Epsom and Ewell Borough Council’s (EEBC) Licensing and Planning Policy Committee voted unanimously yesterday (30 January) to publish its Draft Local Plan for public consultation, after the chairman rebuffed claims that councillors had not been given enough time to read it. The decision followed public opposition to suggestions of Green Belt development in the borough, including a petition with over 2,000 signatures.
Image – Google – Horton Farm, Epsom in Green Belt, that could get 1500 houses.
The meeting opened with questions from the public. The chair, Councillor Steven McCormick (RA – Woodote Ward) told the committee that members of the public could not ask questions directly related to the meeting’s agenda items. This is in the Council’s Standing Orders. Steve Gebbett, who has been campaigning to protect the borough’s Green Belt, said: “My belt’s a bit too tight. I hope you don’t mind me taking off my green belt.” In a symbolic gesture, he placed a green belt on a table, where it remained for the remainder of the meeting.
He asked: “Does the committee ever refer significant issues that affect the whole borough to the whole council?” Mr Gebbett then described a situation in which “councillors go home and tell their loved ones their legacy is: honey, I shrunk the greenbelt”.
Councillor Julie Morris (Liberal Democrats, College Ward) asked the committee: “Am I the only person who hasn’t seen this document before? Have you all been discussing it for a long time? The assembled public might think we’ve been cooking it up for months. But we haven’t.” Councillor McCormick told her that they’d tried “to be open and transparent with the whole process.” He added that there had been many member briefings throughout the summer and autumn, and several statements to full council with opportunities to ask questions.
He also said that the Draft Local Plan had been presented to all members to be discussed in December, and said to Councillor Morris: “Maybe you missed some of those meetings?” Councillor McCormick added: “It’s strange to disperse the idea that it has happened behind closed doors. I’m quite disappointed Councillor Morris, I’m afraid.” Councillor Morris said that she meant that she had not seen the whole document together previously.
Councillor McCormick responded: “The items were presented on 7 December to all members. You’ve had ample opportunity to come forward to seek clarification.” Councillor Neil Dallen (Residents’ Association, Town Ward) said he had “sympathy” with Julie Morris’ comments, adding: “This is the first time we’ve seen the 200-page document. Most of it we have covered in different places at different times. I can’t say there’s parts I wasn’t aware of. I still think there’s bits missing.”
The Draft Local Plan sets out planning policies and sites that may be developed in the Borough up until 2040. It includes nine sites for potential development, on which it proposes that a significant proportion of its housing requirement will be built.
Four of these sites are in the town centre, on previously developed – ‘brownfield’ – land. However, the Council has said that they would be unable to meet housing requirements within urban areas alone. The Draft Local Plan states: “Whilst these sustainable locations are our preferred locations for new development, they do not deliver adequate housing to meet our social responsibilities for providing housing, in particular affordable housing.” Therefore, the other sites put forward for development are located outside of the town centre and on Green Belt land.
Green Belt land includes areas of countryside that are protected from development in order to prevent urban sprawl and encourage development within existing built-up areas. National planning policy requires that Green Belt boundaries are only amended “in exceptional circumstances”.
In the Draft Local Plan, the council says that it “considers that the scale of unmet development / housing needs in the borough that would result from pursuing a brownfield only approach provides the exceptional circumstances and justification to make changes to the Green Belt boundaries in the borough.”
The Draft Plan also states that: “Through the release of less than 3.6% of the borough’s Green Belt, the council will be able to deliver an additional 2,175 dwellings over the plan period”.
Under the proposals, sites removed from the Green Belt for development would include:
- Land at West Park Hospital (for 150 homes)
- Horton Farm (for 1,500 homes)
- Land at Chantilly Way (for 25 homes)
- Land Adjoining Ewell East Station (for 350 homes)
- Hook Road Arena (for 150 homes)
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPFF), which the Local Plan should generally adhere to, is undergoing consultation, including on a revision that states that: “Green Belt boundaries are not required to be reviewed and altered if this would be the only means of meeting the objectively assessed need for housing over the plan period”.
Mr Chris Grayling, MP for Epsom and Ewell, told the Epsom and Ewell Times: “The Borough’s proposal to simply build houses on 135 acres of green belt land, and not make any attempt to pursue the redevelopment of Kiln Lane and Longmead as a way of strengthening both the Borough’s economic future and meeting its housing need is a failure of momentous proportions.”
Mr Grayling has put forward his own proposals for development [reported in the Epsom and Ewell Times] on the Kiln Lane and Longmead estates. He told the Epsom and Ewell Times: “The kind of development that I proposed is happening elsewhere, but the Council thinks it is too difficult to do here. I think that is a cop out, and the result will be a massive loss of our green spaces in the area and real damage to biodiversity. It’s always easier just to build on a green field. But easy does not mean best.”
The Draft Local Plan, in reference to residential development on the Kiln Lane and Longmead estates, states that: “longer term opportunities for intensification for mixed use could be explored in time”.
The Council has said: “The Local Plan needs to protect our attractive and valued environment whilst reconciling the need to accommodate our development needs. The balance between protecting our environment and enabling development and supporting infrastructure, is at the centre of our spatial strategy.”
The borough’s housing need was calculated using the “standard method” in national planning guidance. The need was calculated as 576 dwellings per annum, equating to 10,368 dwellings over the Local Plan period. The Draft Local Plan, however, states: “Taking into account the borough’s constraints, the council is not planning on meeting its local housing need figure.” Instead, it has set a housing requirement of 5,400 dwellings over the Local Plan period.
Under another proposed addition, the NPFF will strengthen its existing point that local housing need is an advisory starting point for setting a local housing requirement. In an email on behalf of CPRE, (The Council for the Protection of Rural England), Surrey, to the Licensing and Planning Policy Committee, Mr Tim Murphy said that there was “no justification” for increasing the number of homes in the borough by 5,400. He said that the standard method used to calculate housing need “relies on household projections from 2014 which are now widely recognised as significantly inflating household growth in areas such as ours”.
The Council’s Planning Policy Manager told the committee that there is “already an existing need in the borough” and that as of June 2022, there were 1,200 households on the list for affordable housing. He added: “We have a significant need for affordable housing in the borough, including for homelessness and people in temporary accommodation.”
However, the committee rejected a motion, proposed by Cllr Kate Chinn (Court Ward, Labour), to ensure that 40% of all new developments exceeding 10 units included affordable housing.
Councillors also raised questions in the meeting as to whether the Draft Local Plan could be altered following the public consultation. Councillor Morris asked whether, if a large number of people came forward to oppose Green Belt development, this would form part of the “evidence base” required for Local Plan policies.
The Council’s Interim Director of Environment, Housing and Regeneration, responded: “It is the content of responses, and what new evidence and information they direct us towards, not about the number of responses received, or the number of times something is said.” She said that the council would be required to provide a statement on the consultation, with key issues that were raised, and how they were addressed with changes to the Plan.
Councillor Morris said: “We’ve taken an awfully time to get this far; I’d hate to see it abandoned. So much of the document is really really important. There are bits that are just not right. If I were to support it, it would not be that I support the content, but the concept of it going forward to public consultation.” She added: “Green Belt has become massively important. […] Keeping hold of what we’ve got has become the name of the game recently.”
Councillor Dallen added: “Can I request that we don’t have 200 pages to go through in one night in future?” Councillor McCormick responded: “It’s noted. We’ll try to do better next time.”
Just before the vote, Councillor Morris said: “I am somewhat reassured that there can be significant change if this document goes ahead. I expected to want to vote against. I felt we hadn’t given it enough thought and time.” She added: “This is clearly controversial. A lot of people are not happy about this.”
After almost two hours, councillors voted unanimously to go ahead with the Draft Local Plan. Public consultation will commence today at noon and conclude on 15 March. Go to Epsom and Ewell Times Official Notices page to see how you can respond.
After the meeting Cllr Steven McCormick, Chair of the Licensing and Planning Policy Committee, said: “We believe the Draft Plan provides a proactive framework for the borough to grow in a strong and positive way, so everyone will have the opportunity to live in an affordable, vibrant area with a growing economy. “The Draft Local Plan is our starting point and we strongly encourage local people to help shape the final Plan by responding to the consultation.”
[Ed: Even if the Green Belt proposals are removed after public consultation this Draft will still be of value in Planning Appeals pursued by Green Belt developers in the future].