Planning matters

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Bracknell Forest Council Consultation on Draft Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area Supplementary Planning Document
With a Zone of Influence over 11 local authorities[1] within Hampshire, Surrey and Berkshire, the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area (SPA) has had a considerable effect on planning decisions on relevant sites, ever since its designation in 2005. Balancing the need to protect this area of international importance for nature conservation and its inherent sensitivity to impact from human activity against the pressing need for new development and housing in the area has created challenges for developers and local authorities alike.  However, new draft guidance in Bracknell Forest, which is currently out for consultation until 19 February 2018, may provide some clarity for all parties moving forward.   The Thames Basin Heaths SPA forms part of Natura 2000, a pan-European network of sites of international importance for nature conservation, established under the European Community Wild Birds Directive 2009/147/EC and Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC. The SPA is one of the South East's most important natural assets for lowland heath, and supports important populations of Dartford Warbler, Nightjar and Woodlark – all are vulnerable ground-nesting birds.   Woodlark Source: RSPB An increase in human population and the numbers of visitors to a protected area can give rise to a number of different types of impact on sensitivities e.g. trampling, vandalism, and increased predation from domestic cats.   To prevent impacts, and under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010, no plan or project which may affect a European Site can be undertaken, unless it can be shown that there will be no adverse impact on the integrity of that site, either alone or in combination with other plans or projects. If an adverse impact is identified, then the project cannot go ahead unless there are no alternative solutions, or there are imperative reasons for overriding public interest (‘IROPI’).   In relation to the Thames Heath SPA, in 2005 Natural England (NE) conducted research which indicated that the then existing level of recreational pressure was having a detrimental effect on the three species of birds for which the SPA was designated. As a response to this and the level of housebuilding expected in the Thames Basin Heaths area, NE objected to all planning applications for a net increase in residential development within 5km of the SPA and imposed stringent requirements on all prospective developers.  This led to the SPA designation being seen by some as posing a significant constraint on development within the area. Source: Telegraph Bracknell Forest Council is one of the authorities affected by the tension between demand for new development in this rapidly growing area of the South East and the need to protect the highly sensitive habitats and species within its administrative boundary.  The authority includes the Broadmoor to Bagshot Heaths Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the Sandhurst to Owlsmoor Bogs/Heaths SSSI; also a large proportion of Bracknell lies within 5km of one of the boundaries of the Thames Heath SPA and is therefore covered by some of the restrictions highlighted above.   Up until now, the authority has sought, via a number of different policy documents (e.g. the adopted Bracknell Forest Thames Basin Heath SPA SPD (2012)) to address the issue but these have failed to ensure a consistent approach.  This has led to a lack of certainty and an often slow site-by-site negotiation to identify appropriate mitigation for each proposal.   To address this uncertainty, the authority is currently consulting on the Draft Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area Avoidance and Mitigation Supplementary Planning Document (January 2018) (hereafter referred to as the ‘Draft SPA DPD’).[2] Once adopted, the Draft SPA DPD will replace the adopted Bracknell Forest Thames Basin Heath SPA SPD (2012) and it will be used to help to determine planning applications (as a material consideration), as part of the Council’s Local Development Framework.   The approaches outlined in the Draft SPA SPD are the result of a longstanding effort to streamline the assessment of development proposals in the SPA Zone of Influence. In addition, the new draft guidance aims to provide greater clarity to applicants on the types of suitable mitigation measures in the form of Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (‘SANG’) and Strategic Access Management and Monitoring (‘SAMM’)  - required to remove the potential for adverse impacts on the SPA.  The draft sets out the following broad strategy:-     In addition, whilst the adopted Thames Basin Heaths SPA (March 2012) identified 7 sites suitable for strategic SANGS in Bracknell Forest, the suitability of 5 new strategic SANG sites (with an estimated area totaling 26 hectares) has been agreed with Natural England, as outlined within the Draft SPA SPD.   The draft guidance notes that the majority of new housing development in Bracknell Forest up to 2034 will be located within Zone B (between 400m and 5km of the SPA).  It also provides a record of current and emerging SANGs and SAMM strategies in the area that contributions will be put towards.   The Draft SPA SPD is considered to represent a step towards a more transparent and guidance-led process in which prospective applicants are aware of what will be required of their development proposals from the outset. Hopefully this should facilitate and speed up planning decisions in this area of significant housing demand, whilst also protecting the very sensitive environment and species that, to a great extent, attract people to live in the area. Lichfields has an extensive track record of providing planning; environmental impact assessment; and plan-led land promotion services for development within the Thames Valley and other environmentally sensitive locations. For more information on our experience or to discuss any potential development opportunities, please do not hesitate to contact us.   [1] Waverley BC, Guildford BC, Surrey Heath BC, Woking BC, Bracknell Forest BC, Hart DC, Wokingham   BC, Elmbridge BC, Runnymede BC, The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, Rushmoor BC. [2] Consultation on the Bracknell Forest Draft Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area Supplementary Planning Document (January 2018) is currently until 5.00 PM on Monday 19th February 2018. [3] The ‘Zone of Influence’ denotes the area from 400m from the perimeter of the SPA to 5km from the perimeter of the SPA (Bracknell Thames Basin Heaths SPA SPD, 2012).  

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Innovation in planning consultation - mobilising the silent majority
If you’ve ever been to a planning consultation event, you’ll know who to expect. The ‘usual suspects’ dominate the routines of consultation practice. Typically retirees, with high disposable incomes and a good education, this group of home-owners have the most to lose from new housing on the edge of their villages and towns. The younger ‘silent majority’, by contrast, have the most to gain from opportunities to get on the housing ladder, and yet are the least likely to take part. What if new, more relevant methods could be adopted; those which would encourage younger generations to offer their support? Innovation in consultation techniques presents the opportunity to hear more pro-development voices and shift local political opinion, while in turn addressing the pressing need for housing. Speaking as a young person looking to get on the housing ladder soon, I am very much in favour of new housing in my area. Since beginning to work in planning I have gained some insight into how to influence the local planning process in favour of new schemes. Yet it’s certainly not something I would have known how to do at the beginning of my career. With the advent of new digital technologies, and by going directly to targeted groups, these are some examples of how developers can overcome time and knowledge barriers which prevent engagement, and facilitate the voices of the ‘silent majority’.   Social Media In a survey of 1,400 councillors undertaken by Remarkable Group and the pollster YouGov, 75 per cent considered social media an important or very important engagement tool. Furthermore, 60 per cent believed developers should be engaging with local communities through social media. Facebook has over 44m active users in the UK; Twitter, 14m. With many of these users of a younger demographic, there is significant potential to garner the opinions of a wider cross-section of the community than could be traditionally reached. Short, targeted adverts or posts in relevant groups can be used to illustrate the key features of a development scheme and receive feedback in the way of comments or ‘likes’. This helps to build an overall picture of attitudes to development. Users can ask questions of developers and facilitate debate. Short questionnaires can be used to establish preferred options, be that in housing design, location or layout. It takes just seconds to read and like a social media post, making it an open platform to young working families, students and young professionals, who might not take the time to attend a traditional exhibition in their village hall. A recent Lichfields blog considered this topic in more detail. Targeting Community Groups It is not uncommon to encounter support for new housing in communities, but individuals may not feel confident submitting a public representation in direct conflict with well-connected local individuals and vocal action groups. Pre-application discussions in an informal context offer a more approachable format, and take developers directly to the ‘silent majority’. Attending a parent and toddler group or a teenagers’ dance class to discuss a development proposal might seem unorthodox, but it can provide direct feedback and may increase support. This helps to balance the wave of local opposition often encountered at open-access events, where the ‘usual suspects’ tend to dominate. At targeted events, more innovative consultation techniques can be used. Rather than a standard presentation or exhibition boards, children could contribute pieces of art or write postcards to their future selves of how they envisage their communities. Stereotypically difficult to engage, teenagers at a dance class could be offered the chance to win a prize if they contribute a written opinion on the future of the development site. It is not that these smarter strategies aren’t being used by planners and developers, but that their adoption is rare. Lichfields uses expert knowledge of planning and consultation to tackle exactly these issues through our own Smarter Engagement approach. Our Public Engagement toolkit (PE Kit) uses mosaic modelling, based on Office for National Statistics data, to help us understand the demographics of an area and identify those who have most to gain from a development. Consultation methods are then designed to target these groups, based on the budget and time period available. Drawing on our project experience, we aim to identify in advance the potential concerns that the community may have, and allow these to be addressed where appropriate at the pre-application stage, when it is easier and more cost-effective to respond to legitimate concerns. The pressing need for new housing is a well-rehearsed argument amongst planners and those struggling to get on the ladder. However, my experience shows that in the areas where demand is highest, support is the least heard. Adopting new consultation techniques could address this imbalance, hoping to draw out the support of those who have the most to gain from new development. Article originally featured in Insider South West.

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