An online public meeting about the proposed Local Plan for Dorset attracted nearly 100 Gillingham residents on Wednesday night.
The information meeting, moderated by Mark Hebditch, chair of the town’s Three Rivers Community Partnership, also heard presentations from local Dorset councillor David Walsh, Planning Portfolio Holder for Dorset Council, and Philip Reese, a senior policy planner at Dorset Council, about the Local Plan, which is due to be adopted in 2023 and will run until 2038.
Gillingham’s mayor, Councillor Barry Von Clemens, told the meeting that it was vital that local people gave their views to the consultation, which will guide planning decisions and local development strategy for the next 15 years.
‘This is our chance to put our views forward and for Dorset Council to listen, look and hopefully put together a plan for the people of Dorset,’ he said.
Town and Dorset councillor Val Pothecary also urged local people to give their views, as the town was under increasing pressure from new developments.
‘Over the last three or four years it has become open season for speculative developers. And unfortunately we’ve all been living with the results,’ said Councillor Pothecary.
‘So it’s crucial in responding to the local plan consultation that we clearly make our views known. This is a rallying cry. If you don’t respond and ensure that our views are heard there will be no point in complaining five or ten years down the line.’
The issues raised by residents ranged from the impact of planned housing developments, affordable homes and sustainability to the provision of new schools, the need for new roads, flood risks and the location of gypsy and traveller camps.
Councillor Walsh, who is one of Gillingham’s three Dorset councillors, came under pressure over the council’s plans to build more than 39,000 homes across the county, though its formal target is just under 30,500.
He said that the extra allocation of homes was needed in case government targets on planned new homes or ‘land supply’ increased or in case Dorset had to make up a shortfall in housing in neighbouring authorities.
‘With the supply exceeding the current target we have the flexibility to be able to meet the situation if it arises,’ said Councillor Walsh. ‘It’s important to have a supply that exceeds target so if there are unexpected problems or delays on sites it does not immediately stop us from having a 5-year land supply.’
And he also said it was important to learn from past mistakes when it came to planning for new homes. ‘I don’t want to knock up homes, I want to build communities,’ he told the meeting, stressing the need to have infrastructure in place when the homes were built, not afterwards.
Dorset Council was also accused of moving too fast with the Local Plan, at a time when Covid, Brexit and the country’s environmental commitments had created uncertainty.
But Councillor Walsh insisted that delaying the consultation and plan would be a ‘high-risk’ strategy and noted that the government has recently reminded all planning authorities they need to have an up-to-date local plan by 2023.
‘Waiting for the pandemic to blow over and for everything to get back to normal is simply not an option for us. We are not rushing things … I’m not here to trash Dorset or trash the green belt. We’re all here together to deliver the best Dorset we possibly can,’ he said.
Councillor Walsh also revealed that he was personally against plans for a so-called ‘northern extension’ – the idea of building up to 600 new homes west of Peacemarsh – being added to this Local Plan. The existing 1,800-home Southern Extension and its infrastructure needed to be the priority, he said.
‘Personally I don’t think we’ve got the capacity for a northern extension at the moment,’ said Councillor Walsh.
‘Because we can’t cope with the capacity, the school capacity, the medical capacity, the shop capacity. We cannot take more away from the Southern Extension – the Southern Extension needs all of that capacity for itself.’
Mayor Barry Von Clemens concluded what he called a ‘fabulous’ meeting by repeating his call for local people to go online and have their say about the Local Plan.
‘Please, please fill that consultation in. Please go for it Gillingham – and get that consultation done!’ he declared.
This consultation ends on March 15.
Local residents can email Gillingham Town Council with their views or visit the consultation document online.