fact, the Parish Council was told by each developer that there was no point in opposing their plans as they were bound to succeed.  That they did not, was due to the combined efforts of villagers, who protested in huge numbers to Wiltshire Council planners (and subsequently to the Planning Inspectorate), our local councillor, and Wiltshire Council, which was robust in defending its policies and communities, including at appeal.

We have provided this background to Semington and its record on housing development because it is necessary for an understanding of our disquiet at what the government is proposing in the White Paper.  To put it bluntly, we are very concerned about the position that villages such as Semington will find themselves in should these plans go forward into legislation.  Our fears are grounded in the fact that the only substantive mention of villages in the White Paper is this:

Renewal areas “suitable for development” – this would cover existing built areas where smaller scale development is appropriate. It could include the gentle densification and infill of residential areas, development in town centres, and development in rural areas that is not annotated as Growth or Protected areas, such as small sites within or on the edge of villages. There would be a statutory presumption in favour of development being granted for the uses specified as being suitable in each area. Local authorities could continue to consider the case for resisting inappropriate development of residential gardens. 

It seems clear from this that the intention is that villages that are not specifically protected on the narrow ground available will not be protected at all from the sort of approaches that we have experienced over the past five years.  This will remove the ability of communities like Semington to protect themselves from the whims of builders and housing developers.  Indeed, it will remove our ability to have our say about the future of our community.  This seems profoundly anti-democratic.

It also seems significant that neither of the consultation documents mention settlement boundaries or rural exception sites.  Because of this we can only conclude that these are to disappear thereby removing the protection from uncontrolled extensions of housing into the countryside.  The only realistic outcome of this can be the filling in of the green space between villages so that they become absorbed into each other and then into nearby towns.  We cannot really believe that this is what is intended, but it would seem to be an inevitable consequence of the current proposals.

To summarise, Semington village has a history of pro-actively supporting appropriate sustainable housing development in its community.  Is it really too much to ask that we will be able to continue to do this?

Peter Smith

Acting Chair, Semington Parish Council