The media coverage to date about the inclusion of The Elms site in Thame’s Neighbourhood Plan has been provocative rather than properly researched or balanced, presumably to raise the hype and produce sensational stories rather than factual articles. This is a very difficult and stressful time for those being accused of gross misconduct without any foundation and the Town Council is taking legal advice about the defamatory statements and will continue to resist taking part in the media circus.
Previous experience of communicating with the instigators of the Elms petition group have resulted in being talked at rather than listened to. Instead the Town Council will produce a fact sheet that will be issued and made available to members of the public before the Town Council meets to consider the planning application.
The rationale for The Elms to be included in the NP was:
- It was known the owner of the Elms had an intention to develop the site
- By including the site in the NP it would be part of Thame’s 775 allocation rather than an additional windfall site.
- Exactly the same consideration was given to the single site school and Park Meadow View allocations.
- Reserve sites were identified in the NP should the allocation not be achieved. The other strategic sites in the NP do not have reserve sites because they were known to be deliverable and secure development sites.
Being in the NP does not automatically mean that the site will be developed nor how many units will be built. This will all be decided through the planning process.
The Elms site was identified in the display boards presented by Tibbalds, the planning consultants employed to produce the Neighbourhood Plan, at the November 2011 consultation feedback (the second public meeting right at the beginning of the process) before any officers became involved in taking any proposals forward, and it remained in throughout the whole consultation process with only the allocated number changing.
835 feedback forms were received as a result of the Site Options Consultation in June 2012. Concerns about all of the sites were raised and the response to the Elms development indicated forty percent against through the tick boxes with just 38 specific comments. 7 of the 38 comments were in support of the development and 31 opposed because of concerns that the development would significantly adversely affect the conservation area.
Between August 2012 and October 2012 when the Regulation 14 Consultation was held, 221 responses were received and 25 came in after the consultation exercise had closed, including a response from English Heritage. Out of these 221 responses only 32 comments were against The Elms and these comments ranged from no development to suggestions that the number allocated in the Plan should be reduced.
English Heritage is not against the principal of some development but it’s officer was concerned about the potential impact of 60 dwellings on the setting of the listed building and the Conservation Area. Because English Heritage submitted its comments after the consultation had closed a meeting was arranged by the developer at the end of October 2012 with representatives of English Heritage to discuss the number of units and the merits of where development would be appropriate and acceptable on the site. Both town council officers and district council planning and conservation officers were in attendance. This was not a town council meeting; a room was provided at the Town Hall so that the different organisations could attend the meeting.
The discussion at the meeting was fraught between English Heritage and the developer representatives, both parties presenting different views as to where development was appropriate but English Heritage did not present a case for no development at all.
The Plan was to be submitted for referendum in the November and further meetings to discuss more detailed proposals on design and density were not possible so, a compromise was reached that some development could take place in parts of the site, the final number to be agreed through the planning and design process. The allocation of 45 was included in the NP to meet the 775 requirement with the understanding that this would probably be reduced as more detailed proposals came forward. The area remaining on the Elms site around the development would become publically accessible open space passed over to the Town Council to manage and maintain. Any shortfall in the allocated 45 would then be provided on one of the reserve sites. At the Examination Stage the Examiner amended the wording of the NP so that the shortfall would be accommodated on the Lower School site, and only if this site did not come forward would the shortfall go onto Site F.
The whole neighbourhood plan process and consultation was scrutinised by the District Council and the Plan was tested again when the District Council did an independent 6 week consultation at the beginning of 2013. It was reviewed again by the independent examiner and subsequently by the police fraud office after claims were made by instigators of the petition group. The result was that the Plan and the process by which it was developed, met all the legal requirements of producing a neighbourhood plan including conformity with the District Council’s Local Plan and was fit to proceed to referendum.
At referendum there was opportunity again for the residents of Thame to reject the Plan if the majority of those who voted decided that the inclusion of The Elms should be rejected.
3634 people voted, close to a 40 per cent turnout, of whom 2779 (76.5%) voted in favour of adopting the Neighbourhood Plan. The reality is that everyone had some aspect of the NP they found difficult to accept or did not agree with, but the democratic vote was taken based on open and accountable information that required an understanding and an appreciation of the effect of the 775 units on all the residents of Thame.