AN OVERVIEW OF PLANNING IN LYMINGTON
by Jonathan Huthchinson
The Lymington Society exists, inter alia, to foster good development in the town of Lymington and its immediate surroundings; to watch in a critical and constructive way the activities of and decisions made by all levels of government and local authority where they affect its interests; and to provide a public forum for the welfare of the town and to enable residents to express their personal views.
Redevelopment goes on all the time as part of a general process of renewal, and it is not the business of the Society to oppose it on principle. Rather, we seek to influence it and to keep it within bounds of aesthetics, practicality and scale defined by the historical shape and texture of the town.
The purpose of this note is to trace the evolution of the town during the past quarter of a century and to assess the extent to which development has been contained within the bounds set by the town’s history and location.
Lymington is a town with a long history and has been well described in the Local Authority’s various planning documents. Three main threads are woven into its special character: the Forest, the sea and its history as a market town. It is not, and has never been, a dormitory town, and there are good reasons why it should not become one in an age dedicated to the idea of sustainability. The Georgian town centre and the conservation area surrounding it show some scars, but have on the whole been well preserved from the worst effects of redevelopment, and in some instances, notably improved by it. Canterbury House in Gosport Street, the Round House at the west end of St Thomas Street and the recent rebuilding of the Angel Yard are outstanding examples of urban renewal which enhance the quality of their surroundings. This summary focuses on the outer circle surrounding the conservation area, in which the greatest threat lies.
The changed economic circumstances following the Second World War saw major changes as former large estates on the town’s fringes were broken up and sold off for what is nowadays known as redevelopment. Many of the buildings dating from that time stand in generous gardens off leafy lanes among mature trees and shrubs which, together with their modest height and low density, set the standard for the outer town’s character and appearance. Subsequent development during the last quarter of the twentieth century filled in open spaces with housing estates, such as Farnley’s Mead off Belmore Lane, Vitre Gardens offStanley Road, the extensive developments west of Marsh Lane and Old Orchards off Broad Lane. These estates reflect the architectural fashions of their time and to today’s eye some are more appealing than others, but on the whole they match the low-rise, medium density idiom of the earlier town and have matured well to merge into their backgrounds.
Pressure from developers has grown substantially during the past five years. It has followed partly from the response of central government to what it sees as demographic trends, and partly from the housing bubble and the consequent opportunities for the pursuit of profit. As the results have assumed a recognisable shape and taken a clear direction, the Society has become increasingly concerned by the growing threat to the historic character of the wider town. As open space has dwindled, developers have increasingly turned towards demolition of familiar and perfectly serviceable buildings in spacious plots, to make room for densely packed dwellings, often of three storeys or more. Inevitably, and in spite of the imposition by the planning authority of arboricultural conditions, greenery is being lost or diminished and the relationship between space, buildings and greenery, essential to the character of the town, is being irreversibly altered. There is good evidence of the activities of predatory developers seeking to buy up houses everywhere in the town where spacious sites are to be found, particularly along the margins of the semi-rural lanes such as Church Lane, Belmore Lane and Southampton Road which give the outer town its essential character. The recent collapse of the housing market has seen a reduction in this activity, but it is unlikely to be permanent. Recent developments along Avenue Road, in Belmore Lane and in Waterford Lane and Waterford Close show clearly how this remorseless pressure will, if it continues along its present path, change the character and appearance of the outer town very substantially within a generation.
Attached (Annex A) is a list of 48 planning applications, the majority of them submitted within the past five years. The list is limited arbitrarily to five locations (Avenue Road, Belmore Lane/Fairfield Close, Cannon Street, Southampton Road and Waterford Lane/Close because those are the areas whose character is currently most threatened. The redevelopment of the former industrial site between the quay and the causeway known as “the former Webb’s chicken factory” is not included because it is of a different order, being more of a lost opportunity than an assault on a familiar neighbourhood. The town centre is also excluded, being subject to rather tighter rules and so less threatened.
Several points stand out from a study of the list:
a. Every application listed has succeeded in the end without major alteration. (It is difficult to find any developer’s application which has been successfully resisted through the appeal stage)
b. The very large majority of the listed applications are much more densely packed into the sites of the houses and gardens they replace. Less obviously, most are also a storey or more higher.
c. While there is evidence of a general lack of response from the public during the consultation process, where there has been a response it has always been overwhelmingly opposed to what is proposed. The 3 cases allowed at appeal did not muster a single supporting submission from the public.
d. To the outside observer there is no obvious pattern in the level at which applications are decided. A particularly egregious case was 87241. Two earlier applications were refused under delegated powers and one appeal was dismissed, yet a third application of similar scale (currently the subject of a fourth, retrospective application to vary the terms of consent) was granted. Although self-evidently controversial, none of the applications was considered by the full Development Control Committee. Another case, 92050, never was settled by the LPA, apparently because of internal differences between planning officers as to the proper level, and was eventually allowed by the Inspector on appeal. The consequences of this indecision have yet to unfold, but they amount to a serious defeat for the Society in its aim to foster good development.
e. It is clear that developers are ready to go to appeal whenever an application is refused. The system might have been designed to encourage them to do so, as there is no penalty for failure and they can readily afford the costs in time and money, while the likelihood of success is good (The latest NFDC figures show that in the year ending July 2008 40% of appeals were allowed). One example arose from 91226. The application was opposed by every one of the 13 neighbours who chose to respond and was refused by the LPA under delegated powers on the recommendation of the Town Council. A second application was refused by the full DCC, also on the Town’s recommendation, at a meeting attended by every interested neighbour. A second appeal promptly followed. Several months later the Inspector allowed the first appeal (heard under written representations) and the second was withdrawn. The views of the inhabitants, the Town Council and the DCC were thus all set aside, reducing any pretence of local democracy to dust.
f. There is growing evidence in the papers supporting applications that each new development approved is swiftly taken into the body of argument put forward by developers to demonstrate the suitability of further, similar development. Thus the character of Avenue Road is on the brink of irreversible change from the leafy ambiance implied by its name to one of higher, denser blocks of flats and terraces. Planning Officers seem reluctant to resist such argument, being content at best to settle for a halfway compromise.
The town’s, and the planning officers’, defences against the advance of mass development are few. The Local Plan relies on a range of numbered and carefully crafted policies, of which the most commonly quoted is DW-E1: “Development shall be appropriate and sympathetic in scale, appearance, materials, form, siting and layout, and shall not cause unacceptableeffects by reason of visual intrusion, overlooking, shading or other adverse impact on local amenities”. But these standards are essentially abstract and easily subverted, as the record of decisions and appeal results shows. Inside conservation areas and for listed buildings the rules are stricter and the hurdles for developers correspondingly higher, but at or close to their boundaries the tension between preservation and development is weighted in favour of the latter and opportunities abound to exploit ambiguities of words and responsibilities in favour of the big battalions with scant regard for the views of those most affected. What is lacking, as the history of the last five years shows all too clearly, is a clear and unambiguous vision for the town’s long-term future, legitimised by the assent of those who have the most feeling and regard for it – the current inhabitants. Instead, as each new application is approved or appeal allowed the range of precedent is extended, thus encouraging the developers to press for ever deeper inroads into the town’s disappearing heritage.
There are three possible defences against the threat:
a. A new and enforceable strategy defining unambiguous boundaries to what is acceptable;
b. Wider use of existing powers to define “Areas of Special Character”:
c. Extension of the Conservation Zone
A New Strategy. New strategies take years to write and require considerable verbal dexterity to accommodate all points of view while retaining any useful meaning. The latest version of the Core Strategy, shortly to be adopted, which claims to embody a “vision” of the next 20 years, includes the following (the full text is at ANNEX B):
Lymington and Pennington
9.27 Lymington is an historic town . . . The main issues in the town are the maintenance of the attractive historic centre, traffic and parking, providing scope for continuing economic prosperity, and the affordability of housing for local people. [note: “Affordable housing” is a thread which runs through all planning policy, and few would disagree with the intention behind it, but it features in only one of the applications which appear in Annex A. The redevelopments which threaten the town’s character are of a different order, a point it is important to emphasise in any discussion of the threat.]
9.28 . . . . The spatial strategy does not rely on continuing the recent trend, which has affected parts of Lymington in particular, of redeveloping large family homes with flatted developments. . . .
9.31 The historic character of the town will be protected and enhanced. Change will be managed to minimise any impact on the town’s historic character. The Quay and riverfront have been enhanced to provide quality facilities for visitors and marina users. Improvements will continue to be made to public access and enjoyment of the riverside where opportunities arise.
While this obviously reflects the recurring concerns advanced by the Society and others about Avenue Road, it is hardly a panacea for the wider town, and in view of the record of appeal outcomes it is probably no more than a vain hope in spite of the apparent recantation of earlier Government policy by PPS3. The Inspector, unaccountable and apparently deaf to local opinion, will continue to decide. Furthermore, the wording is already set in rapidly hardening cement and calls for amendment are unlikely to be welcome for several years at least.
Areas of Special Character. One possible ready-made way to raise the defensive parapet does exist in the shape of “Areas of Special Character”, defined by Policy DW-E11 of the Local plan first alteration:
Within Areas of Special Character as defined on the proposals maps, development will only be permitted if it would not materially harm the character of the area.
C1.25 Within some built-up areas in the District, there are areas of residential development, spacious in character and distinguished by mature gardens and trees, that make a particular contribution to the quality of the settlements in which they are situated. They can be susceptible to pressures for infilling and redevelopment which could seriously threaten their defining characteristics. The policy seeks to ensure that in accordance with PPS1 advice that design should respond to local context and create or reinforce local distinctiveness, development within these areas is compatible with them in scale, layout and design, and does not damage the features that contribute to their character.
There remain several areas of the town which match this description very well, but curiously, there is only one such area shown on the town map (it can be found at http://www.newforest.gov.uk/media/adobe/i/g/Map_4_Lymington_and_Pennington.pdf ). An earlier attempt by the Society to persuade the NFDC to designate some more appears to have been unsuccessful and might usefully be revived. The attraction of the designation is that it is specific as to “compatibility in scale, layout and design”, which bears directly on the principal and repeated objections to the “demolish and squash in” practice of developers.
Extending the Conservation Area. The origins of the Conservation Area are not easy to find, but there does not seem to be any reason why it should have lapidary status. A case might be made for a modest extension.
Recommendation. This note has been put together mainly as a mind-clearing exercise. I recommend that we first discuss it in committee and, subject to what may emerge, that we seek to expose our concerns first to the NFDC’s planning officers and if necessary to its elected members.
15 December 2008