Chamber Panel on Joint Local Plan

The Chamber’s first evening event of 2016, a panel discussion on the Joint Local Plan, produced plenty of high-level debate. If anyone started the evening thinking that the planners within Chiltern and South Bucks District Councils face an easy task, they were rapidly disabused. As the discussion progressed, the complexity of the process became ever more evident, in particular the issue of delivering a coherent plan against a backdrop of national and regional funding cuts.

panel for Chamber Local Plan discussionOur Question Time-style panel, from left, Tony Molesworth, Andy Garnett, Cllr Noel Brown and Alex Pratt

If the evening didn’t produce easy answers, it provided invaluable context for the Chamber’s submission, and we hope that others will have found it similarly useful.

There was little dissent over the basic premise of the Joint Local Plan. If the Chiltern District is to thrive over the next 20 years and beyond, it must tackle the big issues of housing, infrastructure, retention and growth of employment, demographics – all whilst seeking to safeguard our special heritage and environment.

The need for a pragmatic approach was demonstrated by Tony Molesworth, Chairman of The Chesham Society. He explained that even The Chesham Society, an organisation largely intent on preserving the staus quo, accepts that Chesham should probably have perhaps another 1,000 houses. But this must be done correctly: with appropriate infrastructure, housing that people can afford, a growing employment and work generating base, and with safeguards of the green belt.

Cllr Noel Brown, Bucks CC Councillor and a member of Chesham Town Council, explained that his interest was quite largely to test opinion on appropriate land use in and around Chesham. Cllr Brown asked the searching question of what is the requirement for employment and work generating space in the area over the next 10-20 years. An excellent question, the answer being more elusive. Should business be on the edge of town, or in the centre, with housing on the edge? Will the current rush to convert office buildings to housing prove short sighted? There was considerable broader discussion on the changing nature of work and what this might mean for office needs in particular. Provision of affordable housing is a particular conundrum, a theme reiterated in almost every forum.

Alex Pratt, Chairman of Buckinghamshire Business First, explored probably the largest elephant in the room: how can development be matched by necessary infrastructure, when our national coffers are empty, central funding to this area is being cut, and national investment channelled to other regions? Significant elements of infrastructure will rely on other agencies, notably county, and Buckinghamshire is facing well publicised drying up of central funding. In practical terms, some funding for infrastructure tends to come from the ‘uplift in housing’ as wealth is generated from development. But he emphasised that the ongoing contribution of business to funding of infrastructure will be paramount, making the challenging environment a genuine concern.

Andy Garnett, chairing the meeting, summed up by pointing out the absurdity of central investment in a consistently productive area of the country being seen as mutually exclusive to channeling investment towards less productive areas. A mix of hard choices and politics, adding to the challenge here in Bucks.

Responses to the Joint Local Plan will probably concentrate on local land, housing and employment issues, not least because the documentation tends to focus attention in that direction. However, a genuine 20-year plan really should include some bigger concepts, and it is to be hoped that this consultation phase flushes out some viable, imaginative ideas. Our meeting finished with a preview of an exciting concept, Visions for Chesham being prepared by The Chesham Society. We look forward to its unveiling at Chesham Town Hall, at 7.30pm on Thursday 25th February. Maybe some other visions will pop up, too.