As part of his role as as Trowbridge Town Council Leader, Councillor Stewart Palmén sits on all committees of the Town Council. One of these is the Town Development Committee, which oversees and discusses any planning applications . . . Once again, he writes here to provide an insight into the area of planning, and hopefully he’ll be able to answer some of your questions . . .

“There has been a lot of discussion about planning applications in Trowbridge recently (for example the Elm Grove housing development) and with this a lot of confusion regarding who actually decides what gains planning permission. This article aims to try to explain this as simply as possible. I’ll do this in my usual question and answer form (I think it helps!).

So tell me, who issues planning permissions?
Wiltshire Council is the local Planning Authority and they issue planning permission for small and large applications, ranging from an extension to a single dwelling, right through to that for a massive housing development

I’m already confused – how does Trowbridge Town Council fit into this process?
Trowbridge Town Council is consulted on and is invited to provide its opinion on all applications. That opinion is determined during regular Town Development Committee meetings and is noted by Wiltshire Council planners (so, in effect, the Town Council can influence, but does not determine, any application).

What are the planning rules used to determine whether a planning application is accepted or not?
Is  it just the opinion of the planning staff at Wiltshire Council?
There are two key documents which are referred to when determining an application. One is the local Wiltshire Core Strategy and is available in full here https://www.wiltshire.gov.uk/planning-policy-core-strategy. This provides guidelines for what is acceptable within the county. However, it also needs to meet the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework, which is available in full by clicking this link https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-planning-policy-framework–2

OK – so we’ve got two checklists – which one carries the more weight?
The National Planning Policy Framework carries the most weight, and while looked on as just providing guidance, it is actually treated more like the legal standard. An applicant who feels a decision has been made that goes against this guidance can appeal against the decision and if successful have it reversed (potentially at great cost to the Wiltshire Council). It has to be said that the prospect of appeal drives a lot of decisions.

Who considers the planning application? A Town Council Officer or Councillors?
For the Town Council, all applications from all seven wards throughout the town are considered by councillors (advised by the Town Clerk) who sit on the Town Development Committee (the Town Clerk does not get a vote). Regarding Wiltshire Council, planning applications are seen by the local councillors, but are generally determined by the planning officer assigned to investigate each application. The applications only go to a planning committee if the applications are “called in” – this is necessary as the high volume of applications could not possibly all be looked at in detail by councillors in committee. So, just those applications causing concerns are looked at in detail by a group of councillors.

Who calls a Planning Application ‘in’?
Normally the local councillor would do this: they can do so if they feel it should not be passed, but equally so, they can call it in if they feel it should be passed, but believe the officer is going to refuse it. Normally there would be some discussion with the Planning Officer assigned to the case. If called in, a planning application is reviewed (in the case of Trowbridge) at the Western Area Planning Committee.

Where does the public fit into this?
All planning applications are published for the public to see and those directly affected are contacted. Local councillors should also help make people aware of applications. The public can state their opinions via post, phone call or electronically to Wiltshire Council. Ideally the comments should relate to the planning documents mentioned earlier in this article, but these are complex and most comments are simply the valid opinions of the public. The public can also attend the Town Council’s Town Development Committee meetings (currently online, due to the Covid-19 pandemic) to voice their concerns and if the application goes  to the Western Area Planning Committee they are welcome to speak there (however, they are limited to 3 minutes).

This does not sound like planning  – to be honest, it sounds more like a box-ticking exercise?
Yes, a lot of work does go into evaluating plans, but it is reactive to what developers and individuals apply to build. There is some strategic planning, but councils can only influence and try to persuade developers. A lot of the discussion at the Western Area Planning Committee stage is about whether the decision will hold up on appeal or not, rather than whether it is considered to be a good or bad development.

What is this ‘Five Year Land Supply’ which I have heard is so critical for Wiltshire Council?
The UK Government determine how many houses need to be built in each area (i.e. Wiltshire Council) each year. They ask the council to demonstrate they have enough land assigned for building the amount of houses required. So Wiltshire Council will determine on which land they will allow construction of large numbers of houses. These are spread out across the county and the Trowbridge area is obliged to take its fair share (however, various parties invariably debate how fair this actually is). If a developer applies to build houses on this land, it is very likely to be accepted as long as the development meets basic planning guidelines above. If developers apply for large developments outside this land supply plan, they are unlikely to be successful. Developments like the Elm Grove development in Trowbridge are on land identified in the Five-Year Land Supply, so are extremely likely to be approved unless there are major issues.

I heard that our Five Year Land Supply is in question in Wiltshire – what does that mean, exactly?
I have to say that this is frankly a disaster. A developer has challenged the Five-Year Land Supply saying it does not meet the Government’s rules and the developer has actually been proved correct. This means that currently any developer can apply to build houses on land not within the plan and stands a really good chance of it being passed: this puts developers even more in the driving seat.

Why are we building on green field sites when there are still brownfield sites in Trowbridge?
Good question! Wiltshire Council do not include a significant number of houses on brownfield sites in their five-year land supply. This tends to tilt the push for new developments to greenfield sites. We (the Town Council and fellow Trowbridge councillors) have been pushing for this proportion to be increased. Also, a lot depends on what the owners of the land want. I am pleased that it looks like the Innox Mills site will contain a lot of housing. I am looking forward to seeing their detailed plans in 2021.

Looks like you’ve cleared up a few matters here – finally, how does all of this fit in with the neighbourhood plans?
Right, neighbourhood plans I think are a whole topic in themselves! We do not currently have one for Trowbridge, but some neighbouring parishes have them or are working on them. I hope to be able to explain that in a future article.

I am sure that this article will raise more questions, so please do not hesitate to contact me via email on stewart.palmen@wiltshire.gov.uk or via phone on 01225 753479