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Rural planning report: progress or pigeon hole?

Friday 25 July 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard would love to share the optimism of a new rural planning report drawn up by a Cornish Liberal Democrat MP whose constituents share many problems with locals in the Yorkshire Dales. But with the gap between political promise and delivery getting even wider, he fears that it will soon be forgotten

THERE IS a huge gap in what used to be a row of mature broad leaf trees on the Gargrave Road entrance into Skipton, the most elegant approach to a market town with a history going back to its 900-year-old castle and the street market it licensed in the 12th or 13th Century (no-one is quite sure when).

The bulldozers have ripped a yawning hole through these 100-year-old trees, and the mud they have churned up this woefully wet summer makes it look life a scene from the World War 1 trenches. Soon, they will start building a starkly modern office block on the rolling green fields which once welcomed visitors to this ancient town, which calls itself the Gateway to the Yorkshire Dales.

poer lines
Progress or pigeon hole?

This, I must point out, is arguably the busiest route into Skipton. Along it’s roughly one mile stretch are no fewer than five schools, with well over a thousand pupils aged between five and 18. When those schools turn out, with dozens of buses waiting to take children to small villages across the Dales, and scores of mums in cars picking up on the school run, Gargrave road is already a traffic nightmare.

And these new offices have parking spaces for more than 400 cars.

Craven District Council has in the past made traffic access a key decider in whether to grant or refuse planning permission. But here, the developers are throwing in free some shiny new offices for the council itself – a council desperately short of cash and an ever burgeoning payroll of bureaucrats – so vocal opposition from local people was ignored.

Now readers from outside the Yorkshire Dales might care little for the development of little Skipton – and more unpopular developments are in the pipeline - but most people drive into the countryside from time to time and visit the hundred of similar market towns with which this land of ours is blessed.

Towns likes this figured large in an important report published this week by Liberal Democrat MP Matthew Taylor, member for Truro and St Austell in Cornwall, whose constituents face many problems similar to those in the Yorkshire Dales (See News, Wednesday). These include soaring property prices driven up by weekend cottages and holiday lets, poor public transport, and closing shops, pubs and restaurants.

This report has been well received in some quarters because it has some popular recommendations. Any new development in market towns and villages should be designed to blend with the existing architecture, it says. Local people should have a say in whether building projects should get a yea or a nay.

I would bet that the promise here is more likely to end up forgotten in a pigeon hole as the economy faces possible recession.

None of these conditions were recognised in the Skipton development and I suspect this is happening throughout the country as central Government insists that we must build another three million houses before the year 2020.

Where these houses will come from – now that the building industry has gone into a nose-dive – and how new businesses and factories will provide jobs for the people who buy them now puts the whole planning process into flux.

And this might be a good thing, considering the fact that there seem to be double standards at work here. This report recommends stronger local input into planning matters yet the Government is going ahead with plans to set up a new quango to fast track major structural developments like airport extensions, nuclear power stations and motorways.

Local planners will have no say in these and, here in the windy Yorkshire Dales, there is a growing suspicion that those major “infra-structure” developments to be imposed by the clunking fist of Government will include a massive increase in wind farms.

So once again, we have a Government which appears to be facing two ways at once: more planning freedom, less planning freedom. It preaches hope for rural communities but the vast majority of post offices, primary schools, and hospital services like maternity units that have been closed down in the past decade have been in rural areas.

I would like to think that Matthew Taylor’s report, which shows so much promise, would eventually put into action – but politicians have an abysmal record of actually turning stirring words into concrete solutions. I would bet that the promise here is more likely to end up forgotten in a pigeon hole as the economy faces possible recession. But if the Skipton experience is anything to go by, this might actually be a good thing.

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