All you ever wanted to know about planning in East Devon

Ed Freeman, Service Lead for Planning Strategy and Development Management, explains the planning process for the district

Recently, I have been reading the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. You may be familiar with this sci-fi trilogy of five books that was made into a TV series in the 1980s and a film (2005). The movie starred Martin Freeman (no relation) as Arthur Dent who wakes one morning to find his house about to be demolished to make way for a bypass. While lying in front of the bulldozers he recounts how he found out about the bypass only shortly beforehand and had to go down to the local planning office only to find the notice about the bypass hidden away on a wall behind a stack of boxes in an unlit basement that had no stairs leading down to it. In a further twist of fate, a fleet of alien ships soon appear overhead ready to destroy the earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass telling a horrified populace of the earth that the plans have been on display at the galactic planning offices on Alpha Centauri for years. Of course no-one from earth had travelled there to see them.

The point is, that even in popular fiction there is a perception that planners do not want people to know about the developments that they are considering and that it is possible to wake up one morning and suddenly find that everything around you has changed and no-one asked you what you thought about it all.

In East Devon we work hard to make people aware of any developments that are proposed, as we really do want to hear their opinion and then consider their views when reaching our decision. After all, how else can we assess the impact of a development on a place and the people who live and work there, if we don’t ask those most affected by it what they think?

There are two key areas of work involved in planning the district – Planning Policy and Development Management. The first involves writing the Local Plan and other policy documents, which basically form the rule book that tells land owners and developers where they can build and how they should design their development. The second is the process by which we consider proposals for individual developments and assess these against our policies to decide whether they comply or not, and whether permission should be granted.

It is particularly hard to engage people in the policy writing part of our work, as despite the fact that this is where many of the big decisions about the future of the district are made, human nature is to only get involved when it directly affects us. Therefore people often only engage with us when a specific proposal impacts them personally. By that time, however, the land may already have been allocated for development and the principle established. So it is important to look out for consultations on policy documents and make your views known early in the process.

For each policy document we consult widely at each key stage of preparation in accordance with our statement of community involvement, which is available at: /media/344008/statement-of-community-involvement-2013.pdf. This often involves workshops with town and parish councils and community groups, exhibitions, press releases, web pages, social media posts, etc.

We are currently working with colleagues at Exeter, Teignbridge and Mid-Devon Councils as well as Devon County Council on a plan for the whole area now being referred to as the Greater Exeter Plan. We will be consulting next year on proposals for this plan and so I would encourage everyone to watch out for this and have a look at the proposals, as they could affect you

When it comes to individual development proposals we will write to adjoining land owners and/or post a site notice on or by the application site and in the local press. These are requirements under the legislation but we often go beyond these requirements to ensure that those who are directly affected are aware of what is being proposed and have an opportunity to comment. Unfortunately we do not have the resources to send letters to everyone who may be affected indirectly such as through a loss of a view or because they use the roads that will serve the development. We cannot provide a news service directly to everyone’s door but large scale developments will have a site and press notice posted and we will increasingly be using social media to post about these applications.

To me posting bits of paper on telegraph poles or notices in the press seems very “old hat” and people rarely come to our offices wanting to view plans anymore and if they do we encourage them to look on our computer screens. Our web-site is a source of a great deal of information about planning in East Devon and enables users to view plans of proposed developments and search for applications by a geographic area or post code. You can even track applications so that the system tells you when key stages are reached including when a decision is made. Unfortunately we do not have the resources to write directly to tell customers of our decisions.

When we receive comments on applications they are always read in detail and fully considered. People are often sceptical when I say this but I can assure you that it is true and I can prove it. This is because your comments will always be noted and responded to in the officer’s report, which summarises our consideration of the application and makes a recommendation on how it should be decided. Once a decision is made these reports are then posted on our web-site so that you can understand why we made the decision that we did and how we considered your views. We may not always agree with the comments you made but we will always consider them and make a sound and reasoned decision based on the planning merits of the development.

With so much information about planning available on our website, not only do you not have to travel to the ends of the earth (or even Sidmouth) to view development plans, you can actually do it from the comfort of your own armchair while watching TV - maybe even a rerun of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Anyone for a Pan Galactic Gargleblaster?