Letter of Concern to Martin Tett, Leader of Buckinghamshire Council
For: Martin Tett, Leader of Buckinghamshire Council.
To be copied to: Cabinet members (current, and from May 2021); Greg Smith MP; Princes Risborough Town Council; Current ward members Cllrs Alan Turner, Gary Hall and David Knights.
Risborough Area Residents Association (RARA) is a community-led, non-party political organisation with charitable status working on behalf of the residents of Princes Risborough, Monks Risborough, Whiteleaf, Alscot, Askett and local villages and settlements. There are around 800 households in its membership from Risborough and the surrounding area.
We have spent the last 4-5 years highlighting our members concerns, and responding to all consultations, on the Princes Risborough Expansion Plan as incorporated in the (former WDC’s, now Buckinghamshire Council’s (BC)) Local Plan. Our detailed submission to the Plan’s hearings in 2018 raised many issues including delivery, sustainability and community engagement and although no amendments to the Plan resulted we now fear that many of our concerns are already coming to fruition – before any significant work has even begun.
It appears (from both the February BC cabinet meeting and BC’s March ‘Statement of Community engagement) that BC are under the impression that the Plan for Risborough is a product of, and subject to continuous, community engagement. This is simply not the case and misleading and we would like this letter, clarifying the process, to be addressed as part of the Supplementary Planning Document (SPD).
It is clear that the Risborough community is either opposed to the scale of expansion (ref a 4500 signature petition to WDC in 2018) or ‘in the dark’ as to what is proposed. Details of, and the extent and impact of, the Princes Risborough Expansion Plan have been notably scant or absent in any Councils’ (including Princes Risborough Town Council’s (PRTC)) communications with residents and, since 2018 (and the disbandment of the then ‘Steering Group’), no community organisation or group has been involved in any further discussions or developments. Our elected local members have been notably silent on the Plan and we remain extremely concerned that the Plan is being ‘pushed through’ without any community support, influence or buy-in. This is of great concern and goes against the principles set out in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
Whilst the ‘Statement of Community Engagement’ chronologically lists the studies, reports and events that ‘informed’ the Plan (Section 2, page 5), the context, scope and response to these is not included:
Firstly, the options consultation and resulting Tibbalds report from 2014/15 raised a number of pertinent issues yet it related, in fact, to a completely different option for Risborough with three possible growth scenarios with 800 homes being the largest option in scope.
The miraculous leap from the scope, and findings, of the Tibbalds work to an expansion ‘Plan’ of circa 2500 homes was presented to the town in 2015 as a ‘fait accomplis’. This followed the May 2015 elections (at which the Risborough residents elected two Independent District Councillors) and PRTC had been dissuaded from pursuing a Neighbourhood Action Plan. WDC wished to produce an Area Action Plan to be incorporated within their emerging Local Plan citing that this would offer protection from developer-led planning. Oh dear.
The resulting and subsequent public meetings and events of 2015 and 2016 were very hostile and significant concerns and issues were consistently raised by residents and community groups. Whilst the responses may have been logged, no material change to the expansion Plan resulted.
The Steering Group, also formed in 2015, was led by officers from WDC with community group members feeling impotent in any influence. The head of Planning and Sustainability at WDC admitted at the public hearings of 2018 that the Steering Group process had been flawed and not appropriate and ‘lessons have been learnt’ – have they?
Since the 2018 adoption of the Plan, it now appears that landowners and developers have driven the Plan, with PRTC being the only local organisation merely ‘briefed’ on developments.
We note that the most recent consultation on the new SPD for Risborough (as discussed in BC’s February Cabinet meeting) raised over 200 responses (including from ourselves). Approximately 30% of the concerns were from residents from the adjoining parish/ward of Bledlow-cum-Saunderton on the southern route of the proposed relief road. A desire to build the Culverton link across green belt and AONB seems to have been given more weight than responses from within the parish and ward of The Risboroughs. There were a number of notable and significant concerns and objections from The Chiltern Conservation Board, Thames Water, Highways England, Chiltern Railways, Network Rail, Department for Education, Department of the Environment, NHS Bucks, Natural England and even Buckinghamshire County Council. None of these significant concerns or issues appear to have been properly addressed or acted upon. Comments have been ‘logged’ yet the Council response is either vague, fudged, or offers ‘no change’.
The cost of required infrastructure for this expansion is escalating rapidly and by failing to get developer agreement there is significant concern that the required infrastructure will actually come forward at all. No agreement of shared value with Network Rail, that is so essential for the viability of any aspect of the Plan, is very concerning. As it is intended for much of the infrastructure to be ‘end loaded’ there is now a real danger that Risborough, Longwick and the Kimbles could be merged/coalesced without the facilities and integration required.
We are pleased however to see that BC are now looking at and reviewing the A4010 route. This is welcome as the inadequacy of this strategic route is a significant factor as to why Risborough is not an employment destination and why such an overwhelming expansion of Princes Risborough fails so dramatically on sustainability, with matching homes with jobs. The A4010 has many issues, not least the access to the M40 in High Wycombe, and we think it essential that this section is in scope of the review. It would also seem completely inappropriate for significant development to occur along the route until the entire A4010 is addressed and the vehicle numbers reduced or the road significantly improved. The proposed ‘relief road’ for Princes Risborough will only exacerbate issues at either end of this route although, with the continually increasing cost of this proposed road, its sensitive and controversial setting, drainage and railway bridge issues and developers’ resistance to funding this work, we seriously doubt that it is fully deliverable.
RARA would love there to be a robust scaled down Plan for the growth of Princes Risborough that respects its market town heritage and ‘gateway to the Chilterns’ setting. A Plan that fairly contributes to the county's need to provide homes, employment and business opportunities and facilities (including education and healthcare) for existing and future residents and that will attract visitors (the station area is a long standing embarrassment to the town and we would hope that a safe and welcoming ‘hub’ here could be brought forward that is not reliant on future developer contribution). The current Plan simply does not do this and now seems in serious danger of not being delivered as envisaged.
We hope that the new Council in May will look again at the Princes Risborough Expansion Plan and its failings and, with genuine community engagement, forge a better solution for Princes Risborough and the whole county's (and adjoining counties) long-term development. We remain available to help and contribute where possible.
Yours sincerely, on behalf of the RARA committee,