Sunday, 10 December 2017

Knowle relocation project: PegasusLife appeal inquiry >>> "the Sidmouth community have been badly treated and let down" >>> a summary of the issues

The outcome from the Inquiry over the proposed development at Knowle is imminent:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: PegasusLife appeal inquiry >>> decision expected soon

Here is a very helpful and well-considered overview of how we got here and where we are now, 
put together by a Sidmouth resident very familiar with the issues:

Development of land at The Knowle, Station Road, Sidmouth

We now await the outcome of the Appeal by Pegasus Life against the decision to refuse their planning application for the above site.  Irrespective of this decision I believe the Sidmouth community have been badly treated and let down by East Devon District Council, by the officers employed and by many of the elected councillors.  Am I justified in making this statement?  Consider the following events and make up your own mind.

After deciding to vacate The Knowle site in Sidmouth, East Devon District Council submitted an outline planning application for up to 50 residential homes (class C3 use) and a 60 bed graduated care home (class C2 use).  In March 2013 this application was refused, the main reasons being that; it encroached on open space forming part of an important public amenity, it would involve the loss of a large area of employment land which would have a detrimental impact on the economy of Sidmouth, it would be harmful to the visual amenity and character of Station Road which forms an important approach to the town, and it would have a harmful impact on the setting of the listed building known as Balfour Lodge.

East Devon District Council faced with this refusal employed a different tactic; it sought to change the status of the site by allocating it for residential housing in the new Local Plan being developed.  Like many other residents I was heavily involved in the Local Plan process both in the consultation/formulation stage and in the formal examination process including presenting evidence at several hearings.  I argued strongly and presented evidence for The Knowle site to retain its employment classification (particularly as the emerging Local Plan recognised the need for future B1 employment development such as offices!).  An opposing argument was put forward that Sidmouth had a pressing need for affordable housing and because an alternative employment site (Sidford!!) had been identified the greater public benefit for Sidmouth would be for The Knowle to be re-classified as land for residential development.  The case for a change of status prevailed.

The East Devon Local Plan (2011-2031) was finally adopted on 28 January 2016.  Taking into account the extensive residential development over the recent past and the limitations on the infrastructure and services of Sidmouth to support any new development, a relatively modest allocation of 100 (plus 50 unallocated windfalls) was specified in the Local Plan for Sidmouth.  Of the 100 allocated homes, 50 were identified for The Knowle.  To support the identified need and shortfall for affordable housing in Sidmouth an increased requirement of 50% was imposed on new developments.  The Local Plan clearly states in both its vision and strategy that “affordable homes are a top priority for this council” and that future developments should result in “more balanced communities”.

Is the East Devon Local Plan (2011-2031) a sound statement of policy and to be applied and defended by the East Devon District Council?  The application submitted by Pegasus Life for the development of The Knowle (the councils own land) would be the first big test.

The planning proposal submitted by Pegasus Life was for “The construction of an assisted living community for older people comprising extra care units, staff accommodation and communal facilities, including kitchen, restaurant/bar/cafe, a well-being suite comprising gym, treatment rooms and pool, a communal lounge and storage facilities; car parking for residents, visitors and staff of the assisted living community; comprehensive landscaping comprising communal and private spaces; and associated groundworks”.  The qualifying age for potential residents is 60, the number of units is 113 and the application is for C2 use.

Despite overwhelming public, Town Council and other interested bodies objections, the East Devon District Councils planning officers recommended approval of the application.

The application was determined by the East Devon District Council Development Management Committee on Tuesday 6 December 2016.  It was resolved: “REFUSED (contrary to officer recommendation) with delegated authority given to the Development Manager to draft reasons for refusal.
Members considered that:
> The proposal represented overdevelopment of the site due to its scale and massing being out of character with the area resulting in a detrimental impact upon the amenity of surrounding residents
> The proposal represented a C3 rather than a C2 use
> The public benefits from the proposed development did not outweigh the harm to the heritage asset”.

I was present at the meeting and I would strongly challenge the above reasons for refusal as an accurate and comprehensive record of the points proposed for refusal.  There were also several other reasons for refusal that were presented as clear departures from the Local Plan that were withdrawn on the advice of the Councils Officer (Mr E Freeman) and the Chairman, I do not believe this advice to be correct or appropriate.  An examination of the audio record of the planning meeting will support my comments.

Pegasus Life submitted an appeal against the decision to refuse, the resulting Inquiry commenced on Tuesday 28 November 2017 and concluded with a site visit on Tuesday 5 December 2017.  It is likely that the decision by the Inspector Michael Boniface appointed by the Secretary of State will not be known until after Christmas.  It was clear that the limited reasons for refusal (quoted above from the DMC meeting 6 December 2016) significantly weakened the evidence that could be presented in support of the refusal decision.

In addition to making a decision on the appeal the Inspector will also determine the classification of the development should this be necessary.  The classification of C2, Sui Generis, or C3 is of great importance with regard to the requirement for affordable housing or the compensation payment if not provided.  A  Section 106 Agreement between Pegasus Life and East Devon District Council was published.  This shows that the land being considered for development is valued at £5.8 m.  Pegasus Life has submitted viability evidence to demonstrate that this scheme would not be viable if it were to provide affordable housing, which the Council has accepted.  An “overage clause” has been included where a contribution would be paid if the scheme was more profitable than the forecasted figures.  In practice this rarely yields any significant contribution.

If the appeal is upheld by the Inspector what is the outcome and impact on Sidmouth?  If you look at the whole process and events detailed in this summary the main impacts would be:
> Loss of a significant employment site with the loss to Sidmouth of somewhere in the region of 300 jobs. The number, type and quality of these jobs are very unlikely to be replaced.  This will have a detrimental impact on the economy of Sidmouth.
     > The overdevelopment of the site due to its scale and massing which is out of character with the area will have a detrimental impact upon the public amenity of the open space and parkland.  Part of the original open space would be lost to development.
       > The age qualification (60 and over) for potential residents of the development would exasperate the  in-balanced age profile of Sidmouth and put further strain on the already stretched infrastructure and services.
       > Loss of a building valued by the community and used as a venue for a variety of public events and gatherings.
    > Affordable housing has been identified as a priority by the community of Sidmouth (supported by the East Devon Local Plan) and represents by far the most urgent need to be addressed in all new development.  This site (as the largest allocated site) represents a vital contribution to this need, either by the direct provision or by compensation payment to allow an even higher level (above 50%) in the other allocated sites.  This development will deprive Sidmouth of this value.

How can the Sidmouth community mitigate this loss and damage and seek some redress?  Unfortunately the issue of the loss of a valuable employment site and jobs is out of our hands, with East Devon District Council deciding to relocate elsewhere and the site now allocated for residential housing.  In supporting the Pegasus Life planning application (a gross departure from the Local Plan) East Devon District Council officers and many councillors have knowingly deprived Sidmouth of the affordable housing benefit specified in their own Local Plan.  They will argue that they have secured the highest price for the site and therefore the greatest value for the public of East Devon as a whole, but at what cost to Sidmouth?  At what cost to the integrity of the Local Plan and the Council itself?

The recently published Section 106 Agreement shows the site is valued at £5.8m, it is reported that Pegasus Life have agreed to pay East Devon District Council £7.5m subject to planning approval.  The council has advised that this sum will go towards their relocation costs. Is this fair?  If the council had made it clear that it would only entertain development proposals strictly adhering to the Local Plan the price paid for the site would be closer to the Section 106 Agreement valuation, but Sidmouth would get the full 50% affordable home value.

As a partial redress if this appeal is upheld, East Devon District Council should allocate £1.7m (the difference between £7.5m and £5.8m) towards affordable homes in Sidmouth.

Barry Curwen (Sidmouth resident)

See also:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: PegasusLife appeal inquiry >>> "over-development of the site could cause harm"
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: PegasusLife appeal inquiry >>> challenging the developer's heritage 'evidence' >>> and when public 'benefits' are 'disbenefits'

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