SOS Save Our Villages fights developers all the way to Appeal

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In 2018 the University of Reading and Bellway Homes put in a planning application to build 249 houses on a field south of Cutbush Lane in Shinfield, used for decades by walkers, joggers and dog-owners. Following an SOS Save our Villages petition signed by 1,688 residents, Wokingham Borough Council refused planning permission in 2019, but the developers lodged an appeal.

Last month, the Planning Inspectorate held an inquiry into the appeal in WBC’s council chamber at Shute End. SOS Save our Villages was granted permission to participate as a ‘Rule 6 party’, i.e. as a recognised body allotted its own time at the hearing, entitled to make detailed written submissions challenging the developers’ case, and the right to call witnesses. We presented ourselves as we were: not experts or planning professionals, just concerned lay people resident in the area that would be affected by the proposed housing.

This is a report on how the appeal hearing went. It lasted a full three days and a great deal of ground was covered, so it is a longer read than items on this web site usually are.

The layout, in the council chamber, had the Council’s QC and team at one end of the curving rows of seats, with the developers’ QC at the other, backed up by a large contingent of experts they had brought along to support their case. The SOS Save Our Villages team sat in the middle between them. Facing us presiding was the Planning Inspector, Mr Mark Dakeyne, who seemed a little forbidding at first, but quickly gained our confidence as someone who treated us residents fairly enough.

The background to the appeal played a very important role. When the WBC planning committee rejected the South of Cutbush planning application last year, in consultation with Council planning officers they gave only a limited number of objections. These focused on the unsuitable design of some of the proposed housing, as well as the unsuitable locations of a pumping station and children’s play area. They did not take into account the impact that another 249 households would have on the already hugely stretched school and health facilities in Shinfield, nor their impact on traffic so close to the Black Boy roundabout, already a congestion black spot. In fact, Council Officers had already concluded a ‘Statement of Common Ground’ with the developers claiming that the proposed housing would cause no significant road transport issues! Also, when the developers first put in their planning application, WBC’s planning officers actually recommended it. It was the WBC Planning Committee – elected councillors – who threw it out (a few weeks after the May 2019 council elections in which the ruling party lost quite a number of seats).

This background meant that much of the time the developers’ QC had quite an easy ride in the appeal hearing. He was able to argue that the planning application should never have gone to appeal, since WBC’s planning officers had originally not objected to it.

Similarly, we had trouble in opposing the developers on traffic issues. We presented plenty of photographic evidence of long tailbacks leading to the Black Boy, peak time traffic immobile at green lights, etc, etc., problems that local residents know only too well. Borough Councillor Clive Jones contributed the perspective of Lower Earley residents who find it difficult to even get out into the traffic leading to the Black Boy. But the ‘Statement of Common Ground’ by WBC and the developers claimed that adding hundreds of vehicles to rush-hour traffic wouldn’t be a concern for the inquiry. So we weren’t sure if we would be listened to. However, following Cllr Jones’ request, the Inspector agreed to visit the Black Boy gyratory to see how bad things were.

Also on the positive side, the Council’s QC was clear and authoritative, making his points very effectively, especially when he questioned a planning expert witness, Ms Fiona Jones. Each time he asked: ‘Is such-and-such in the planning application in accordance with planning regulations?’, the reply came ‘No, it is not.’ The developers’ proposed housing was found to be out of character with the neighbourhood, and of poor design. A projected children’s play area lacked oversight from neighbours and was therefore unsafe. The developers had planned a pumping station that even lay outside the local development area boundaries. It was good to hear Bellway’s planning application so thoroughly panned. It also made us wonder what the Council’s planning officers had been doing, recommending a planning application with such evident shortcomings.

The developers’ QC’s opening speech came across as rather presumptuous, basically claiming that their case was so strong, there should have been no need for a hearing at all. Such implied contempt for residents’ views didn’t go down well with us, and we did our best to raise a wide range of concerns, including flooding, ecology, and medical and education provision. In line with our group’s slogan ‘Enough is Enough’, Shinfield Parish Council leader Andrew Grimes was called on as an expert witness to certify the massive expansion of housing in Shinfield, going way beyond the c. 2,500 new housing foreseen for the South of M4 DL in WBC’s 2010 local plan. The developers failed to make any headway against Andrew: they were even reduced at one point to claiming that the 4,000 houses in Shinfield now built or consented was consistent with the ‘around 2,500’ figure!

By the time of the closing statements on the final day, the developers’ QC was sounding rather less sure of himself than at the start.

In his closing statement, Shinfield’s Borough Cllr Jim Frewin, who led the SOS Save Our Villages team, thanked the Inspector for permitting us to play a part in the hearing. He again made the point that the planning application went against the Shinfield Neighbourhood Plan Plan. This said that any development to be permitted North or South of Cutbush Lane should not be before 2026, and should be ‘modest’ (usually defined as not exceeding 100 dwellings), so the proposed 249 dwellings would be greatly in excess of the Neighbourhood plan. In any case, Shinfield is already bursting at the seams due to over-development without adequate infrastructure provision, so this planning application was the last thing we needed in the area and therefore the appeal should be rejected.

The Planning Inspector’s decision is expected by the second week of March at the latest. Whatever the outcome, SOS Save Our Villages have shown that a determined and carefully prepared local campaign allows residents’ voices to be heard at decision-making levels. We have shown developers we will not be a pushover, and they will hear from us things that are not to their liking. And we have reminded the Council that Shinfield residents will not let their interests be ignored, either now or at the next council elections.

Article by Richard R