Gillingham Deserves Better, a local residents campaign group which has been set up to combat the over development of green field sites around the town, has held its first public meeting.
Nearly forty people attended the recent meeting at the Methodist Church in the High Street, which was considered to be a good turnout given the cold weather and the lure of World Cup football on TV.
The acting chair of Gillingham Deserves Better, Malcolm Briggs, gave an hour-long presentation with slides, to explain why the group had been set up, what it aims to achieve, why there is a real threat that an increasing number of green field sites in and around the town will be given over to housing developments and how this will affect everyone living in the area.
‘For example’, said Malcolm Briggs, ‘two thousand two hundred homes are going to be around Gillingham, mainly on the Southern Extension. This alone will mean a 40 percent
increase in the population of Gillingham and a 40 percent increase in traffic up and down the local roads, not to mention a greater demand for doctors, dentists and chemists. We feel now that enough is enough’.
‘Gillingham Town council do all they can to stop any developments they feel will be
inappropriate and unsustainable, but it is outside their control and Dorset Council is bound by government rules to meet their annual housing targets’.
‘The national government housing target is currently still three hundred thousand homes a year, and this figure may well be increased. So there is plenty of opportunity to build private housing, which profits the developers, but according to the housing charity Shelter, 29,000 social homes were sold or demolished last year and fewer than 7,000 were built’, said Mr Briggs.
He later pointed out that the thirty five biggest house builders in the UK made a combined profit of 4.3 billion pounds last year.
Mr Briggs then explained to the audience why every green field in and around Gillingham is up for grabs by housing developers.
‘In 2011, the UK government introduced a policy called “Presumed Approval for Sustainable Development”. If a council fails to meet its annual housing target because not enough actual houses have been built that year, this leads to a housing shortfall that has to be added to the following year’s housing target’.
‘In the case of Gillingham and the surrounding area’, said Mr Briggs, ‘this means developers can go the council and ask for “presumed approval” to build on even more green field sites in and around the town because, as the housing shortfall grows, even more land is needed for housing development.
‘This is a practice known as “land banking” in the development world. It seems the government’s “presumed approval” policy actively encourages developers to build as slowly as possible, because then they can apply for even more land to build upon.’
Malcolm Briggs mentioned that Gillingham’s Mayor, Councillor Sharon Cullingford, has told Gillingham Deserves Better that she was ‘particularly concerned’ about ribbon development and ‘that Gillingham should not join up to Milton-on-Stour’.
‘It’s always a case of developers versus the people’ said Malcolm Briggs. ‘Housing developers have months or years to develop their plans, but local residents only have three weeks to raise their objections’.
Malcolm Briggs went on to mention that ‘eighty houses will be built on the land north of Common Mead Lane behind the Mellowes Care Home. This land is outside the town boundaries and outside the neighbourhood plan that was drawn up and agreed by Gillingham Town Council and Dorset council. Locals now refer to this land as the Mellowes Field and this is the first field to be given planning permission under the government’s “presumed approval” policy, said Malcolm Briggs. ‘It’s the start of a very slippery slope.’
‘As local residents what can we do about this and what do we need to do?’ Malcolm Briggs asked the audience. He answered this question by saying ‘We need to raise local awareness of the risks. Conditional options to build on green field sites in and around Gillingham have been taken out by housing developers. With the help of specialist lawyers we can challenge the current planning system, which is so heavily weighted in favour of the developers. But in order to do that, we need your support and we need more members, so please join us’.
‘There is a small membership fee to join Gillingham Deserves Better and the first target for the money raised is to try and protect the second field next to the field that is being developed behind the Mellowes Care Home. This field stretches all the way to the Wyke conservation area. Some of this field is supposed to be given to the community. We need to pay for a full barrister’s report on the s106 agreement between the Pitmans and BUPA on the one side and Dorset Council on the other side relating to the status of this field. Our barrister’s initial findings suggest the contract is so fundamentally flawed that the field is still at risk of future development and we feel it is essential to correct this’.
‘We also want to link up with the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and on 28 November we met with our North Dorset MP, Simon Hoare, to discuss our concerns.
Simon Hoare was very supportive and told us that he has made it clear to ministers that there should not be a ‘duty to co-operate’ between councils to take on a neighbouring council’s housing targets when these prove to be unreachable for whatever reason. ‘This hasn’t worked and this creates tension,’ Mr Hoare told Gillingham Deserves Better. He also added that ‘the blunt instruments of top-down housing targets and the five year land supply targets should be dropped’.
However, Simon Hoare made it clear to Gillingham Deserves Better that this is not a green light to ‘NIMBYism’ or worse, ‘BANANA’ which means Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone.
‘We need to give hope to young people and businesses locally that new homes will be delivered’, said Mr Hoare. ‘There should be reserved powers, to replace the targets, and also to allow the Secretary of State to intervene with local authorities that drag their heels, with the ultimate sanction of taking over their planning process. Councils nationally need to shoulder their responsibilities. This is localism writ large. Applications are assessed against all prevailing local and national planning policies.
‘The existence of top down targets should not be over-weighted,’ Mr Hoare has told Gillingham Deserves Better.
After Malcolm Briggs finished his presentation, there was plenty of time for the audience to ask questions and these were so wide ranging and plentiful that the meeting ran over its allocated time.
‘We feel that our public meeting was a success and we would very much like to thank everyone for coming, despite the cold evening. We hope we fully answered everyone’s questions and gave them much to think about…’
Anyone interested in supporting Gillingham Deserves Better can visit their website