I believe it is important to set out our priorities for the coming year. When we deliver these, residents and businesses in Tandridge will see real improvements in services and Tandridge will continue to be a vibrant place to live work and visit.
We have chosen to focus on five main priorities but those priorities will not take all our attention as each committee will have a number of more specific objectives all of which are designed to improve efficiency and to ensure that we are able to respond to residents’ expectations or legislative change.
Councillors, you can read that detail yourself and I have no doubt the Committees will keep a close eye on the service plans to ensure they are delivered. I want to say a few things about the five top things we want to achieve.
Customer First is a radical transformation programme which will make more of our services available on line so that people can access them at times convenient to them and at much less cost to the Council, It reflects our determination to put local people at the heart of everything we do.
Our ambitious new approach to asset management and investment which establishes a 50 million pound investment fund, taking advantage of historically low interest rates, will generate additional income to invest in services.
We will ensure that we make our own assets work for us by building affordable housing on sites where to do so makes sense, so that we can provide homes for local people when otherwise house prices would put a new home beyond their reach.
We have already made significant investment in our largest town, Caterham, taking the bold step of issuing a compulsory purchase order on the Rose and Young site and working closely with the community and with experts to devise a masterplan to regenerate the town centre.
By showing that we have confidence in the town, we have encouraged other business interests in the area and in April we will be consulting on plans which I believe will lead to a sea change in the retail and leisure offer in Caterham whilst preserving the distinctive nature which its residents rightly value.
In recent months we have also been working on a similar approach to Oxted. It is a wonderful town but the truth of the matter is that if we want to it to stay that way, we have to pay it attention. That is why I have worked hard to ensure that firm proposals are brought forward for the deconstruction of the gasholder and I am absolutely delighted to say that an application for pre application advice has been made.
Public consultation on a scheme should start in the summer. We are working closely with local businesses through BID board to bring forward suggestions for improving the public space in Station Roads East and West and I am pleased to report that we have obtained LEP funding to develop more detailed proposals for consultation on these, and our own plans to increase car parking facilities in the town.
I am by no means the only member in this chamber who has spoken to residents about the devastation wreaked in Caterham by the floods last summer and who is therefore determined that the Council should do all in its power, working with key partners such as Surrey CC, Thames Water and the Environment Agency, to come up with a solution to mitigate the risks of a repetition of those events.
We have already agreed that flooding should be a priority for our use of community infrastructure levy funding and we will need to ensure that any future development takes full account of any flood risk in the area.
Which brings me on to the 5th and final priority for the coming year – one of the most important things we have to do is to ensure that the local plan for the district addresses existing needs and those likely to arise in the future. This is not an easy exercise and it is of only slight reassurance that nearly every other district council in the country is finding the exercise challenging.
It is, for some, an unpalatable truth that the National Planning Policy Framework 2012 contains a presumption in favour of development.
I have articulated the need for increased levels of housebuilding as the younger population struggles to afford to live in Tandridge where house prices are 14 times average earnings, compared with 8 for England, which may lead to a further ageing population profile as middle-aged inward migrating residents replace outward migrating young people.
My Conservative colleagues and I have been carrying out an outward looking review. We have analysed the local plans of seventy district & borough councils of the nine Counties in the South East which gives an insight into the complexity and diverse nature of the Local Plan process. This also demonstrated that the Tandridge Objectively Assessed Need growth of 1.3% is consistent with other planning authorities which also average 1.3%.
Those Councils that are at the inspection stage, or indeed the few that have successfully been through the process, seem to have been forced to significantly modify their proposals or to commit to an early review.
It is very clear that selectively using statistics to justify a particular line of argument, particularly on the OAN does not impress the inspectors, who will take a holistic view of all the available evidence in seeking to be assured that Councils are doing all they can to deliver housing in their areas.
While the long awaited White Paper on Housing and Planning has now been published, many of the proposals contained within it are the subject of further consultation. One thing is obvious, however, and that is that we cannot pull back from the exercise we have embarked upon.
I was fortunate enough to meet with the Housing Minister, Gavin Barwell, on the day after the white paper was issued and it was very clear from our discussions that now, more than ever, it is important to have a robust plan in place. Doing nothing is not an option.
In response to the two consultations which have now been carried out, we received nearly 9,000 responses from some 5,000 residents, developers and other interested parties. While the work on analysing the evidence from the last consultation is not yet complete, there are clear themes emerging.
I therefore do think the timing is right for this Administration to articulate its strategic vision for the Local Plan, which can be considered by the Planning Policy Committee next month and, if agreed, form the basis of further work prior to the formal regulation 19 consultation in the autumn.
I am pleased that the white paper has confirmed our understanding that green belt land which meets one or more of the purposes for which it was established should only be released in exceptional circumstances. I also note that the white paper encourages councils to consider the density of its urban areas with a view possibly to increasing that density.
However, it seems to me that it would be quite wrong simply to concentrate developments within our urban areas covering just 6% of our district, where much development has already taken place.
This would require us to significantly increase the density of our towns and could jeopardise open spaces, playfields and allotments! The character of existing urban areas would change, make it difficult to deliver the necessary infrastructure and especially for Caterham lead to an increased risk of major flooding incidents.
Equally, I would have significant concerns about a scattergun approach to the release of green belt, regardless of how well it performs as this could lead to a significant loss of that valuable resource, put increased pressure on all our highways and other infrastructure in the District and increase the risk of settlements spreading well into the countryside. As a passionate defender of the Green Belt, I would find this hard to support.
But we do have to face the fact that if we do not release any green belt at all, we can deliver little more than a third of the housing we need. It is clear that such an approach will not survive a public examination and that a failed local plan will rob us of our ability to control and plan for development in the district. It would be open season for developers with planning by appeal and therefore mean a massive threat to our Green Belt.
In weighing all these considerations, I am increasingly of the view that one solution to our problem could include one Garden Village type settlement.
Such a village should have a much higher mix of affordable and starter homes than the current District mix. We would insist that any plans submitted would meet our aspiration to build something capable of winning design awards, not just rows of boxes put up at lowest cost.
A development on this scale would require new schools, primary and secondary, plus a new doctor’s surgery. In addition it would generate a significant investment in roads and Highways and a new Supermarket would be required. This new infrastructure would help to relieve the pressure on infrastructure in the rest of the District.
A village of around 4000 houses would of course require the release of green belt of around 1% but could bring with it the benefits I have described and would put us in a good position to defend the remaining green belt the vast majority of which I am delighted to say was shown by our green belt assessment to perform well. The character of the district would be preserved and we would still have the highest proportions of green belt land in the country. We will fight hard to maintain this position.
I am therefore asking our hardworking and professional officers to bring to members for consideration a proposal based around the allocation of a garden village, and to set out the steps necessary to assess the viability, location and timing of such a village for full consultation with our residents and businesses.
Clearly the ambitions I have set out for you tonight are stretching ones but if the elected members in this chamber provide leadership and direction we can rely on our officers to deliver them.
A robust Local Plan will give us control over our future.