How we did it: Winning consent for national park homes

Local consultation and cooperation has brought a 416 home development to fruition in the South Downs. David Dewar reports.

South Downs planning director Tim Slaney, Santon North Street director Clive Wilding, park development management lead Steven Cantwell and Lewes District Council head of regeneration Max Woodford
South Downs planning director Tim Slaney, Santon North Street director Clive Wilding, park development management lead Steven Cantwell and Lewes District Council head of regeneration Max Woodford

Project: North Street Quarter, Lewes

Organisations involved: Santon North Street, Lewes District Council, South Downs National Park Authority

Achieving planning permission for a major housing development is rarely a simple process, and when the site falls within a national park the challenges are even tougher. But the approval of a 416-home mixed-use scheme in the South Downs National Park has demonstrated how it can be done.

The North Street Quarter development in Lewes, East Sussex, was granted final consent last May by the South Downs National Park Authority, the planning authority for the town. The proposal, put forward by joint landowners Lewes District Council and developer Santon North Street, includes 40 per cent affordable housing as well as employment, parking and community uses. According to the applicants, the North Street Quarter is thought to be the largest development to have ever received permission in a national park.

The site - an industrial estate in Lewes town centre - sits alongside the River Ouse, which caused extensive damage to the town when it broke its banks during severe flooding in October 2000. A key benefit of the development would be the provision of essential flood defence works, the applicants say.

The scheme involves the demolition of the Phoenix Industrial Estate’s existing buildings, including a former Victorian foundry currently used by artists and small businesses. The loss of the foundry building and the displacement of the occupiers prompted considerable opposition to the plans, including the creation of a campaign group, Lewes Phoenix Rising, and the submission of more than 600 objections to the national park authority. Such was the strength of feeling that the authority moved its planning committee meeting to Lewes Town Hall to give local people a chance to take part. There was also a debate on the plans chaired by BBC Question Time presenter and local resident David Dimbleby.

"There was a degree of opposition and they were quite vocal," says Max Woodford, head of regeneration and investment at Lewes District Council. "But Lewes is not fully flood-defended until we complete this part of the site."

Woodford insists that the project partners "are doing all we can to relocate the existing businesses into the development". The planning consent includes small-scale box units for use by a variety of businesses, he says. In addition, a legal agreement allows for subsidised rents for nominated start-up businesses.

With the North Street Quarter’s location potentially affecting views of Lewes Castle and the surrounding South Downs countryside, design and heritage were also key considerations. Given these sensitivities, the scheme promoters took the proposal through two years of extensive consultation and engagement with the community ahead of the application submission.

"We knew that consultation was going to be a key part of the process," says Clive Wilding, director at Santon North Street. "So we ran a series of workshops looking at the scheme’s design."

The consultation process fed into the proposal’s evolution and included an ongoing scrutiny of the scheme’s design. The need to install a modern flood wall was particularly challenging, according to national park development management lead Steven Cantwell. "You have the view of the downland in the background and the historic town, so it was important to get the design as good as it could be," he says.

To this end, the national park authority set up a design review panel, whose recommendations were incorporated into the proposal. "The national park really put us through the hoops on the urban design process," recalls Wilding. "It was three years of hard work. It was the scheme we’ve worked hardest on but it achieved the best results." These efforts paid off when, in December 2015, the park authority’s planning committee voted unanimously to grant consent.

South Downs director of planning Tim Slaney says the authority’s pre-application work, including regular meetings with the applicants, was "essential" and allowed it to deal with the application in just nine months. The design review panel’s input, he adds, resulted in a "really good scheme with good permeability", meaning it would allow pedestrians to move around effectively.

The scheme also benefited from the site’s allocation in the Lewes District Council and South Downs emerging joint core strategy, which had passed examination when the application was considered.

Slaney says: "We have always been very geared up to take a positive approach. We recognise that the national park sits in the South East, a region with huge growth pressures. It’s not a case of saying ‘this is a national park with no major development’."

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