Possible Development in Brooke? The Issues

I am concerned that there is so much confusion arising from a leaflet that was sent to households in Brooke by a development company.  It’s totally understandable that people are concerned by the prospect of more housebuilding.   But misunderstandings are leading to unfounded exaggeration and confusion.   Social Media statement are being made that are simply wrong but presented as fact.  Rumours that have grown with the telling are then presented as the truth.  That is wrong.  Brooke deserves better than that.

Somebody needs to set out the factual basis of the situation we find ourselves in with reference to the history and future of our Village.

As your District Councillor, I am well placed to set out the issues raised in plain language so we can have an informed debate rather than a series of heated arguments without anyone really understanding the whole picture including the legal and planning background.

I have spoken to a large number of people in the village about these proposals.  Whilst I can see that a significant number of people are understandably exercised by and opposed to the prospect of housing growth in the village in any event, there are many others who have grown up in our village who would accept it if, and only if, there were cast iron guarantees that a brand new school was provided as part of the deal.

My position is clear.  There are people in our village who hold opinions on both sides of the argument so my responsibility is to lay out the facts on both sides so that all residents can have the information to come to their own conclusions based on the facts and evidence.

The issues are more complex than can be resolved in a simple yes/no poll based on incomplete information.    We can’t divorce the potential of a new Village school from the discussion around the number of new homes.   If anything is to happen, the two go together.   And, of course, nothing might happen at all.

The question is about whether building more homes in Brooke might lead to the guarantee of a new school is the critical one.   But there are other issues which cloud the matter and residents are entitled to understand all of them before being asked to decide when all the facts are known.

The Issues

Brooke is at a fork in the road.  One way or another in the next few months, Brooke will have to form a view as to whether the cast-iron guarantee of a new school being built is worth accepting the building of 150-200 new homes in our village.  Or not.

If developers submit a planning application, the District Council as planning authority will need to weigh this opinion in the balance when measured against the national and local planning rules, which I will attempt to summarise later.

The County Council as education and highways authority will have to decide whether they feel that a new school is justified and can be made affordable with new development able to bridge the funding gap that ensures that a new school is built in Brooke.

This is a complex matter with at least six separate issues coming together and I want to set out the background to each of the issues so that residents can decide for themselves how they feel based on a better understanding of the facts.

As I see it, the topics are

  • Whilst some leaflets have been distributed by a landowner asking for views about the building of homes which could cross-subsidise the building of a new school, no planning application has been submitted yet and there’s still no certainty that one will be.
  • The District Council is producing a new local plan that, by 2020, will set out where new housing and employment development will take place in the period to 2036. Brooke is part of that plan whether it likes it or not.
  • Our village school has faced its own recent difficulties and the number on the roll has fallen and staffing has reduced accordingly. The Chairman of Governors has described the building as no longer being fit for purpose.  We need to form a view about whether this is acceptable.
  • The County Council previously identified funding and a location for a new school in 2014 but then the spotlight moved elsewhere. We need to ask whether there any chance of that decision being reversed and, if so, in what circumstances?
  • The District Council cannot demonstrate a five-year-land-supply, a technical planning issue which means that development that might otherwise be refused must be approved in certain circumstances.
  • A debate about where we see the village, its facilities and social life going in the next few years.

To take these in turn.

A Planning Application?

Understandably, residents are concerned when they’ve heard about proposals about a large number of new homes to be built in Brooke seemingly out of nowhere.

But homes can’t be built unless they have planning permission.  And that means than a planning application must be made.   No planning application has been submitted.   So the proposals have no official status at this moment.   They’re just early proposals from two developers.

When or if a planning application is made to the District Council, all interested parties including residents, the Parish Council and others have a chance to review and comment on the details.  The minimum consultation period is 21 days.  But more complex proposals have a longer period for talks.   A planning application should include all the relevant information in one place so people can see the whole proposal at once.   And all the documents are uploaded to South Norfolk’s website so everyone can see what’s happening and being said on a daily basis.

Nowadays it is good practice for developers to have a series of pre-planning application discussions with residents.   This is encouraged by the Government and the Council.   One developer, FW Properties, has announced that he is holding a small exhibition to garner views.   But the announcement of proposals and the holding of an exhibition to explain what they have in mind by the developer doesn’t mean that the proposal has any status at all.   We should be pleased that an exhibition is being planned.  It is not a legal requirement and many landowners simply chicken out.   So, even if you’re against, give the developers some credit for wanting to meet and let’s use it as an opportunity to learn more so we can make an informed decision.

The Parish Council has decided that, rather than leave matters to developers alone, they should convene a meeting on 21st June.   We should congratulate the Parish Council for being proactive and giving an additional opportunity for everyone to have their say so that all the issues can be brought out into the open in an independent manner.  I do not criticise the Parish Council for calling the meeting.  They are doing the job they got elected by all of us to do.

The Production of the Local Plan

Any proposal for development must be preceded by a planning application but, wholly separately, there’s something else going on at the same time which it’s easy to confuse.  At the same time as developers have suggested new homes in Brooke in exchange for a school, the District Council is producing a local plan.

Every ten years or so, the local Council is required to produce a new local plan to determine where homes and businesses will permitted over the next 20 years.   Planning applications by developers are normally only successful where the land has been included in the local plan by the Council.

So, production of the local plan is different to the determination of a planning application.   A planning application normally follows-on from the production of the local plan, which picks the land on which, in general terms, development is permitted.   Any subsequent planning application has to include all the detailed technical information to support it – things like drainage, highways, detailed layouts, landscaping etc.

Production of the existing local plan process started back in 2009, was completed in 2015 and takes us to 2026.  With less than 10 years to go until 2026, a new replacement local plan is currently being formulated that will take us to 2036.

The making of local plans follows this rolling-update process each ten years where landowners ask for land to be considered and the Council works out which are the most acceptable plots having regard to the numbers of new homes that are needed.   The Government is consulting on whether more frequent 5 year rolling updates might be introduced in future rather than the ten years we have at the moment.

This debate about housing has started because several landowners in Brooke have proposed that their land is made available for development in the next 20 year local plan as well as for immediate development alongside a new school.   You might say they’re trying to ride two horses in the same race.

Landowners are quite entitled to put their land forward and you can’t blame them for doing so.   But simply because land is put forward doesn’t mean that it is accepted or acceptable.

The fact that landowners have put land forward doesn’t mean that the Parish or District Councils have somehow improperly colluded with them.  The local plan process invites anyone to suggest where new homes or business could be located.  Councils have to respond to proposals that are made.   That doesn’t mean they agree with them.  But they can’t just put their heads in the sand and hope that proposals will go away.

Brooke isn’t being singled out for special treatment as the new local plan is being formed.  All across South Norfolk landowners have made bids to have their land considered for development between now and 2036.   In total, I estimate [because not all the numbers have been tallied yet] that the whole of South Norfolk will need to accommodate an additional 3000-4000 new homes in our 120 villages between now and 2036 over and above the large number of homes that have already been planned for in the district between 2006 and 2026.  Many of those have already been built and completed in places like Wymondham, Trowse, Cringleford & Poringland.

That approximate 3,000-4,000 number for South Norfolk [a number that will have to be fine-tuned over the next 12 months] has ultimately arisen from a formula provided by Government which attempts to model population growth, household growth and economic activity in each part of the country.  Local Councils cannot ignore the Government’s formula and new penalties are being introduced for those that try.

The District Council has a legal responsibility to interpret the formula and then to produce a local plan to fulfil it.   In this area, South Norfolk, Norwich City and Broadland Councils all have their own individual numbers, which we aggregate together to produce a single local plan for all three areas because that way we can consider cross-border issues like transport and, yes, schooling.   And it’s important we have a plan so that we can be sure that water, highways and other infrastructure requirements can be identified in good time.

Of the possible 3,000-4,000 extra new homes over-and-above existing commitments in South Norfolk between now and 2036, developers have put forward bids for over 60,000 new homes including two completely new villages.  That’s  about TWENTY times more than we need.  And they’re just the ones we know about today.   More have come in since we last tallied up.

So, from this we conclude that only perhaps one in twenty sites advanced by landowners might eventually be accepted in the local plan, which is likely to come into effect in 2020.  Most of the lines on the proposals map will deleted or scaled right back.  The Council’s job is to trim landowners’ aspirations for new homes so that we plan for the right number, based on the evidential need not simply on how many builders would like to build.   Local people need to be reassured that, just because a site has been proposed at this stage does not mean it will be built on later on.   In fact, the vast majority will not be.

Before we get side-tracked by suggestions that immigration is fuelling housing growth locally, national figures published this week show that South Norfolk has some of the country’s lowest immigration numbers.

Housing growth locally flows from the simple fact that we are all living longer so more homes are needed for older residents, who in previous generations would no longer be with us.  Many more people live by themselves nowadays by choice or by family circumstances like divorce so more homes are needed for the same population than would previously have been the case.   And you can’t open a newspaper without reading that there is a housing crisis with our youngest families boomeranging back to parent’s homes [a form of homelessness] or otherwise being unable to get a foot on the housing ladder and having the opportunities their parents had to put down roots in a home of their own.

Our existing local plan grows the number of homes in the whole of the Greater Norwich area by about 1% per year.  And it’s done that one-way or another since 1973.   It’s likely that the next plan will do likewise at a similar pace.

This is a long-winded way of saying that in the next year or so the Council will be required by law to find space for more new homes in South Norfolk and it is inconceivable that Brooke will not have to share in those numbers alongside other towns and villages across the whole district.

More immediately, whether or not large numbers of new homes will be built in Brooke will depend on whether a planning application outside the local plan process results in an acceptable case being made for a new school and whether it is appropriate that new housing cross-subsidises its construction.  Or whether a new school is just a pipedream and no houses will be built at all until the next plan is devised.

Whatever happens, the new local plan will result in a change in the settlement boundaries in Brooke just like it always does when every new local plan is developed every ten years or so.  There will be some additional new housing planned in Brooke between now and 2036.   The question is:  How Many?

Myth Busting

Before we go any further I must be clear that the numbers housing numbers being suggested on the facebook site are wrong and must be challenged.   They are assuming that all sites put forward by landowners will be built, when in fact they will not.   As I have previously explained, the council needs to find something like 3,000-4,000 new spaces across the whole district and developers have asked for nearly twenty times that number.  The number of sites will be drastically cut back.   There is no circumstance where all the bids from landowners will be accepted.

So it’s a false assumption that EVERY one of the sites that landowners have promoted in Brooke will be built on or permitted for development in the local plan.  Before a plan is agreed, all the proposals need to be consulted on and everyone will be able to have a say.

Yesterday it was suggested on the facebook group that there could be 255+ homes built in Brooke.   Now, the figure has increased to 400 – 500.  Those figures are based on the fundamental misunderstanding that, just because landowners ask, they will get everything they ask for.   They don’t.  The numbers on facebook are scaremongering and should be called-out.

A Bit of Planning History about Brooke

Since the war, Brooke has seen a lot of development.  In the 1940’s St Peters Road was developed.  The 1950’s saw Churchill Place.  The 60’s saw Brecon Road & Windermere Close.  Old Hall Farm was redeveloped in 1967 to create Dovecote Close.  The 70’s/80’s saw Astley Cooper Place, Burgess Way and The Keys.  And then there were developments in Old Hall Gardens, Edward Seago Place and Mereside.  As an average, about 100 homes every ten years were built in Brooke from the 1940’s to 1980’s.   That development has made Brooke the village it is today.

But in the 1990’s all that stopped for reasons I can’t readily explain.  One thing we can say is that in the last 30 years, by any historical yardstick, there have been very low levels of housebuilding in Brooke and other similarly sized villages in South Norfolk compared to the post-war years.

In the current local plan to 2026, which is being replaced by one to 2036, about 20 homes have been allocated in Brooke – equivalent to about one per year over the period.  Some of these have already been built along the Norwich Road with a further development on the old pig farm in High Green… and these have mostly been very large and expensive houses that, frankly, have been out of reach of young families with the exception of a very small number of affordable homes.   And, as a result, the average age of Brooke residents has increased even more.

Affordable Homes

I get more complaints about the lack of affordable housing for local people and younger couples and families than any other issue.   We can’t just build only Executive Homes.   The Council is committed to ensuring a wider mix of homes is built in the future including bungalows, affordable homes and smaller homes suitable for first-time-buyers.   I have met plenty of people who complain that people who have grown up in Brooke cannot afford to stay here close to family and friends.  We must decide whether that should change.

I should say that South Norfolk Council has an enviable record in ensuring that developers include significant numbers of affordable homes in local developments.  Over 1000 new affordable homes have been built across South Norfolk in the last three years.  All the homes lost to Right-to-Buy have been replaced with new social homes and more besides.  Just over 30pc of all homes built in South Norfolk in the last three years have been for affordable rent by housing associations and we currently find new homes for nearly three families every working day in socially rented and shared equity homes.  So anyone can be confident that the District Council’s track record shows that a proper mix of homes in any development can be mandated and enforced if necessary.  It was suggested that affordable housing rules are no longer enforced.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Five Year Land Supply

The fact that housebuilding in villages has fallen behind historical norms is not unique to Brooke but there is an unwelcome and unexpected consequence of this.  Because of the relentless focus on building homes closer to Norwich over the last thirty years, the latest Government figures have exposed the fact that we simply haven’t built enough homes away from Norwich to meet the needs of the population in the rural area.

In the jargon, in the rural area which includes Brooke, we do not have a ’five year land supply’.  That’s a list of readily developable housing land that is capable of meeting the population needs of the area in the next five years.   And I don’t say that as a matter of opinion.  The arithmetic calculation is clear and unchallengeable.   As a matter of planning law, more homes are needed in the rural area, which includes Brooke than were originally planned for ten years ago.   The national planning rules force the Council to become more permissive in this circumstance to ensure that the shortfall is made up quickly.

This has been publicised, but you’d have been excused from not having realised the significance of the announcement.  That said, developers have worked out for themselves that an opportunity exists to build new homes in areas outside development boundaries that might not have been available previously.  This explains why there has been a flurry of fresh proposals to build on land which weren’t included in the Greater Norwich Local Plan call-for-sites.  And that the Council is in a weaker position to resist such applications when they come.

This ‘rural area’ covers quite a large area in South Norfolk and the boundary runs between Brooke and Poringland at The Dove, round past Long Stratton towards places like Hethel and down to the Waveney Valley.   Brooke is in the ‘rural area’.  Poringland is in the area closer to Norwich, where different rules apply.

What this means is that, as a matter of law, the normal building line and village development boundaries can be disregarded in certain circumstances by applicants.   The District Council doesn’t like it.  But that’s the law.  That’s not to say that the Council has NO powers to resist such applications but the bar for refusal is set very high.

This is a new situation.  Until the latest Housing Market figures were calculated last year using the Government’s new 2016 population figures, we had no reason to believe that there was a problem.  But since the figures were published last year, a sober analysis has shown that the part of South Norfolk that includes Brooke is short of the five-year-land-supply and the law is such that it is much more difficult for the Council to refuse planning applications for homes in the area where the developer can demonstrate they can be built quickly.

The number of homes that we are ‘short’ in the rural area is calculated to be a minimum of 232.  In other words, the district council must issue at least 232 new permissions over-and-above those allocated in the existing plan in the rural area before it can safely rely on village development boundaries again.  I don’t like it.  But that’s the way it is.   And the new plan must in future consider housing growth in the rural areas in a way experience has showed us the old one did not.

As an aside, the long-term focus on housing being built closer to Norwich has meant that area has recently tipped from being short of the five-year-land-supply test to being comfortably inside it using the latest Government figures.   Closer to Norwich, much greater reliance can now be placed on village development boundaries once again.

That’s why the Burgate Lane development in Poringland was able to be refused in April.   And land at Stoke Holy Cross this week.   Both are in the area close to Norwich in the ‘Norwich Policy Area’.

Whilst I am happy to give the campaigners there plenty of credit for running a good campaign, in the end the Council was able to prove a 5 year land supply there in a way we are currently unable to do so here in Brooke.  And that’s the reason the Council was able to legally refuse the Burgate Lane and Stoke Holy Cross applications that someone else on Facebook has referred to.  And why it may be more difficult to do likewise in Brooke.   That’s the law.

So, as we debate the pros-and-cons of whether there should be new development in Brooke, we must recognise this important legal point that, frankly, gives developers a stronger hand in negotiation than is normally the case.   For those who want to learn more about the figures, the latest report and figure-work is here http://www.greaternorwichgrowth.org.uk/dmsdocument/2389

In short, at the present time the local Council doesn’t have ALL the normal tools at its disposal to maintain the historic village development boundaries in the rural area and has a weaker negotiating position because of the ‘five year land supply’ rules.   You can look them up on Google for more information.

The School Situation

Brooke School has been part of our village for well over 100 years.   In recent times it has been a popular school with 140 children attending, the maximum capacity.   But lately things have been more difficult.  The Chairman of Governors explained in April that it is currently without a headmaster [although one has been appointed] and the roll has fallen.  As the older children move-on in July, next September the roll is forecast to fall still further to about 106.

With a falling roll, funding disappears, and the school could become unviable.   There are certainly fewer staff than there were to balance the books.  In some year groups, teachers teach two year groups in the same classroom.  Temporary classrooms have been there for years.   There are insufficient opportunities for the children to run around outside.  And, because some staff have fallen-away, it’s not always possible to get the children safely to the village hall playing field as part of the wider curriculum.

None of this is a criticism of the teachers or the teaching.  But I listen carefully when the Chairman of Governors of the school tells us that the building ‘it is no longer fit for purpose’.   And there are other posts on the facebook group which make the point too.   It’s not disloyal to listen to these voices and to wonder about how the situation might be improved.   As one person whose grandson attends the school has said to me “It’s about time our school had an upgrade”.

Brooke does not exist in a vacuum and it draws children from surrounding villages and we can’t get away from the fact that parents in the wider catchment area prefer to their children to go to newer schools with more facilities where year groups are taught in their own classrooms and there is plenty of space to run around outside.  Schools at Alpington and Seething are full.

A New School?

Somebody asked where the pressure for a new village school has come from.  You may not know this but about four years ago the County Council decided that Brooke School should be replaced as a result of pressure from staff & parents, concerns around the adequacy of facilities and because there had been some incidences of flooding.  It produced a detailed report that looked at ten places in and around the village where a new school might be built.

As a result of its detailed analysis it discarded eight of the potential sites for a number of reasons.  Of the remaining two sites, the one on the Norwich Road on the right-hand side as you go to Poringland was preferred.   I can’t answer for the County, but I suppose that proximity to the Village Hall playing field was an important consideration.   It was said that, not only had a good site been found, but also that funding had been made available too.   It’s something that everyone in Brooke welcomed because everyone from the parents, the Diocese, staff and residents really wanted a new modern school with all the facilities and space to give our children the best possible learning environment.   A new school, fit for purpose for our children and those in surrounding villages like Kirstead and Howe.

But almost as soon as the ink dried on that decision, the spotlight seems to have moved elsewhere and the proposal stalled.  I don’t know why.  I have seen a Childrens’ Services Committee of Norfolk County Council report from January this year that talks about where the County Council now thinks new schools should now be built.   It’s a comprehensive report about school places across the whole county and you can read it for yourself: http://norfolkcc.cmis.uk.com/norfolkcc/Meetings/tabid/70/ctl/ViewMeetingPublic/mid/397/Meeting/618/Committee/8/Default.aspx   The relevant part starts at p 169.

It now seems that, however deserving Brooke’s case might have been in 2014, priorities are now elsewhere as money has become tighter.  Unless additional money can be found it seems that there are now plenty of examples where schools elsewhere can now be justified instead and, unless there’s a material change in local circumstances, Brooke has missed the window of opportunity that we thought was there in 2014.

When a new primary school is built in Norfolk, it is built to a standard design.   New schools are built to either a ‘one-form-entry’ or ‘two-form-entry’.  With 30 children per class and seven-year groups [including reception], schools are built with a capacity of 210 or 420 children.   So, when we think about a new school, that’s the number we must have in mind.   That’s just how it is.  There is a simple arithmetic to the design.   Replacing Brooke’s school would see the number of children accommodated rise from the current 140 capacity to 210 to meet the new standard.

When working out whether a school is justified or not, the County Council uses an assumption that every 100 typical homes produces about 25-27 children of primary school age.  Put another way, a rule of thumb is that roughly 800 homes in a catchment area generates enough children to justify a one-form-entry primary school containing 210 children.  Again, that’s just how it is.   The County Council is responsible for working-out the need in a whole catchment – having regard to demand in neighbouring catchments too – that is, making compensating adjustments if neighbouring schools are full.   That’s to say that Brooke does not need to have all the houses to take the school from 140 to 210 pupils if there is development in other villages that can share the burden.

Ensuring Developers Contribute to Infrastructure

Where new homes are built, in addition to the CIL [an infrastructure levy], developers are often asked to contribute even more towards the cost of a completely new school or else a school extension to increase capacity from one-form-entry to two-form-entry.

The contributions are laid down in legally enforceable ‘Section 106’ agreements between the developer and Council.  Contributions might be in the form of land, access infrastructure like roads and car-parks, utility connections or even building the school themselves.   It’s for the County Council to decide how much contribution is required and what is negotiated.   Sometimes the Council makes the developer put down a bond or a deposit to ensure that the finance is in place to make good on the promises made.  The District Council will work with the County Council to ensure that the right trigger points are put in place so a school is delivered at the point it’s needed.  And it will also ensure that a wide mix of family homes are delivered that include sufficient affordable homes at controlled rents – not just large expensive ‘executive’ houses.

In their leaflet, FW Properties have made it clear that they are prepared to deliver the land for the building of a new school on the Norwich Road.   It’s too early to say whether simply delivering the land will be sufficient to enable a school to be built or to make the proposal acceptable.  We probably all think that a developer would need to go further, much further than simply providing the land.   Sitting here today, none of us know the detail of the discussions between the developer and the County Council.   We probably need to wait and see whether it’s even a possibility for the developer to contribute so much more to close the financial gap to see whether it’s realistic for the County Council to take the new school forward.   And until then, it’s not even certain whether the housing numbers that have been suggested are realistic either.   There are a lot of unknowns here and we will need the County Council to thrash out the details before anyone is in a position to judge any proposals:  that’s their job.

Anthony Spurgeon has made a separate and completely different proposal for land he owns at High Green.  He is suggesting that a smaller development of 55 homes might be sufficient to provide land for a school.   We will need to know whether this is enough to go beyond simply making land available and closing the financial gap to actually get it built – we know the County Council has placed the funding for new schools elsewhere.   And he will need to explain why the 2014 County Council report favoured another site for a new school over his.   Were there insurmountable barriers raised in 2014 that meant that his site was unsuitable?   We just don’t know now.   We need to know the answers to these questions and others in the coming weeks.  Again, the County Council will have to assess the case one way or another.

One thing we can all agree on is that, without the promise and guarantee of a new school, neither proposal is likely to be worth considering in advance of the formulation of the local plan, when everyone gets to have their say.   We must also understand whether the prospect of the building of proposed new homes doesn’t just close the financial gap of getting a school built, but also provides enough youngsters to keep a school viable in the whole catchment for the long term.   That is unclear at the moment.   The experts at the County Council will need to make that technical judgement.

I know from reading some of the posts on the facebook site that some people are sceptical about whether, should a development anywhere be permitted, that the infrastructure including the new school is guaranteed to be built alongside.   Or that a real mix of homes is built that steps away from only large ‘executive houses’.  Or that there will be any affordable homes.  All I will say is that it is the role of the Council to negotiate these legal “s106 agreements” and enforce them.  And we do.

The Social Situation

Brooke has many facilities in the village.  Sporting clubs including tennis, bowls and cricket.  We have several churches, two pubs, a garage and a post office.   There are shops at the butchers and the equine hospital on the Norwich Road.   Many clubs and societies use the village hall complex.  There are regular buses to and from Norwich and Bungay & Southwold.   There are plenty of reasons to feel happy about the level of services in Brooke.  You can see why people might want to live here.

But not everything is in good heart.  Last year the Brooke pre-school at the village hall closed down as I’m told that only four children of the right age were found in the village who wanted to use the pre-school.  The playpark at the Village Hall is now closed off because there aren’t enough parents of youngsters to form a committee to maintain and refurbish it.   We should ALL be worried about that.

We have already heard that the school building and facilities have fallen behind the standards experienced elsewhere.  We know from the Governors that the roll has fallen and they have had to reduce staffing levels to balance the books.  A school should be the heart of the village.  We need to ask ourselves what would happen if it falls further beneath the point of critical mass it needs to survive as parents from elsewhere in the catchment continue to vote with their feet to go elsewhere?    We need to ask ourselves whether that is a realistic prospect.   And if the school did close, what impact would that have on the village and its wider attractiveness?

There is a further philosophical point here.  As a village we must decide whether Brooke is getting ‘old’ and whether we need to do something to stop us all getting old together with housing that only older people whose children are older than primary school ages can afford to buy with the result we don’t have any young families any more.   Where are the young families that will keep the clubs and societies going in future years going to come from we need to ask ourselves?

And we have a further question to ask ourselves about our willingness to consider more affordable housing to get more genuinely affordable homes in the village for young families.  That’s not an argument for 150-200 homes.  But it is saying that, we’re going to need to think beyond planning an average of one house per year to get a mix of homes suitable for all families of all ages back into our village to keep it vital and vibrant.

Conclusions

So, with all this said, I summarise the situation as follows and then pose some questions you might like to think about to help you come to an informed opinion for yourself in advance of the Parish meeting in Mid June.

Try not to confuse responding to the possibility of a planning application with the production of the local plan.  Several people have done that and wildly exaggerated assessments of the number of homes that could be built have resulted.  These exaggerations have not helped the quality of debate and have fed rumours, which helps no one.

You can’t blame landowners for promoting land to build houses on.   But simply, promoting land doesn’t mean that it’s accepted in a local plan that carries the weight of law.   We are at a moment in time when the District Council is reviewing its local plan based on the new housing figures supplied to it by Government.  Lots of landowners are putting bids in.   The majority will be unsuccessful.  Brooke will certainly have an allocation for new homes just like everywhere in South Norfolk.  The question still to be decided is how many and we are up to a year away from being able to make that decision.

You can’t blame the Parish, District or County Councils if developers decide that they want to apply for planning permission whether or not the land is in the local plan or not.  Some people say it’s jumping the gun.  Whether it is or not, Councils must respond to applications as they are made and can’t simply put their heads in the sand when applications are made.  If applications are made, people will have a chance to have a say and all the documents will be published on South Norfolk’s website – just like they are for all planning applications.

For their part the District & County Councils must follow the planning law in determining planning permissions that are submitted by reference to the local plan and national planning policies.   The Councils are experienced in driving the hardest possible bargain with developers to sweat-out public goods like schools, open spaces, village halls and affordable housing but only on the basis that proposals can be justified against the plan and the planning law.   If Councils don’t follow the law and turn proposals down unreasonably, then the appeal inspectors tend to permit the schemes anyway but often without the community benefits that residents should expect.   That’s in nobody’s interests.

It is a real shame that we find ourselves in a short-term situation when the local plan has been weakened by the ‘five-year-land-supply’ problem in the rural area in which Brooke is situated.   This means that Councils are in a somewhat lesser negotiating position with developers until sufficient permissions are granted to bring us back into balance.   However unwelcome this situation is, it’s one that we have to recognise is currently the case and that’s the law of the land.

A few years ago the County Council identified the need, the finance and the location for a new school for Brooke.   The case was made that replacement was needed for all the reasons given above.  But for some reason it never quite happened.   The focus shifted elsewhere.   The question that Brooke now needs to answer is if the developers can close the financial gap for the building of a new school and persuade the County Council to change its mind to permit it, does that justify building a larger number of homes in the village than would otherwise be the case?

The other real shame is that the debate around the school has become one about houses.  It should really be about our children, who have somehow got lost in the arguments.   The village will want to conclude to whether our children should have access to the best facilities or whether what we have now is good enough and will do – not just for today but for the foreseeable future.   And this means taking into account what the Governors say about the practical and financial challenges of running the school as it is and whether the rest of us find the current situation acceptable.

In the meantime, this whole exercise has triggered the need to think about the sort of village Brooke will become.   Historically Brooke built about 100 homes every ten years, increasing the size of the village by a quarter every decade.  I haven’t met anyone who has said that was a bad thing or that all those homes should now be demolished.   The people who live in these houses are part of our village.

On one hand, if it was felt that a school was guaranteed, a proposal for 150-200 homes would restart that post-war development rhythm at a similar historic building rate between now and 2036.   On the other hand, building 150-200 new homes over 20 years would be a big change… but still only 1½ per cent a year.   The village must decide whether it needs that change to provide a new school and also, given that the average age of residents is increasing every year,  whether young-families  including those brought-up in the village should still be priced out.

Ultimately, the village and Councils will need to decide whether the promise and absolute guarantee of a new school justifies the building of more homes than we are likely to be asked to take anyway in the next local plan.   Whatever happens, there will be some change in Brooke.   Our responsibility is to ensure that change is made for the better.

Over the course of about 6000 words I have laid out most of the issues that will need to be weighed in the balance when coming to this decision.   Everyone will be entitled to their own opinion but, as you can see, it’s a complex matter with lots of interconnecting issues.   And ultimately it’s difficult to divorce the number of homes from the provision of a new school:   the two issues go hand in hand.

The ultimate decision will only have to be made if one or more developers follow through and actually submits a planning application.   Then we will have no choice but to weigh it against evidence and fact around the matters I have written about today.

Emotions, however strongly felt, will not be sufficient.  As an experienced official explained to me once, planning law is not a popularity contest.  Instead it has to be based on the evidence and the all the national and local planning policies and that’s where peoples’ energies on both sides of the argument need to be focused.

It is the nature of planning that it’s not just what the village decides will be decisive.  Ultimately the decision makers at the District and County Councils will need to take these views into account but are required to make final decisions according to the evidence and planning law.

One thing is for sure though – currently none of us has enough information to make an informed decision because not all the facts are available – especially the detail from the County Council who hold the figures on the school.   So it’s for that reason that I encourage everyone to attend the exhibition at the village hall.  Sadly, I will be abroad that day so will be unable to attend.  The 6th June is my 50th birthday so the holiday date has been in my diary for some time.

I will be attending the public meeting on 21st June when we can discuss this complex issue as a whole village and hear at first hand from the developers who have suggested that their land is used for homes and a new school and to hear what they have to say for themselves and to answer any questions that might be put.