It has been 18 months since the last AGM, said chairman David Bookless in his welcoming address to members of the Rye Conservation Society at last Friday’s annual general meeting. Although the Covid pandemic had put a dampener on social gathering, the committee had managed to hold virtual meetings on a regular basis.
Now is a time of change and impending change. David Bookless announced he would be standing down at next year’s AGM, probably to be held in May. Other committee members to retire now included Julian Luckett, Rae Festing, Wayne Jones and Allan Thomson.
Julian Luckett, vice chairman and also chairman of the planning subcommittee has served 12 years. His address to the meeting was well received and is recorded below. Ray Festing had served 25 years or more on the committee, bringing her practical knowledge on planning and her reliable catering skills to so many of the society’s social functions. Wayne Jones had undertaken the unenviable task of planning liaison officer, establishing a good working relationship with the Rother District Council planning enforcements officer. Allan Thomson had contributed his experience of transport issues and compiled the review of the society’s activities over its first 50 years as contained in the annual report recently circulated to members.
The chairman thanked all members of the committee for their hard work and support. Caroline Everett was elected onto the committee and Julian Luckett and Kenneth Bird appointed vice-presidents. After approving the accounts ably prepared by Diana Hajikakou, the final piece of business was to authorise the committee to prepare the ground for the society to become a charitable incorporated organisation. This was followed by a vote of thanks to the chairman.
Extract from Julian Luckett’s address:
“The last ten years have seen a revolution in the planning world. We have seen the development of localism as a concept which in turn brought about the Rye Neighbourhood Plan. I feel that localism may mean about as much as levelling up does today.
“2012 saw the elimination of a vast swathe of planning law and its replacement by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). At its core is a presumption in favour of sustainable development and the need for development plans to meet national housing and employment targets.
“Both localism and the NPPF were seen as tools to help the country “build its way” out of the financial crisis of 2008, alongside the austerity imposed by central government on local government funding.
Reduction in government funding
“I think that the reduction in local government funding and the need to redirect funds towards social care were contributory factors in the implosion of Rother’s planning department. I have a lot of sympathy for Rother in this matter. It is a small district in financial terms, and reduced central government funding has led to an increased work-load for a necessarily reduced number of staff. Like truck drivers, there is a shortage of qualified planners. London and other authorities are a more attractive draw and pay better with more interesting career prospects.
“The reduction in funding had already resulted in a considerable turnover in staff and unacceptable delays in considering applications. Then came Covid, the lockdowns, social distancing and the need to work from home via email and Dropbox. It got to the point where a Rother councillor recently described the planning department as ‘not fit for purpose’.
“Last year, the new chief executive at Rother, Malcolm Johnson, realised the situation and commissioned an external review of the department. This resulted in a new senior management structure and proposals for a ‘customer-focused approach to planning in Rother’. To achieve this will require the necessary funding, council support and time, which means a degree of patience for us, the customers.
“In the interim, Capita, an outside firm of private planning consultants, has been employed to help deal with the backlog and speed up the administrative process. I think the first signs of an improvement can be detected but it is very early days.
A new planning structure
“All of this is taking place whilst the government is attempting to devise a new planning structure. The white paper, originally called ‘Planning for the Future’, is now on hold whilst Michael Gove tries to find a way to keep the southern Tory shires happy as well as those in the new northern ‘red wall’ seats. At the same time, he will undoubtedly stick to the target of 300,000 new homes a year.
“When I was younger, it was the Department of the Environment. Now it’s the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Its mission is to develop a planning system that is ‘speedier, more transparent and more predictable,’ and to make sure the planning proposals fit with the core mission to ‘level up the country and regenerate communities’. Goodness knows what it must cost when they rename a department, all that stationery and signage.
“The government has also stressed the vital importance of local authorities getting their up-to-date local plans in place by the late 2023 deadline. Rother anticipates an early 2022 public consultation on the first draft version of the revised local plan. This must to a degree depend on the revised planning bill still to be tabled and, in particular, on the number of homes that Rother will be instructed to provide. Rother’s current inability to provide even a three-year housing supply means that all the development policies in the local plan and Rye Neighbourhood Plan are ‘out-of-date’ and only the NPPF policies apply. How they will deal with an increased requirement in housing numbers will be of great concern to every town and village in Rother.
Local plan revisions
“This will mean a revised Rother Local Plan and the need to revise the Rye Neighbourhood Plan in order to meet the approved local plan. One area that I hope both will address is the need for clarity on the question of tourist accommodation, be it Airbnb, holiday lets and new or extended hotels. There does seem to be a strong presumption in favour of retaining or permitting new tourist accommodation over existing homes. Whereas a new hotel requires planning permission, a large percentage of rooms in a private house can be let as Airbnb without any approval being necessary.
“In looking back over my ten years as chairman of the planning committee, I have come to realise that there are two approaches to considering applications, that of the heart and that of the head: the heart approach is based on the emotional first reaction but we must bear in mind is that there is a presumption in favour of development in this country. If the society is to object to any application, we have to show where it does not meet current policy.
“Then there is the head approach, which some members may find difficult to accept as in some cases it goes against a wider general view. But I have read enough officers’ reports to know that only objections which relate to policy and planning issues are taken into consideration. I have wanted the society’s comments to be considered by Rother as relevant, that is insofar as they take our comments into account at all, which I do wonder, unless it supports their view.
“It is also important to remember that it is not just Rother who decides matters of planning. Outside bodies such as East Sussex Highways, the Environment Agency and Historic England will also have an input.
“Finally whilst policy issues are to a large extent black and white, aesthetics are a matter of taste. In many cases they are the personal opinion of the design, conservation or case officer. A prime example is the redecoration of the exterior of the George. Although planning and listed approval has recently been granted retrospectively for the reinstatement of the George, it does not include the current colour scheme. This is to be the subject of a separate application.
“In its rejection of the current scheme it is described by Rother as follows: ‘the colours are not considered suitable having regard to the current character and context of the site within the Rye Conservation Area and its relationship with other listed buildings’.
“So, when the new application is received, what stance should the society take, bearing in mind that any new scheme will require the building to be scaffolded again in order to be repainted, albeit with a smaller scaffold? Should it be historically accurate, which the current scheme is not, or accepted as is for expediency’s sake? It is difficult to see how a retrospective application for what has been done could succeed, given Rother’s stated view.”
Those at the meeting were then asked their opinion on the new colour scheme of the George. Following a show of hands, it appeared that half of those present abstained and the remainder were equally split.
Image Credits: Kenneth Bird .