Initial Findings The inspector’s approach toward Paddock Wood appears to be similar to the approach adopted in Bicester.
A key part of the justification for the allocation is the range of facilities that would be provided on-site and the subsequent reduction in the need to travel. The supporting text suggests that up to 10,000 square meters of commercial floorspace will be provided to maximise the “internalisation” of trips. 2 Core Document 3.115b(i) 4 17. The scale of commercial floorspace is justified by comparison to settlements such as Cranbrook and Pembury. But Cranbrook is a historic market town which serves a much wider rural area, including other villages such as Sissinghurst. It is categorised by the Council’s own assessment3 as a Group A settlement, second only to the main urban area of Royal Tunbridge Wells and Southborough. It is therefore materially different to Tudeley….
the Green Belt Study Stage 3 only considers sites allocated for development in the submitted Plan – i.e. sites which the Council has already determined are sound and concluded that exceptional circumstances exist to remove them from the Green Belt. If it is accepted that Green Belt land will be required, then why did the Council not carry out a comparative assessment of reasonable alternatives at Stage 3 in order to avoid, or at least minimise, harmful impacts where possible? This is especially relevant when the two largest allocations in the Plan (Tudeley Village and Paddock Wood) were found to cause “high” levels of harm to the Green Belt….
The Strategy for Tudeley Village – Policy STR/SS3
The Plan seeks to take around 170 hectares of land out of the Green Belt to accommodate a new settlement of up to 2,800 houses at Tudeley. In principle, a strategy which seeks to meet housing needs through large scale, strategic allocations is perfectly reasonable. Paragraph 73 of the Framework recognises that the supply of large numbers of new homes can often be best achieved through planning for larger scale development, such as new settlements or significant extensions to existing villages and towns. 10. However, national planning policy also requires such developments to be “well located” and supported by the necessary infrastructure and facilities (including a genuine choice of transport modes). Paragraph 73 states that: “Working with the support of local communities, and with other authorities if appropriate, strategic policy-making authorities should identify suitable locations for such development where this can help to meet identified needs in a sustainable way.“ 11. In considering whether the allocation is consistent with this requirement, three main issues have been identified. They are: the location and accessibility of the site, whether or not the necessary infrastructure can be provided and the deliverability of the site in the manner envisaged.
The new settlement would be approximately 2 miles east of Tonbridge and around 2 miles west of Paddock Wood. At present there are no shops or services nearby. A bus route runs through Tudeley travelling between Tonbridge and Paddock Wood but is limited to typical working hours MondayFriday with a more limited service on a weekend. 13. Pedestrian and cycle links would be provided as part of the scheme and there is a commitment to include a new dedicated route into Tonbridge. Although this could be secured by policies in the Plan, the distances involved to the centre of Tonbridge and back would not be conducive to walking. Likewise, it would be unrealistic to expect a significant number of people to cycle into Tonbridge, especially during the darker, winter months or during periods of inclement weather.
Cycling and pedestrian links would also extend beyond the plan area. In order to be effective, they would therefore need to be agreed with Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council as part of a wider strategy. Paragraph 106 of the Framework requires planning policies to be prepared with the active involvement of local highways authorities and neighbouring councils so that strategies and investments for supporting sustainable transport and development can be aligned. The neighbouring authority confirms that promoting walking and cycling would require a joined-up approach with projects in their borough, which are still at an early stage.
The railway line between Tonbridge and Paddock Wood divides the site yet no new station is proposed. This could have provided an opportunity to access higher order services easily and quickly by public transport and reduce the reliance on private car journeys. In the absence of any rail links, potential future residents would be reliant on buses as an alternative to the car. Again, this could be a policy requirement in the Plan. However, at the hearing sessions it was confirmed that discussions are still ongoing with bus providers and Kent County Council. Even if private services were provided, it would still require some collaboration with Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council in order to be effective. It therefore remains unclear precisely what would be feasible and whether it would offer a genuine alternative to the private car.
In summary, the evidence demonstrates that existing traffic volumes and limited capacity cause congestion in Tonbridge town centre. Local Plan growth will add traffic to these junctions, causing negative impacts on their operation. This substantiates the concerns raised by Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council and local residents. 22. The issue with the soundness of the Plan is that, unlike some other junctions (which can be altered to mitigate harmful impacts), the space to provide any mitigation in Tonbridge town centre is limited. Suggested ways forward include traffic management and encouraging “significant modal shift”. However, as identified above, details of the public transport improvements that could be provided are still at an early stage and it is not possible to establish whether they would genuinely achieve any significant modal shift.
In summary therefore, at present there is insufficient evidence to suggest that the scheme will achieve the levels of internalisation and changes in modal shift necessary to adequately mitigate against the likely increase in car travel. Given the existing constraints and congestion in Tonbridge town centre, the cumulative impacts of the scale and location of development would be severe. It has not been adequately demonstrated that the impacts can be cost effectively mitigated to an acceptable degree.
Infrastructure – The Five Oak Green Bypass
Secondly, only limited information has been provided to consider the visual impact of a new road in this location. This is especially important when considering the topography of the area, the need for a crossing over the Alder Stream, heritage and the proximity of the road to the AONB. The AONB Setting Analysis Report7 found that the high ground to the south of Tudeley contributes most to the setting of the AONB because it has the highest intervisibility and forms a transition from the lower ground further north. Significant engineering works, significant increases in traffic volumes, light and noise are all identified as factors which may harm the setting of the AONB. All are probable as part of the development of a new bypass. Without proper consideration of these issues, it is therefore not possible to determine the likely suitability of the scheme. It would also require additional development in the Green Belt and in areas at risk of flooding.
One of the Council’s reasons for concluding that exceptional circumstances exist is the significant contribution that the allocation would make towards meeting housing needs. The housing trajectory predicts that around 2,100 dwellings will be delivered over the plan period, with 150 new homes completed each year from 2025 onwards.
Paragraph 73 of the Framework requires local planning authorities to make realistic assessments of likely delivery rates given the lead-in times for large scale sites. In this case, the Council confirms that no schemes of a similar size or complexity have been built in Tunbridge Wells or the surrounding area to draw comparisons from. Officers have therefore relied upon lead-in times and delivery rates provided by the site promoters. 32. It is intended that the Hadlow Estate will act as a ‘master developer’, bringing serviced land parcels to the market which will be offered to selected housebuilders. The transfer of land will be controlled and the Estate will appoint a ‘town architect’ to oversee quality. The details provided on architectural context, the importance of good design and the level of masterplanning work carried out thus far is extensive and of a high quality.
However, neither the Council nor the landowner has any prior experience of delivering a scheme of this size or complexity. No housebuilders are actively involved with the site either. When asked for reassurances about delivery at the hearings, the Council said that this model had been used successfully elsewhere and that provided the confidence it would deliver as expected. But the latest information shows that only 316 houses have been built on the comparative scheme since the approval of planning permission in 20138. Clearly all sites are different, as are the circumstances between Aberdeenshire and Tunbridge Wells. Nevertheless, the evidence only serves to highlight the concerns raised by several participants in the examination, including from the development industry, that the scheme will not deliver the number of homes envisaged by the Council.
The most up-to-date, independent evidence of deliverability on large sites before the examination is Start to Finish: Second Edition (Lichfields, 2020). It shows that the average time from validation of an outline planning application to the delivery of houses on large sites over 2,000 dwellings range from 5.0 to 8.4 years. In this case, the submitted Plan would need to be modified and consulted on before adoption, Supplementary Planning Documents would need to be produced, published for consultation and adopted, planning applications would have to be prepared and submitted, 8 Examination Document TWLP/093 7 important details regarding phasing and the deliverability of shared infrastructure would need resolving, along with agreements on complex planning obligations. Details of the bypass would also have to be finalised, tested, applied for and approved, in addition to the compulsory purchase of land before the wider site could come forward. When taking all these factors into account, I am not persuaded that the housing trajectory is realistic.
The principle of seeking to help meet housing needs through a high-quality, mixed-use new settlement is a reasonable and positive approach to take. Officers have also clearly worked hard in bringing relevant stakeholders together through the Strategic Sites Working Group. However, at this stage there remain significant and fundamental unanswered questions regarding the accessibility of the site by sustainable modes of transport, the ability to successfully mitigate against serious impacts on the highway network, the suitability and deliverability of the Five Oak Green bypass and the ability of the site to deliver housing at the rate and scale envisaged by the Plan. For reasons discussed above, the decision to allocate the site was also made without the benefit of a comparative assessment of Green Belt impacts on alternative potential development sites.
It is clearly not necessary to have all the details of a site allocation agreed and resolved at the local plan stage. Sufficient safeguards can be put in place by development management policies. But the issues raised above go to the heart of whether the site and strategy for Tudeley Village is justified and effective. National planning policy is also clear that the Government attaches great importance to the Green Belt, the boundaries of which should only be altered in exceptional circumstances. When considering the level of acknowledged harm to the Green Belt that would occur, combined with the significance of the issues raised, I find that exceptional circumstances have not been demonstrated to justify removing the site from the Green Belt.
Strategy and Implementation
We discussed at the hearings the need for several main modifications to make it clear what is proposed, where and when at Paddock Wood. These changes are needed for the effectiveness of the Plan and to remove the reliance on supplementary planning documents.
Another soundness issue is how the Council will ensure that development comes forward in a comprehensive manner, thus ensuring that the vision for a strategically and holistically planned expansion to the town is realised11. As submitted, there is insufficient detail on how the parcels will be delivered. The Plan must be clear on how it will tie the component parts together in order to be effective in achieving the stated aims and objectives.
One way of making the Plan sound might be to allocate each parcel for development, set out parameters for the scale, type and mix of uses permitted and then differentiate between the necessary on-site and shared infrastructure. The policy for each parcel could then include a requirement for phasing and infrastructure delivery, in addition to a requirement to accord with a town-wide framework masterplan (or other such document). This would allow individual schemes to progress, whilst ensuring a common objective on shared infrastructure. As part of any re-drafted policy, it will still be necessary to prevent piecemeal development and ensure that developers continue to work collaboratively, especially where connection between sites is required (such as across the railway line).
Paddock Wood is a town with a good range of services, employment premises and public transport provision. It is also surrounded by some land which is outside the Green Belt and AONB – a unique position in Tunbridge Wells. I therefore agree with the Council that it represents a ‘logical choice’ for growth
However, the strategy for the town needs revisiting to set out clearly what is proposed on each parcel, both in terms of the scale and mix of uses and any necessary infrastructure provision. In addition, the location of new housing, community and employment uses in areas at higher risk of flooding is not justified. Comprehensive main modifications will therefore be required to the submitted Plan in order to make it sound. As with my conclusions on the Tudeley Village allocation, the implications for the examination moving forward are discussed below.Conclusions and Next Steps
A significant amount of hard work has clearly gone into the preparation of the Local Plan which is positively prepared in seeking to meet housing needs despite large areas of Green Belt and the High Weald AONB. The majority of changes required to the submitted Plan are relatively straightforward and the main modifications referred to above should be incorporated into the schedule which is already in preparation.
As for the strategic sites, significant changes and/or the preparation of further supporting information is going to be necessary before they can be found sound. At Paddock Wood, I am relatively confident that this can be achieved without fundamental changes to the Plan’s strategy. However, the implications of my initial findings at Tudeley Village could have far greater, consequential impacts on other aspects of the Plan, from infrastructure provision to whether the Plan is able to identify a sufficient supply of housing land. 96. In the first instance, I would therefore be grateful to understand how the Council considers that the Plan could be modified in a way that would make it sound and capable of adoption. In seeking to move the examination forward I consider that there are three broad options available to the Council.
• Provide additional information to justify the Tudeley Village allocation as submitted.
• Modify the submitted Plan by making significant changes to the Tudeley Village allocation, and in doing so, seek to overcome the soundness issues identified above. • Delete the allocation from the submitted Plan.
The first option is unlikely to be a quick or straightforward exercise. It would require further dialogue with key stakeholders, the preparation of substantial new evidence, consultation on that evidence and examination. There is also no guarantee that it would satisfactorily resolve the issues identified above or justify the scale and location of development proposed. It is not without risk. Similar issues would apply to the second option, and both could potentially add significant delays to the examination process. 98. The third option would be to delete the allocation and make consequential changes to the Plan. The benefit of this approach is that it would deal with the soundness problems identified above, and subject to considering alternative secondary school provision, has already been tested as a possible outcome in the strategic sites masterplanning documents. It may negate the need for significant further work and potentially avoid lengthy delays to the examination process.