A leading councillor has said he is "comfortable with the way forward" for the huge new town of Sherford after receiving reassurances from the developers.
South Hams District Council came under fire for its decision to allow the Sherford Consortium to change the design code for the site, which governs many aspects of how the 5,500 new town will eventually look. Critics fear the changes water down the original, strict town code.
Last week SHDC’s planning committee voted to conditionally approve a new town code despite members of Plymouth City Council, in whose area part of Sherford lies, refusing the same application the previous week.
The decision drew criticism from some quarters, with Ben Bolgar, a senior director of the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, saying a threat to slow down the rate at which Sherford homes were built had been used by the consortium to get its way. The Prince’s Foundation was heavily involved in drawing up the code and masterplanning for the site.
Prominent Liberal Democrat SHDC councillor Julian Brazil made a similar point, and criticised the Government for the way it calculated whether planning authorities were building enough houses.
But this week Cllr Michael Hicks, SHDC’s lead member for strategic planning said: “As you and your readers will understand, this is a question of planning and planning always has more than one aspect to consider. The development management committee was at great pains to take into account all of the evidence, to come to a balanced decision.
“In the case of Sherford, the total number of houses will be spread over 15 to 20 years and our view as the local planning authority is that it would be impractical to insist that the whole town should be prevented from benefiting from legitimate improvements in building and design practice.
“There is already provision for staged reviews throughout the programme and there are a number of safeguards in the future where the local planning authority have the opportunity to decide on detail.
“There have been a number of changes to the proposals put forward by the consortium and, with the reassurances which we have received from the developers, the council is comfortable with the way forward.”
Cllr Hicks was echoing the views of development committee chairman Cllr Robert Steer. Speaking soon after the decision, Cllr Steer said SHDC was "committed to high quality housing for Sherford" and the revised code did not "take away the fundamental vision" for the town.
He continued: "Sherford is in our emerging joint local plan, and is contributing greatly to the housing need of the South Hams.
"The spatial vision and master plan are not changing. This application replaces the town code with key principles to vary the styles, not quality, of homes at Sherford."
SHDC ward member for Wembury and Brixton, where the South Hams part of Sherford is located, Cllr Dan Brown said: "The new town is supposed to be different to other new communities, it is not supposed to be a copy of other new towns across the UK, and this is our chance to establish a new, uniquely built community in South Devon. I do not believe that the revised town code should take away from this.
“The adjustment to the town code should be expected in a development that is due to take place over two decades and the important thing for me is that 5,500 high quality homes are being built."
But Mr Bolgar was forthright in his criticism of the move. He said: "The housebuilders have used the all too common threat of slowing down production to get their way. But sidestepping any kind of public consultation on changes to a design code agreed by the community is simply putting the wishes of the volume housebuilders ahead of the wishes of the local people.
"That can’t be right."
Development committee member Cllr Brazil said: "The committee allowed the changes as we felt it gave more flexibility, but we were very nervous about a loss of quality. We were assured that wouldn’t be the case, but how you define that is the million dollar question."
He continued: "We are a bit stuck. The developers threaten to stop building and suddenly we don’t have a five year land supply. The Government could say, you’ve given permission for these houses, but if the developer chooses not to build them, we are penalised.
"But that’s just par for the course with this government.
"When I questioned the developers’ representative and the strategic director of SHDC, they could give me absolutely no reassurance they wouldn’t just throw up lots of cheap nasty houses."
However, Cllr Brazil noted that SHDC and PCC would have further opportunities to decide on the details of Sherford. He said: "The good thing is, this is an outline permission and they will have to come back with an application for the reserved matters. I hope those councillors that did vote for this can do what they said they would, and turn down the next stage if necessary.
"First we’ll have to see if the developers can stick to their word, which is unlikely as they’re developers, and second, we’ll see if the planning committee can show some backbone and refuse the application when it comes forward, if it’s not good enough."
In a statement the Sherford Consortium said: “We are delighted with the decision made by South Hams District Council’s planning committee and thank the members for carefully considering our application and approving the proposals.
"This project will last some thirty years, from initial planning to completion, and the committee understood the need for flexibility to enable the scheme to evolve over time. This will also allow house building and the delivery of facilities at Sherford to progress at a faster rate, without losing any of the design quality.
"This decision will help unlock further investment in the project enabling us to ensure Sherford is a success. We will continue to work closely with the local authorities to create this unique new community and deliver against the high expectations that we all have for Sherford.”