The Devon County Structure Plan, on which the public has until September 6th to comment, proposes to extend the ‘Concrete Valley’ in the South Hams, and the ‘flood plain’ new town in East Devon, sticking two fingers up to sustainable development, Government policy and the views of nearly everyone who lives in Devon.  Like most acts of irrationality by politicians, to understand their reasons, we need to look back into history.

In the early 1990s a group of local authorities began meeting in secret to plan a study of the ‘Plymouth Sub-region’.  Over the years they were to make repeated use of a loophole in local government law, allowing the press and public to be excluded from the multi-authority meetings where the real decisions were made.

Before the War, Plymouth suffered from poor housing and overcrowding.  The wartime ‘Plan for Plymouth’ aimed to rebuild the City at lower densities, with a City Centre reserved solely for commercial use.  The thinking behind this plan influenced successive city councils, so that, by the 1990s, Plymouth had one of the lowest population densities of any comparable city (see the full table on www.savedevon.co.uk).  Plymouth’s ‘Old Labour’ leadership entered these secret negotiations with two objectives: to fight for the lowest possible housing target for Plymouth, and to ‘overspill’ Plymouth’s housing need into surrounding areas.  As each authority was left to examine the capacity of its own area, Plymouth concluded the City could only accommodate around 5,500 houses over 16 years.  In fact, the true ‘capacity’, based on the most conservative assumptions in the recent Urban Capacity Study, was over 9,000.  Plymouth also maintained (and continues to maintain) that all green land within the City boundaries must remain undeveloped, even if this meant more damaging greenfield development further out.

The Cornish authorities realised what was happening and withdrew from the study.  But at Devon’s County Hall, certain senior officers saw a rare opportunity to get their hands on a big prestige project.  And so the plan for the South Hams ‘new community’ was born.  If any other alternatives were considered, then no serious evidence was ever released to the public.  A sham consultation in the South Hams offered voters a choice between 3 locations for a new town or 7,500 houses distributed around 6 rural parishes!

The public have always opposed these plans.  The vast majority of the 500+ submissions on the 1998 Structure Plan objected to the new towns.  A poll conducted by the Western Morning News in 1998, voted 12 to 1 against them.  More recently 3,336 people in South Hams and over 21,000 in East Devon (where every household was circulated) have objected.

Instead of heeding these views, in 1998 the Structure Planning authorities (again meeting in private) voted to increase the amount of overspill housing in the final Plan.

In 1999 the Government responded to public pressure, by revising its housing policy guidance.  A “sequential” approach was introduced, where brownfield sites must be developed first, followed by ‘urban extensions’ and only as a last resort ‘new communities’.  But the planning system, like our whole economy, assumes we can continue indefinitely using up finite resources, such as land.  So while the local plans for the period to 2011 have yet to be finalised, we are faced with demands for more building in the period to 2016.

The planners at County Hall now had a problem.  The new towns, in which they had invested so much effort, were now opposed to Government guidance.  Their response, in the new Structure Plan is to re-brand the South Hams Concrete Valley as an ‘urban extension’ rather than a ‘new community’, although as a separate strip of ribbon development, it makes no sense as an extension to Plymouth.  This time, they were obliged to go through the motions of considering other alternatives.  But, again they assumed Plymouth would only take the minimum level of housing required by Government policy.  They assume green land within Plymouth’s boundaries will remain undeveloped, and, of course, they assume the new towns will be built by 2011.  Not surprisingly, they conclude that both the Concrete Valley and the East Devon new town should be extended.

Better alternatives do exist.  At its simplest, Plymouth should be regenerated in a more imaginative way, bringing more people back into the City (the Plymouth Local Plan allows for just 700 new dwellings in the City Centre, for example).  If and when ‘urban extensions’ are needed, then the least damaging locations should be found, regardless of political boundaries.  A sustainable (rather than political) alternative would look at several smaller sites rather than the big prestige projects loved by the planners.

This structure plan may be the last one.  The Government plans to abolish them, with regional planning guidance leading directly to district local plans.  The County’s leaders decry the replacement of elected bodies by unelected quangos, and call for the public to support them – and here lies the problem.  The structure planning authorities, particularly Devon and Plymouth, have behaved more arrogantly than any quango.  They have conceived their structure plans in a bunker, ignoring the views of the public on the issues that really matter, refusing even to debate their terms, outside of the political yah boo at County Hall.

The 2016 structure plan is a last opportunity for Devon County Council.  SHARD would like to repeat our offer, to challenge any County (or District) Councillors who support the plans for new towns, to a public debate, with a neutral chairman at an agreed venue within the South Hams.   If there is any truth in the County’s claims about democratic accountability, then we look forward to that debate and to a second draft, radically different from the first, fully reflecting the views of the people of Devon, with all reference to new towns deleted.  If not, then few will mourn if the structure plans and the people who wrote them, are consigned to the dustbin of history.