Saxmundham Neighbourhood Plan

Future Housing in Saxmundham – how much and where? What the new draft Local Plan tells us, and the big questions it leaves unanswered.

Monday, January 21st, 2019 4:19 pm

The “final” draft of its new Local Plan was launched by Suffolk Coastal District Council (SCDC) in January. Like the earlier draft from last summer, it proposes a new “South Saxmundham Garden Neighbourhood” to provide some 800 dwellings, and overall Saxmundham is down to provide a total of 1,000 new homes over the Plan period, to 2036. With an average of 2.2 persons per dwelling, the population would grow by some 2,200, which will add on another 50% to the current size of Saxmundham’s population.

But while the number of new dwellings proposed for our town stays the same, the latest draft Plan changes the location of some of the new housing.  Or at least it appears to.

SCDC invites representations on its “final draft”, which should go to whether the Plan is “sound”, i.e. meets proper planning requirements.  Many will still have major doubts.  If you want to give your views, you must do so by Monday 25th February.  There is a useful Guidance Note.

The major change is that the housing element of the new Garden Neighbourhood would now (or so it appears) be delivered wholly or mainly on the west side of the railway, i.e. between the railway and the A12 bypass.  This is because – in the light of  a huge volume of comments arguing against housing development of The Layers – SCDC commissioned a Heritage Impact Assessment.  This Assessment has highlighted the importance of The Layers in terms of the town’s history, identity, and landscape – as the attractive southern entrance to the town, separating Saxmundham from Benhall. The Layers, the report says, should be improved and kept as open space.

The consequence of this change, if the overall number of dwellings for the Garden Neighbourhood is to stay the same at 800,  would be that the new development, on the west of the railway, will be denser. (Though the proposed new land set aside for Employment is now moved to the west side of the A12)

Saxmundham Town Council put in a written response to the last draft.  It argued in favour of reasonable growth for the town, but not as high as SCDC propose (Saxmundham is designated to take nearly 20% of all new housing in the district).  The Town Council also argued that development should be split between the south of the town  – to the west of the railway – and the east, up Church Hill.  This argument has not – thus far – been accepted by SCDC which continues to argue that it is better to keep all 800 in the new “South Saxmundham Garden Neighbourhood.”

But are they right?  Is this “sound” in planning terms? Does the new draft Plan really stop future development for housing on The Layers, as proposed in the Heritage Assessment report?  There are reasons for concern about the logic of the District Council.

The SCDC have published, as part of their bundle of “evidence”, a new Housing Availability Assessment report dated December 2018.  This shows Site 714, which is the site between the railway and the A12, as having an “estimated yield” of 495 new dwellings, which is far short of the 800 total specified for the Garden Neighbourhood. Yet this site is now apparently due to provide the full quota of 800 as no other site appears suitable on planning grounds, as well as a school and ‘community hub’ etc.

Above: Map showing land offered by landowners – not all proposed in draft Local Plan

On the east side of the railway, up to the treeline forming the western side of The Layers, is site 717 which is said to have an “estimated dwellings yield” of 141.  However this site is extremely poorly connected, in the absence of any new bridge/crossing over the railway, and the new “indicative draft Masterplan” for the whole site shows this site as open space.

So what about the east of the town, as a partial alternative? The new Housing Land Availability Assessment also refers to Site 435 which is a large site at the top of Church Hill, with an estimated “dwellings yield” of 450.  The assessment for this site is:

“Potentially suitable. Issues to be addressed include; access, flood risk, and highways impacts. The eastern parts of the site are more sensitive to development, particularly past the existing wooded boundary east of the manor house extending into the farmland plateau landscape. Part development of the site may be appropriate.”

This appears to offer a solution in line with Saxmundham Town Council’s proposal for splitting the development – if for example 500 or 600 dwellings were created between railway and A12, then why not accept say 200 up Church Hill?  This would lead to a more balanced urban development for Saxmundham – and the new housing up the hill would be closer to the Town Centre than the southernmost parts of the “Garden Neighbourhood”.

Yet this is not explored nor explained in the draft Plan – the SCDC simply argue that a masterplanned development on one site is for some unexplained reason to be preferred.  True, a site for a new primary school is required to be provided by the Garden Neighbourhood landowners/developers, but surely an equivalent contribution to the cost by the Church Hill developers could be required.

The “final draft” Plan presents us, as mentioned above, an “indicative” idea of a masterplan for the Garden Neighbourhood, which shows no housing to the east of the railway. 

Above: Draft indicative masterplan outline

However, this drawing is just that – indicative – and the possibility of some housing on The Layers is not excluded, especially given the lobbying power (and resources) of the potential developers.  The December Land Availability assessment is rather coy; it says that the land is  “potentially suitable”:

“Through [this] assessment the site is identified as potentially suitable, however consideration must be given to the recommendations of the November 2018 Heritage Impact Assessment which recommends against built development on this site, and it is therefore considered appropriate not to provide a dwelling figure..”

The draft Plan itself also does not rule out housing on The Layers, point (j) of the draft policy statement simply saying:

“Design and development of the [whole Garden Neighbourhood] site which is sympathetic to the south entrance of Saxmundham, the Conservation Area and heritage assets, and views of the sensitive landscape and heritage setting to the east, as informed by a heritage impact assessment.”

Suffolk Coastal may have arguments to demonstrate the “soundness” of their pan for Saxmundham’s future housing.  But to date, the case for the Garden Neighbourhood as presently proposed is poorly argued and poorly evidenced. There is still a long way to go before we can be satisfied – if at all – that this plan is (from a housing perspective) sound, viable, and in our town’s interest.

Article by Jeremy Smith, Saxmundham town councillor & chair of Saxmundham Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group