New Exeter Plan – The Topsham Planning Panel’s opinion.
An exhibition for the new Exeter Plan took place at Matthews Hall on 20 th October 2022
Those who follow Planning matters in the City, will recall that the 2012 Exeter Core Strategy was to provide the basis for Planning to supersede the 1995 Local Plan. At the2013 Public Inquiry, the Strategy was adopted with a requirement to provide at least 12000 new homes in the plan period up to 2026, but with a demand from the Inspector that the City must up its game if it was to secure its position as a sub regional centre.
The pro growth directive emanated from Central Government. This was partly in response to escalating housing demand first anticipated in the mid 1990’s, emanating in part from a rising population, but more from changes in social behaviour leading to the near halving of the number of persons per household compared with historical post war levels. There was also affluent elderly house blocking – remaining in family houses long after their actual need for such accommodation passes. The drive also reflected a need to mitigate the lack of normal economic growth post the 2008 banking crisis and the use of housing to stimulate an otherwise stagnant economy.
Despite a headline policy of “Localism”, the 2010 Cameron Coalition government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) included the pro growth Trojan Horse requiring LPA’s to maintain a 5 year housing supply, which if failed, would obligate them to grant approval for any proposal that was “sustainable”.
ECC was unable to meet this requirement (currently achieving approx 3 ½ years) and the ensuing flurry of challenges by developers, has led to a loss of control of land allocation and sprawling house building over green fields surrounding the city, including (but not only) the infamous “Topsham Gap”.
The new Exeter Plan follows the aborted attempts to allocate sites in the 2015 Development Management/Site Allocation DPD, which was never advanced beyond initial consultation, and the collaboration with adjoining local authorities on the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP) 2020, dropped when other authorities withdrew. This has left City forward planning largely rudderless for nearly a decade.
The Plan looks to set a framework for the development of the city up until 2040 and is in its infancy, only looking at broad principles at this stage. The exhibition was a brief snapshot of this. It focusses on Memorable Places, Outstanding Quality, Welcoming Neighbourhoods, Spaces for People & Wildlife, Active Streets, and Liveable Buildings. Topsham residents may feel it has something of an unjustified self congratulatory tone.
The Plan considers the main aspects of the City’s development, but from a Topsham self-perspective, housing is the principal area of interest. The plan looks to shift policy to sustainable development, moving away from low density 2/3 storey dwellings on green fields, concentrating housing on 8 large and 20 smaller sites close to city facilities, often at high densities, possibly higher rise, with 85% on previously used brownfield land. This infers a return to the “Urban Renaissance” policies of the Blair-Labour government.
Whilst residents of the east of the town will be pleased there is currently no proposals to schedule Mays Field, regrettably for west Topsham, part of the 15% that isn’t brown field, is scheduled for the remains of the “Gap” – 4 sites around Newcourt Rd (sites 91-94). These have been earmarked for up to 125 dwellings, although given previous Gap approvals relative to initial assessments, is liable to be for greater numbers.
The plan looks to allocate 14300 dwellings over the 2020-40 period, based on 650 dwellings/year average. This appears to exceed the 2012-26 Core Strategy provision. However, ECC officers suggest that because the plan period overlaps the previous Strategy, 5300 have already been allocated, and 2000 have been approved post 2020 and 700 will be unallocated windfall sites of normally small sized plots. It is claimed this would require 6200 dwellings in excess of current approvals to satisfy the policy requirement and achieve a 5 year housing supply.
In conversation, officers appear to accept that ECC were caught out by the NPPF policy shift and Topsham was one of the casualties, with not just Gap lands being developed, but due to the appeals basis under which many sites were approved, that schemes were not necessarily appropriate in detailed design to the context of our small town.
Whilst the battle of the Topsham Gap was largely lost with the EX3 appeal decision and the Gap has been serially eroded since, the threat to the character of Newcourt Rd is still important. It is tempting to believe that opposing broad provisions of the Plan could still be productive. I would not wish to suggest that this should not be attempted. However, in practical terms, residents should be mindful that this plan will not go through the multiple stages of Consultation, Examination, Public Inquiry before formal Adoption, until probably at least 2025. There is the clear risk that given previous pro development pattern of appeals or capitulation by ECC in the face of the inevitable, approvals for development of the remaining Topsham sites will be obtained well before the policy is in place. It is therefore quite likely that as far as Topsham is concerned, the Plan may prove largely academic, although there may be aspects of detail that could mitigate impact to existing residents.
The impact of the ECC situation also needs to be read in the context of parallel plans by East Devon DC for a new settlement around Woodbury-Clyst St George-Clyst St Mary, which combined with development approved and pending along Clyst Rd, may lead to a radically different setting for Topsham evolving over the coming years.
The Plan is available to view at http://exeterplan.commonplace.is and at Topsham Library, the Civic Centre and Exeter main Library. Interested parties can make observations to the Plan in respect of the impact on Topsham or the overall City, via the website or in writing to ECC Planning, Civic Centre, Paris St, Exeter, EX1 1JN. Also let your Topsham Councillor know your opinions.
Chair of the TCA-Topsham Society Planning Panel