Our euphoria over Sharnfold Farm planning decision was short-lived

From: John BaileyHankham Street, Hankham

For nearly two years I have been involved with an action group endeavouring to stop the development of Sharnfold Farm.

Some two years ago, it was sold to developers who very quickly revealed their true intention namely to transform the farm into a housing estate comprising up to 400 homes, in other words, to commence the transformation of rural land into urban sprawl.

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The first step was for the developers to enquire of the council whether an environmental impact assessment of their plans was required. The planning department, of its own initiative, (and despite the potential damage to the Pevensey Levels via the drainage of surface water) declared that it was unnecessary. So began what frankly appears to be a comfortable alliance between planners and developers to support the government’s drive to “build ,build, build”.

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The developers sought a change to the future use of the Sussex Barn, their plan being to demolish a flint cart shed. This was accompanied by an application for permission to build up to 32 houses on the edge of Stone Cross. This was clearly an attempt to test the “heat of the water” before lodging its intended onslaught for housing development.

After months of submitting written representations to the planning department, securing more than 300 signatures opposing the development, approaching the local MP and taking all other steps that the campaign group could envisage, the applications for the barn and housing came before the Planning Committee South on June 17 last.

The change of use of the barn and the demolition of the cart shed was allowed, the committee having been assured by the chief planning officer that the ongoing application for the barn to be listed would be rejected by Historic England. To our absolute delight, the application for the housing development was rejected six votes to five. During the committee’s deliberations, it was apparent that the main concern was the lack of infrastructure to cope with the traffic congestion envisaged by the proposed housing.

However, within two days of the committee meeting and in contradiction of the Chief Planning Officer anticipation, Historic England decided that the barn and the cart shed was of such historic importance that should be listed. This outcome would ensure that the barn and shed would be preserved and would restrain the developers in their declared intention to demolish part of the barn complex.

Unfortunately our euphoria was short-lived.

The next step to be taken by the planning department was in our view both unjustified and devastating. It determined that as the barn and the cart shed were now listed, the planning application in respect of the housing should be referred back to the committee for a review.

The planners appeared to argue that, due to the listing, the planning committee should have an opportunity of reviewing its decision as to the housing development apparently to ensure that the setting of the barn would not be imperilled.

Such a conclusion appeared to have no logic as the committee had already decided that no development was being allowed within the environs of the barn.

So how could no housing development affect the barn and its settings?

However this rather macabre decision effectively provides the developers with a further opportunity to persuade the councillors that the first resolution should be set aside and for the housing developments to proceed.

Attempts to complain to the council’s chief executive against what appeared to be an abuse of process were futile. The complaint was considered premature. In other words, it had to wait until the application had been reviewed, by which time we would have been deprived of our right to effectively challenge the behaviour of the council.

The developers have already produced their own expert opinion that the proposed housing would not affect the barn complex, which again undermines the rather absurd basis of the referral back to the committee. The production of such a report also serves to establish that the developers are cognisant of their opportunity to secure permission for the proposed housing development.

The ultimate outcome now lies in the hands of the councillors. They should recognise that this is perhaps the most important decision that their committee will ever make. If they are persuaded to allow the development, it will open the door to the ultimate destruction of the rural buffer zone between Stone Cross and Hailsham.

At the root of it all is the abject failure by the planning department to secure an up-to-date Local Plan and to provide a five-year housing statement.

I call upon the councillors of Planning Committee South, whatever their political hue or persuasion, to do the right thing. Stone Cross has had more of its fair share of development, uphold your colleagues previous decision and save Sharnfold Farm, and help save dwindling rural land for future generations.