FEARS over east Wycombe becoming a dumping ground for housing and the impact on creaking infrastructure came to a head at a public forum last night to discuss building on five ‘reserve sites’.
Wycombe District Council called the meeting after proposing to develop rural sites including Gomm Valley, Slate Meadow and Abbey Barn to meet the growing demands from government over housing numbers.
During its Local Plan consultation, the question of building on the areas received the biggest number of combined objections from residents.
And last night around 150 people grilled planners and councillors on the options after they revealed the target for new homes in the district was nearer 500-700 rather than 400 as previously thought.
WDC’s head of planning and sustainability Penelope Tollitt laid out the case for releasing the areas, claiming doing nothing is not an option as the council will lose control of the areas to developers anyway.
She said: “These are reserve sites for development, not reserved from development. They have been as such since 1984 when the green belt was first delegated.
“A decision has not yet been made. The cabinet member is looking at the issue and that is a call that needs to be made, but before any decision is made we must work with residents to look at the options.
“You made it very clear to us that you do not like the idea of us building on the reserve sites.”
Opposition to building on the reserve sites - Abbey Barn North, Abbey Barn South, Gomm Valley and Ashwells, Slate Meadow and Terriers Farm – has led to numerous petitions and residents’ action groups.
Last night concerns centred on why the east side of High Wycombe must bear the brunt of development when houses are needed throughout the district.
MsTollitt explained that it is becoming harder to turn down inevitable applications from developers on non-green belt sites like Gomm Valley and Slate Meadow due to national changes in planning policy.
And with appeals likely to go the way of developers if WDC continues to trail behind on its required housing numbers, she argued it is better to retain control of the space so residents can help shape the areas.
A loss of control would also result in a loss of quality, the meeting was told, with Ms Tollitt saying long-term, quality planning was necessary to build well for the future.
With large swathes of the district covered by green belt and Area of Outstanding natural beauty, space for development around Wycombe is at a premium.
Since the 2011 Localism Act and introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework, a greater emphasis is put on an area’s Objectively Assessed Need for housing and councils must show they have enough space set aside for a rolling five–year housing supply.
And planners insist unless previously earmarked reserve sites were ‘mobilised’, a restricted district like Wycombe would not be able to negotiate with its neighbours to take a bigger share of the housing burden.
Councillors and officers were accused of short-termism and of living hand to mouth with their five-year housing supply.
They explained while a Local Plan is still in the offing, it may take years to implement and will deal with the longer term supply of housing, such as expanding Princes Risborough.
But likened to a race horse alongside a cart horse, the five-year supply – backdated to 2011 – leaves a shortfall of around 1400 homes that need to be accommodated soon.
Residents last night voiced anger that Wycombe’s groaning road and transport network could not handle the burden of a glut of new housing.
A 400-home development at Daws Hill – close to Abbey Barn – was cited as an example that little extra infrastructure work seemed likely alongside the influx of new residents.
And while the panel couldn’t make any firm promises, they said drawing up large-scale plans gives the best opportunity at assessing infrastructure needs together.
Ms Tollitt said: “It is a problem that planning can’t solve overnight, bur one of the benefits of doing it all together is we can look at the collective impact.
“If we have lots of small developments we might not see a change, but we look at this on a bigger scale then we can hopefully secure bigger improvements.”
Other issues included empty office and industrial units, with resident Ian Morton asking why the council don’t simply build houses there when the sites were available now.
Planners said Molins in Saunderton is being put forward in this way, but following a serious recession, the units may be needed in future and a separate drive to boost business would follow in the longer term Local Plan.
A further reserve site meeting is planned for August 28, with WDC set to discuss the proposal formally in October.