Coker Protest divides communities – updated

April”s meeting of South Somerset District Council was unusual. More than 60 members of the public asked to speak on the development plan for the district, almost exclusively on the plans to set a new direction of growth for the town of Yeovil. A long, well-publicised campaign by the East Coker Preservation Trust was attempting to prevent the direction being south and west, towards East and North Coker (and, potentially, towards Barwick).

Unfortunately for them an early East Coker campaign tactic, to push for a North West direction of growth, backfired spectacularly in the meeting with villagers from Chilthorne Domer, Montacute, Odcombe, Thorne Coffin and Lufton turning up to praise the Council, the methods it had used in making the plan and to refute, one-by-one, the arguments which the Coker campaign had relied upon.

The actual farmers involved pointed out that a NW option would mean much greater food production losses than for the Coker option. They refuted ECPT’s claim that Grade 1 land allowed double-cropping and criticised the way land had been managed to the south.

Historians pointed out that there were twice as many heritage assets in the NW direction and that Montacute and Ham Hill were of considerably greater value to the local economy than some ashes. Indeed in a poetic twist, Thomas Hardy’s words about the beauty of Vagg Hollow was contrasted with T.S. Elliot’s lines recognising development (specifically in East Coker) as a necessary thing.

For each “transport expert” who stood up and talked about the difficulties of Hendford Hill, an accredited transport consultant living in the NW stood up and pointed out that the NW option (and other options such as the “string of pearls”) would be even worse.

Business leaders spoke about the need for a positive plan, especially the attractions to potential inward investors of setting out a credible agenda. Church leaders spoke on the opportunity for community support and facilities. Engineers spoke on the advantages for controlling flooding, and so-on. Members of the public even praised the planning team (surely a first!).

Of course, for each of these an equally valid counter-claim was made but my point is that pure NIMBY-ism polarised the communities. It was only after 3 hours of this well-informed public speech-making that the Council’s own officers stood. The effect of the public debate had been profound, obviating the need to repeat many points and shortening the Council’s meeting (a second day had been anticipated). Furthermore, it was seen that the public engagement had clearly won over some opposition politicians (against a Conservative 3 line whip) and firmed up support among the Independents.

It was interesting to review the press coverage this morning. Although the coverage was carefully edited to avoid legal challenges, it was clearly trying to follow the “unfair plan” line of earlier coverage and ITV in particular have a single (protestor) interview on their web-site. They seem to have missed the 2 bigger stories: a NIMBY campaign resulted in pitching village against village and Chard, working a community-led, economically-driven plan right through the process and into the Local Plan, exactly what we all aspire to.

I hope that the public now engage in a similar way during the final public consultation on the deposit draft Local Plan, so that the inspector has evidence in front of him from all sides.

4 thoughts on “Coker Protest divides communities – updated

  1. richard jones says:

    It is quite right that people have the opportunity to raise objections to new developments and be heard. If I was living in East Coker I would probably support the objections but would also accept and respect decisions made on a wider basis. What I would never do is push to move it to the North West or anywhere else. That is sort of selfish, underhanded and disrespectful to inhabitants of the other areas.

  2. Julia Blackwood says:

    I am a Londoner just returned from a brief holiday in and around East Coker. We marveled over the beauty of the setting, the countryside and the historic buildings.

    Imagine our amazement and grief to find that SSDC plans to despoil the historic setting and swamp it with development. I cannot be accused of NiMBYism, and it may be that it takes an outsider to tell SSDC that East Coker is special and there can be no excuse for the destruction proposed. Future generations will decry the blindness and folly that proposes to destroy this jewel in Somerset’s crown.

    • Peter Seib says:

      Julia, thank you for taking the time to post. As you may have noticed during your stay, most of the land around Yeovil is beautiful or historic or both, and the article reflects that. The story was written about people from other villages who were equally adamant that Yeovil needed to grow south and not toward their own homes/land/etc. In the end it comes down to doing the right thing for the town of Yeovil and doing the least harm to surrounding communities. Other directions of growth such as West or North don’t work well for the town at all. West ruins West Coker, Montacute, Odcombe, Brympton d’Evercy and the road system. It is also bisected by the safety corridor needed for take-off and landing from the Westland Airfield (the main employer). North-West growth would ruin Chilthorne Domer and won’t work anyway, due to distance, hills, roads and even more history. North East is likely to be tested in court! The evidence so far says that the roads can’t cope and that it would be very bad for the town centre. East means crossing both the river and the railway. Bridges are very, very expensive, the neighbours would be a big sewerage plant, a tanning works and a couple of industrial estates and much of the land floods.
      South is not a perfect choice and it has lots of problems, but it is far nearer to the town centre, on the main road, near the railway and away from the villages of East Coker and North Coker. South also does a lot of good. South Yeovil has no secondary school at the moment and most of the children at East Coker Primary School currently drive there from other places choking up North Coker’s roads with “Chelsea tractors” twice a day.
      I also think you’ve been listening to scaremongers, such as the East Coker Preservation Trust started by our well-funded local Conservative party members). SSDC intended to protect the villages properly, and are still working towards this. We also want to ensure that all of the land in the town is used, and currently approved estates are built out, before we start growing the town. Sadly, half of this Coalition government seems to hate planners and is turning off all of the relevant planning controls, in the hope that this will re-start the economy (which is already recovering without that help). I fear a cancerous growth, where the roads all clog up and the quality of life goes down for all. The delays in getting the Local Plan adopted already mean that South Somerset has too little housing land in law, and that means that developers can already propose building right up to the back doors of East Coker!
      In my opinion, East Coker is special, but SSDC doesn’t intend to ruin it – whereas the PM does!

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