Introduction to the Neighbourhood Plan and a vision for the area
Neighbourhood Plans, once passed at a local referendum, will form part of the local government land use planning system and help inform all future planning applications in our area. This plan identifies where building or physical services are needed, controls what development can take place, and influences what building developments should look like. It also identifies where natural and historic features affected by development should be protected and conserved. The policy statements which set this out are the core of this plan.
Readers new to this area of public life should therefore remember the land use focus of the plan. There are many important aspects of local community life which fall outside the land use planning orbit. Whilst those with some land use, building or transport implications may be touched on in passing, active policy provision can only be made in the plan for new developments like new housing or space for employment which clearly need to be facilitated by appropriate land use policies.
A documented process was followed to gather the necessary data, consult local residents, businesses and community organisations. The outcome from this enabled the Steering Group, with help from many others, to arrive at a shared vision and set of policy objectives to make the vision a reality.
The complete document comprises the descriptive background and planning context for the geographical area covered by the plan, and the evidence which supports the rationale for the policies. It also has numbered subject themed sections providing the detailed rationale for the related policies, and the related policy statements. These are all designed to help deliver the vision and achieve the overall result required for our area.
The Plan document has to meet the needs of the whole community, so it has been written to reflect this. For example, in its final form it becomes part of the statutory planning documentation used by professional planning officers and elected councillors to make development decisions for our area, so some of the language may seem unusual for some readers. Some of the descriptive and background material is vital for local residents wanting to understand the issues facing our community and what is proposed in preparation for voting on it.
Initial analysis of local issues and the Vision Statement
In the early stages of the plan production Steering Group members and the community at large were invited to identify the issues and characteristics particular to the plan area. This SWOT (Strengths,Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis has been regularly updated through the community engagement process. The vision statement emerged principally from this appraisal.
As a result of the SWOT analysis it became clear that whilst all the issues were interlinked, it would help to provide a structure to the policies and aid clarity for the reader to organise the issues identified into six themed groups, or policy areas.
The six themes
There is a full analysis of the current situation for each of these subjects, and desirable remedies for issues of concern, set out in each themed section to underpin the relevant proposed planning policies (click on the blue links above). However, since they are all interlinked, especially in an area like ours, a brief overview of the key factors follows here as a reference point and general introduction.
The policies all feed into, and flow from, the Vision Statement that the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group has adopted to provide a planning focus and a starting point for readers. The vision statement emerged from a variety of sources including the outcomes of earlier community projects and initial discussions with a cross section of local community organisations and individuals initiated by Kingsbridge Town Council in 2017. The six planning themes were then identified from this to provide a logical structure for the plan itself.
An overview of land use in the three parishes
Each themed section contains a detailed analysis of the land use factors which underlie the issues in question and need to be taken into account in setting policies. However, as they are clearly interlinked and impact upon each other, a top level analysis follows to provide a feel for the key factors underlying the plan as a whole. See Parish Boundaries.
Landscape and topography
The landscape and topography of the Neighbourhood Plan area is typical of the South Hams area of south west Devon. It is entirely composed of largely unspoilt rolling wooded hills, some with steep gradients, and deep valleys, studded with rich farmland wherever the gradient of the land allows. The head of the tidal Kingsbridge Estuary reaches into modern Kingsbridge town, to the foot of the high street (Fore Street). West Alvington parish borders the same estuary further seawards. Churchstow parish borders the Avon Estuary, the next tidal valley westwards.
For clarity, whilst the Avon Estuary is fed by a significant river, the Avon, there is no major freshwater outlet into the Kingsbridge Estuary and it is therefore properly described as a ria or drowned valley like a fjord.
Because of this setting most of the Plan area sits within the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) designated in 1960. The Estuary margins are included in the wider South Devon Undeveloped Coast protected area. The Estuary (ria) itself is heavily protected under both the AONB and Site of Special Scientific Interest designations. Its’ tidal, almost wholly sea water, rather than sea and fresh water mixed, environment contains a number of rare plant and animal species. The landscape and countryside are therefore heavily protected by law.
The Plan area has a population of 7000 with 6100 living in Kingsbridge. The area population has grown from 5000 in 1981, almost all of it in Kingsbridge. See census.
The parishes and the three settlements in the area covered by the plan have a long shared history, with Kingsbridge gradually emerging as the main centre during the early middle ages and providing civic and commercial support for a wide rural area which extends well beyond the Neighbourhood Plan area from that point on. Kingsbridge is now recognised by the local planning authorities as the market town or hub for the nineteen remote rural parishes surrounding it, supporting a total population of nearly 18,000. See the Settlement Boundaries for Kingsbridge, West Alvington and Churchstow.
The oldest built up areas of the town and the two villages sit on hill ridges where the ancient route ways ran and where there was some flat land to build. They were also safe from flood risk. The settlements gradually extended down the valley sides, and in the case of Kingsbridge towards the Estuary as well, where significant areas of development grew up on reclaimed land at the head of the Estuary where quaysides grew up to support trade.
There is housing stock from all periods from the late middle ages onwards in the area, but only limited development in the villages, and surrounding countryside. Two extensive areas of housing were built between the mid 1960s and the early 1990s on the steep valley side to the east of Kingsbridge town centre, largely within the AONB boundary which surrounds the older part of the town.
Readily available local stone, often rendered, slate or tile hung against the weather, is the traditional building material. This architectural style complements the landscape, and as many buildings are visible from some distance because of hilly locations, has largely been retained for modern development.
Commercially, the area’s economy revolves around retailing, tourism, professional and care services, property maintenance and vehicle trades. Employment is buoyant but relatively low wage. Because of the industrial past there are significant redevelopment opportunities of brownfield sites enabling some diversification of the economy.
Leisure activities, mainly outdoor and sporting are moderately well catered for but there are some gaps in provision which need site allocations.
As with the rest of the West Country coast, any current or potential house building site with a view of the tidal water is rising inexorably in value relative to the general housing market, and this effect is increasing where there is easy access to the water.
The area is thus highly attractive for open market housing at the expense of affordable housing provision. For some years there has been tension between developers and the Planning Authority due to the clear need for affordable housing for local people, provision of which is a condition of market development being approved. This is a major factor in there having been no large scale new housing developments built in the plan area in the last ten years, despite several hundred units being allocated in past Local Plans.
Transport and communications
The settlements of the plan grew up around key routes at the head of the estuary. In areas where roads were poor, convenient navigable waterways were an additional transport route especially for heavy goods and for longer journeys. One of the unique facets of the Neighbourhood Plan area is that the upper Estuary was navigable until the 1920s for sizeable boats. Kingsbridge was historically a port and the town and surrounding villages benefitted greatly until the early 20th Century from water borne trade and transport connections.
The water based commercial transport link to the area has gone, as has the branch railway line to Kingsbridge from the West Country main line at South Brent, which closed in 1963/4. The closest rail access is now at Totnes.
Whilst we enjoy beautiful landscape, the topography and constrained routes do not lend themselves to modern transport or levels of traffic, a significant issue when good transport links are vital to modern settlements. The Kingsbridge area is remote from, and poorly connected to, the strategic transport network of the region. The road network is still essentially a mixture of narrow, deeply sunk medieval lanes overlaid with a basic network of narrow, winding Victorian turnpike roads, which are now designated “A” roads. Many of the latter are little wider than the older lanes in places and similarly unsuited to modern traffic, especially the increasingly large and heavy goods vehicles and agricultural contractors’ equipment.
This relative remoteness and difficulty of travel has kept the area quiet and attractive to live in outside the main tourist periods, which is much valued by local people, but is an economic constraint for the longer term.
Public transport provision is relatively small scale and expensive so car usage is high.
The implications of current land use for the future
When considering potential development sites for housing, community or employment use or for the upgrading of infrastructure, the following have an important bearing on land availability:
- Robust protective AONB policies (broadly supported by local people to safeguard the attractive nature of the area).
- Sites within the “setting of the AONB” visible from the AONB, also informed by AONB policies.
- The steep gradient of many sites makes development either impossible or expensive because of the technical constraints.
- Flood risk in significant areas which are identified by the Environment Agency.
- The challenges of upgrading access to sites because of the landscape and cost constraints.
- Many potential sites are in private ownership and brownfield sites are in multiple private ownership and may or may not be made available by the owners if identified for development.
- Poor transport connections strongly suggest the need to discourage additional commuting into or out of the area and are a significant economic and employment constraint, especially because of the limited current public transport.
- Climate change and environmental sustainability issues are also important factors.
Once these factors are taken into account there is very limited land both available and suitable for development. Such land is therefore enormously valuable for the community’s wellbeing and the future economic sustainability of the Plan area and the wider rural hinterland.
Providing necessary supporting infrastructure for any development will also be very challenging.
Decisions about this precious resource therefore need to be taken with great care and with medium to long term sustainability in mind.