Observer column: 14 August 2015
In September, the council will meet to adopt its new Development Management Plan. Coupled with the Planning Strategy adopted last year, this forms the Local Plan for Hastings.
It all started five years ago with the 'Big Map' consultation, followed by a draft version of the plan, more consultations, repetitions caused by government rule changes, more versions, a local enquiry by a planning inspector, and finally, approval by the inspector. It's been a long, complicated and expensive process, but we're almost there.
The plan makes provision for around 3,000 new homes in Hastings by 2028 - fewer than the 7,000 originally required by government policy, but Hastings is a small, densely populated borough. We've also created some new protected green spaces, while continuing to protect all our existing public parks and gardens, and the historic nature of the town.
Local Plans have to be made by every planning authority in England, although many haven't got there yet. They lay down policies against which planning applications are judged - for example, on room size, garden size, density, conservation and so on. They also show what different areas of the borough can be used for - which bits can be developed, how much and what kind of development is allowed. This doesn't mean any sites will actually be developed, it's up to the landowners to submit planning applications.
Inevitably, the controversy starts when an unpopular planning application comes in. The law says that there's a 'presumption to develop'. So if you own land, it's assumed that you have a right to build on it, unless there are policies in the council's Local Plan that prevent it. Some of these policies are somewhat subjective; policies on design quality and whether a proposed building 'adversely affects' the area are something anyone can have an opinion on, and opinions will differ. This doesn't mean they're bad policies; it's just that some things are impossible to quantify. Ultimately, those decisions are made by the Planning Committee.
The legal process by which planning applications are decided is littered with traps and can be confusing. Local people are allowed to submit objections or petitions, but to be considered, they have to show that a proposed development fails to comply with planning policies. So you can have a petition with 10,000 signatures saying they don't like an application, but if it doesn't refer to a planning policy, then it won't carry much weight. Conversely, a single objection that makes a good point based on policy could sway the decision. It isn't about how many people like or dislike a proposal, it's about whether it complies with the council's Local Plan. And that's the same throughout England.
So, if you're thinking of making a planning application, or objecting to one, look at the Local Plan. It's what's going to be used to shape the town over the next thirteen years. With regeneration continuing apace, Hastings could be a very different place by 2028. But what gets built and what gets preserved will be down to that plan. It's going to be a very important document.