Council chief's green belt rallying call
The leader of Bath and North East Somerset Council last night issued a rallying call against plans to force the building of more than 21,000 new homes on the area.
And her deputy revealed the authority was prepared to go all the way to the High Court to fight a Government planning blueprint which would see more than 1,000 homes built every year between now and 2026 in B&NES.
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More than 150 people packed a public meeting in Whitchurch to voice their concern at "ludicrous" plans to build 9,500 of the homes in that area.
The council has already voted to send an official protest to Communities Secretary Hazel Blears about the level of housebuilding called for in the planning blueprint known as the South West Regional Spatial Strategy.
Last night council leader Cllr Francine Haeberling (Con, Saltford) told villagers the authority had reluctantly accepted 15,500 new homes for the whole of Bath and North East Somerset, but said the latest total of 21,300 laid down by the Department for Communities and Local Government was "ludicrous".
"It's not sustainable – the infrastructure would not be there. We need to do everything we can to stop this going ahead," she said.
Under the plan, some 8,000 homes would be built in the part of Whitchurch which is within B&NES and another 1,500 in the part within the Bristol boundary.
Mary Walsh, 63, who has lived in Norton Lane, Whitchurch, for 20 years, said: "My home looks out on to the last green field between Whitchurch and Bristol.
"I believe homes should be built in small pockets in all the communities. I grew up in the Chew Valley and couldn't afford a property there, so we all came to Whitchurch.
"If this goes ahead it won't be a village any more. We have to stand up and be counted for our youngsters so they can walk in a field – otherwise they won't know what a field is."
North East Somerset Tory prospective parliamentary candidate Jacob Rees-Mogg, who chaired the meeting, said regional assemblies would be abolished under the Conservatives and planning would be a matter for local communities.
He said: "Delay is of the essence. When we get a general election there is every likelihood – certainty – that these plans would be dropped."
People from Publow, Pensford, Warmley, Keynsham and Shortwood all said their areas were also under threat.
B&NES deputy leader Malcolm Hanney (Con, Chew Valley North) said if the plan was rubber-stamped by the Government, the council would consider mounting a legal challenge with a judicial review in the High Court.
Mr Rees-Mogg added: "The fact that there are so many people here tonight shows the strength of feeling.
"What you are supporting is your democratic right to decide what happens in your community."
Meanwhile, conservationists say the Government must come up with land of its own if the Whitehall targets for new housebuilding are to be met without creating eyesores around Bath.
Civil servants say that the homes are vitally needed because of changes in society - and have denied that green belt areas are under threat.
But the Bath Preservation Trust has backed B&NES Council's campaign of opposition to the demand in the RSS, saying the world heritage city's "sense of place" is in jeopardy.
The trust says it recognises the need for new homes but says it is "deeply concerned" at the level being demanded.
The target includes a demand that 6,000 homes should be built in Bath itself.
The trust says this figure will only be achieved if the Government releases land from the three Ministry of Defence sites in the city for housebuilding.
The MoD is planning to move hundreds of defence civil servants from Bath to Bristol in the next few years in a move that is likely to free up space at locations such as the Foxhill base.
A spokeswoman for the trust said: "We support the council's call to the Government to take note of the importance of these sites. The Secretary of State should facilitate agreement on a strategy, which meets the MoD’s foreseeable needs and optimises the contribution the sites make to the delivery of the RSS. The use of this land is currently highly inefficient."
It says the blueprint must formally insist that brownfield land should be exhausted before green belt plots are developed.
Trust conservation officer Joanna Robinson said: "The green belt land around the city of Bath, and the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are landscapes which make an essential contribution to the outstanding universal value of the Bath World Heritage Site by protecting the setting of the city, and form a key element of the World Heritage Site designation. Brownfield sites such as MoD land and the Western Riverside must be developed first. If this open landscape is nibbled away by development, Bath will lose its sense of place."
The trust's chief executive Caroline Kay said she would be briefing heritage inspectors from the UN body UNESCO on the issue when they visit the city in November.
The concern is shared by the Bath Heritage Watchdog group, which was concerned even at the lower target of 15,500 homes.
It says on its website: "It makes no sense whatever to continue to pursue arbitrary targets when the attempt to meet the original lower target led to such a high density plan for the Western Riverside that UNESCO singled it out as a development incompatible with Bath's World Heritage City status.
"Watchdog urges everybody to use the opportunity provided to tell the Government just what damage their Regional Spatial Strategy will do to Bath."
A consultation exercise on the latest version of the RSS runs out on October 24.
Key documents can be viewed and downloaded from the website www.gosw.gov.uk.
A spokesman for the DCLG defended the new homes target.
"The South West, and Bath, need a long term development vision that tackles the threat of climate change, addresses housing shortages and strengthens the local economy.
"Beyond the short term squeeze of the credit crunch the number of new households are still outgrowing the number of homes being built – not least because our society is ageing and more people are choosing to live alone.
"In a rural region known for its quality of life, if more homes are not built now, the housing ladder will get even further out of reach leaving the next generation with nowhere to live further exacerbating the real problems in the South West. Already it is the only region with above average house prices and below average incomes."
"At the same time we have put in place the strongest ever rules to protect World Heritage Sites and green belt land. Nationally, the amount of green belt land continues to grow, with a 33,000 hectare increase since 1997. Building on brownfield will remain our clear priority."
He added: "The Government is committed to protecting places in Britain of real historical importance like World Heritage Sites which is why it has introduced first ever Heritage Bill in 30 years and why we laid new regulations last week that have strengthened the development protections for WHS. They are now all on the same footing as conservation areas, which is especially important for WHSs that cover large areas like Bath."