There are community boundaries, then there are community boundaries…

There’s a heated debate going on between some of our local residents about what constitutes the community boundary.  It’s been brought about by the local council’s need to develop a new Local Plan. The council would love to stuff as much new housing as it can into small villages all over the borough, either by relaxing planning rules within the village boundaries, or ear-marking large chunks of countryside and green fields and reserving them to receive thousands of new homes at some indeterminate point in the future, when other ear-marked development land is used up, or by appending chunks of the Green Belt to communities by extending their boundaries to include such land.

Back in 2003, when the last major Local Plan was drawn up, the villages had ‘settlement’ boundaries drawn tightly around most of their built extent to maximise protection for the surrounding green fields and the Green Belt.  Where ‘washed over’ by the Green Belt, the presumption was in favour of controlled development within the ‘settlement’ boundary but not outwith. How things have changed.

When the current government came to power, all this was turned on its head. Faced with a collapsed economy, the Chancellor of the Exchequer needed fast turnaround and where better to turn than the construction industry, with its well-recognised ‘economic multiplier’ impact on jobs and growth. Planning guidance was redrafted to relax previous protections for green fields and the Green Belt, becoming known as the National Planning Policy Framework, aka NPPF.

A 5-year land supply was to become the NPPF stick with which to beat local planning authorities [LPA] when drawing up their Local Plans. This would open the Pandora’s Box of the LPA proposing land to be taken out of the Green Belt in order to meet the 5-year land supply,

Why are the ‘settlement’ boundaries creating so much ‘heat and light’ among my neighbours? The fact is, the LPA wants to re-draw them. However, they don’t want to re-draw boundaries based on a rational evaluation of the actual physical change in the built limits of our communities, created by the LPA exercising its control on what was built and where via its planning department over the previous 25 years, they want to redraw the boundaries to suit their pre-determination of their own emerging Local Plan.

The LPA hired consultants to use spurious methodologies to attempt to determine the ‘perceived extent’ of each settlement, that resulted in a potential boundary being drawn on a map for each community.  However, these potential boundaries didn’t suit overall because they were too expansive, although they did suit in some cases where it pushed the existing ‘settlement’ boundary against a green field that might be claimed as an ‘urban extension’ or a ‘rural exception site’, thus sucking the land into the community boundary. A ‘fix’ was needed for this conundrum and it fell to the LPA strategic planning policy team to come up with one.  What they came up with was even more confusing, two further boundaries; first, a revised ‘settlement’ boundary; second, an ‘inset’ boundary, mostly but not exclusively drawn directly one on top of the other.

The revised ‘settlement’ boundary represents a change in the extent of the built area of the community, usually an expansion; however, it might not represent what the consultants mapped as the ‘perceived extent’ of the the built environment.  If the community remains ‘washed over’ by the Green Belt, within this revised ‘settlement’ boundary the presumption to permit development within the strictures of the Green Belt planning regime will continue.

The ‘inset’ boundary is the most threatening.  Under the NPPF ‘Local Plan’ rules, this represents an attempt to create a permanent change to the Green Belt boundary.  It would remove permanently much of the land containing the built environment of villages in the borough from the Green Belt, with all land and built environment within the boundary being treated as if it were an urban area for planning purposes, with the associated unrestricted housing densities and development opportunities. In many instances, the ‘inset’ boundary appears to map directly onto the revised ‘settlement’ boundary, but not everywhere.

The result can appear a bit of a muddle, with some properties previously outside the 2003 ‘settlement’ boundary now within the revised ‘settlement’ boundary but outside the possible ‘inset’ boundary and some properties outside the new ‘settlement’ boundary but simultaneously within the Green Belt. Hence the ‘heat and light’ between fellow residents, particularly from those that find their houses being left out in the cold, beyond the revised ‘settlement’ boundary and consequently subject to the Green Belt’s greater planning restrictions, seeing their neighbour’s property within the revised ‘settlement’ boundary subject to a looser set of planning controls.

The planners in this borough certainly know how to upset people.

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