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.