Nimbyism or Neighbourhood?

The article below is a reproduction of the original by Michael Aaronson, chair of Normandy Action Group on Nextdoor Normandy.

“My post reporting the inclusion of a ‘village extension’ in Normandy/Flexford as part of the latest proposals from Guildford Borough Council (GBC) to the Inspector who is examining their Local Plan was aimed at encouraging Nextdoor subscribers wanting to know more to sign up to the Normandy Action Group (NAG) Newsletter. (Many thanks to those who did.) Note that NAG quite deliberately has not taken a position on whether this proposed development is a good thing or a bad thing; we don’t know enough about it yet and in any case our aim, as expressed on our website, is “to keep local residents as informed as possible about planning matters and empowered to decide for themselves about development policies and plans.”

However in view of the comments the post provoked I thought I would offer my own thoughts on the subject. In weighing a proposal such as this I would always ask two questions: has it come forward in a good way or a bad way, and will we as a community have a chance to influence the outcomes it could deliver for the common good?

On the first point it is clear that GBC continues to duck the challenge of a Master Plan for Guildford town centre that would allow imaginative development of currently neglected sites to provide housing that people – especially young people – could afford in a place where they want to live. The tendency of this Council throughout the whole Local Plan process over the last few years has been to reach for the easy option of hiving off a portion of the Green Belt – which the big developers love because it plays to their business model of a profit margin of at least 20%. Brownfield sites, on the other hand, require a higher degree of creativity to be developed and are less profitable too, as the site value uplift when planning permission for housing development is granted is considerably less than it is on a greenfield site.

So I think this proposal has come forward in a bad way; it smacks of desperation on GBC’s part to pluck it out of nowhere when it has not featured in any of the versions of the Local Plan that have gone out to public consultation. There are also a number of factors that make it far more problematic as a site than GBC has acknowledged, among them: traffic management challenges in Glaziers Lane, proximity to the adjacent Strawberry Farm waste management site, adverse effect on the nearby Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (to reach the target of 105 homes it will be necessary to build 3 or even 4 storeys, which will have a dramatic effect on the vista from the Hog’s Back), and finally the lack of any truly “exceptional circumstances” that would justify taking this land out of the Green Belt (and in the process adversely affecting the openness between Normandy and Flexford that GBC’s own Planning Officers have cited in rejecting recent planning applications for that same site).

But most important of all, because of the way the site has been introduced into the planning process we the inhabitants of Normandy/Flexford have been denied the opportunity to comment on it. We can’t make representations at the public hearings because we are not registered to do so – because there was nothing in the Plan that was submitted to the Inspector that suggested we would need to be. If as a result of the Examination the site is included in the Plan there will have to be further public consultation – but by then it will be very late in the day and pretty well a fait accompli.

This leads into my second point, about the potential value of the site to the community. Despite all the issues highlighted above, I could still be persuaded that this development was beneficial, provided I felt we could have some say in the shape and form it took. Will it include the provision of affordable homes for those who need them? Will it include some amenities that will be of benefit to all? Will it employ the most up-to-date environmentally-friendly and sustainable building methods? Will the developers be held to their commitments regarding affordable housing and infrastructure improvements? As things stand, and based on the track record of most so-called ‘development’ in this part of the world, I have my doubts. Developers mount slick PR campaigns that pass for public consultation, but our ability to have any real impact on what they do is very limited. And the loopholes that allow them to wriggle out of their social commitments are also very wide.

This might be different if we as a community had our own Neighbourhood Plan, which would give us more of a say in the form development took and more power to hold developers to account. This is not a simple thing; it takes time, costs money, and requires communities to balance different and often competing interests. And it would still need to be consistent with and help deliver on GBC’s overall requirements, so it’s not simply a crafty way of declaring independence. Above all it would require us as a community to engage in a conversation about what we want, without calling each other names, and it would take a great deal of leadership from all of us. Are we ready for that?”


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