‘Who has written this plan?’ Concerns over developers’ role in 800-home garden neighbourhood proposals
PUBLISHED: 07:00 21 February 2019 | UPDATED: 19:01 21 February 2019
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Questions have been raised about the influence of developers in shaping controversial proposals for a “garden neighbourhood”.
The 800-home development in Saxmundham plays an integral role in Suffolk Coastal District Council’s proposed Local Plan; a 15-year strategy for housing, jobs and infrastructure.
The plan, which is out for final consultation, should be developed in partnership with communities. But people in Saxmundham claim their views have been overruled by developers, resulting in sites many say are unsuitable.
Garden neighbourhoods are meant to provide balanced, sustainable developments with affordable housing, efficient transport and green spaces.
But opponents say SCDC’s selected site, which is to the south of the town, between the A12 and East Suffolk rail line, is too small for 800 homes, by the council’s own assessments, faces challenges around road access, and will fail to deliver on its promises.
Meanwhile, Pigeon Capital Management 2 Ltd, representing owners of part of the garden neighbourhood site, has submitted its own ‘Concept Masterplan’, which is so similar to SCDC’s plans, some have questioned who is in control - council developers.
Jeremy Smith, chairman of the neighbourhood plan steering group, said he could see “no good argument” for why all 800 homes should be built at one site.
“It appears would-be developers have had a major input in shaping this part of the plan, while Saxmundham’s community and town council, unlike other towns, are to be excluded from having a say on location,” he added.
SCDC councillor Christopher Hudson said he feared the community was being ignored.
“The council will say they are merely doing pre-planning consultation but it would strike me as the tail wagging the dog on this one,” he added. “Who has written this plan – Suffolk Coastal or the developers?”
The Local Plan has already faced opposition over its inclusion of a 300-acre business park and another 2,000 home garden neighbourhood in Felixstowe.
SCDC claims garden neighbourhoods can ensure new housing is matched with facilities such as schools, shops and green spaces. The neighbourhoods are expected to deliver much of the district’s 2036 housing target.
SCDC’s cabinet member for planning Tony Fryatt has warned failure to adopt the plan could have “serious repercussions”.
But critics say SCDC has become “obsessed” by garden neighbourhoods, overlooking inconsistencies with the Saxmundham scheme and failing to consider valid alternatives.
SCDC’s initial plan was for the 800-homes and primary school to be built over a much larger site. But after campaigners Leave The Layers Alone objected to building on historic green space, proposals were revised, with development shifted west of the railway line.
Mr Smith said the revised site, by SCDC’s own assessment, could take just 495 homes, meaning other sites may creep back into use. He said separate SCDC plans showed a larger area, including the Layers, designated for “mixed use” development, which left the door open for housing throughout.
LTLA member Belinda Moore said she felt “let down” by SCDC as mixed use “looks like coalescence by the back door”.
Concerns have been raised throughout the consultation, many related to assessments that the only road connection between the development and rest of town would be via the A12, possibly requiring a costly roundabout.
LTLA’s response said SCDC’s approach was “seriously flawed” and showed a “systematic failure to do the ground work”.
Suffolk Wildlife Trust, Historic England, Benhall & Sternfield Parish Council and Hopkins Homes all raised site concerns.
SCDC has also been accused of ignoring opportunities for new homes in other parts of the town.
Sites to the east were put forward by landowners and backed by the town council.
However, SCDC’s assessment said part of one site was not available. Bidwells, on behalf of the landowners, said the full site was available and criticised SCDC for failing to include it all. A report for LTLA also said the size of the site had been wrongly presented based on a “misapprehension on the part of the council, which has been drawn to their attention before”.
Mr Smith said his group supported reasonable growth but was unsure why SCDC was trying to “squash so many homes” into one site, rather than use a mix of development locations.
SCDC encouraged people to take part in the consultation. Pigeon did not respond to request for comment.
Councillor dropped after raising concerns about garden neighbourhood
A councillor claims his comments about garden neighbourhood proposals led to his being dropped from the Conservatives’ candidate list.
Christopher Hudson, who represents Framlingham at Suffolk Coastal District Council will not be able to contest the ward for the party during May’s elections. He was also made subject to an official complaint and told to apologise to councillor Phillip Dunnett about comments he made in public while discussing Saxmundham’s garden neighbourhood proposals.
During January’s meeting Mr Hudson criticised the garden neighbourhood, saying many in Saxmundham favoured other housing options. He added it could be difficult for Mr Dunnett to balance his various council roles when considering the garden neighbourhood, which forms a key part of SCDC’s Local Plan. Mr Dunnett is chairman of Saxmundham Town Council, an SCDC councillor and heads its scrutiny committee.
Mr Hudson then highlighted Mr Dunnett’s membership of Adair Freemasons Lodge, Saxmundham, where SCDC leader Ray Herring is also a member. Mr Dunnett asked Mr Hudson: “What is wrong with that? “Why bring it up?” Mr Hudson’s speech was then ended by the meeting’s chairman, who said his time had run out.
Speaking afterwards, Mr Hudson said: “Many people can’t understand the obsession with the garden neighbourhood, after major concerns have been raised about its viability. When the council’s leader and chairman of scrutiny are members of the same secretive organisation, it could lead people to question how these decisions are being scrutinised.”
Mr Dunnett and Mr Herring both declare their membership of Adair Lodge on SCDC’s register of interests and insist it has no influence on their council work.
Mr Dunnett said he was “appalled” by Mr Hudson’s suggestion. “My membership of the Freemasons does not impact upon my work as a councillor and I deeply object to any suggestion I may have abused my position on SCDC,” he said. Mr Dunnett added that as scrutiny chairman his “conduct must be above reproach”. Mr Herring, who did not attend the meeting, said he recommended colleagues declare membership to be “honest and transparent”. He said it had no more bearing on council work than if he knew someone through a “golf club or political party”.
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