Will Wealden towns sink into gradual decline?

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CAN HEATHFIELD remain a vibrant country town? And will the ban on development within seven kilometres of the Ashdown Forest mean Uckfield and neighbouring villages join other rural communities and slide gently into a picturesque decline?

Those were the issues emphasised by speakers at a crucial one-day meeting last week.

Government planning inspector Michael Moore chaired the session at the East Sussex National Golf Club giving planners, councillors and developers the rare chance to test unexpected rulings which cropped up in response to Wealden’s Core Strategy document – the blueprint for the future of the District until 2026.

Amongst general issues, two specific points stood out and took up most of a rigorously chaired day-long agenda. These were the seven kilometre rule where debate occupied most of the morning and refusal of a scheme to build 160 new homes at the back of Heathfield Police Station on the north side of the town, because they would intrude onto the AONB.

Among those speaking on the seven kilometre issue were representatives from Wealden District Council, Gleeson, Knight Developments, Penden Homes, Rydon Homes and Parker Dann.

The council’s successful bid to reduce the former Deputy Prime Minister’s target of new homes to be built in the District from 11,000 to 9,500 had been based on protection of the Forest – a stumbling block now to halting any form of development which might increase traffic, footfall or cause ‘nitrogen deposition.’

The latest proposals to fall foul of the new law look to be improvements to the Ashdown Forest Visitor Centre itself, Buxted’s new village hall and an application in August to extend and change the use of the former Little Chef at the junction with the A26-A22. This was rejected but has subsequently been resubmitted by McDonalds for a seated and drive-through restaurant, minus the extension.

Planning chief Cllr Roy Galley told the Express: “Although I cannot comment on current applications the former refusal was based on the building being extended. The existing scheme sits on the same ‘footprint’ so would not result in increased traffic.”

Chris Lawson of Lawson Commercial said: “This is an eminently suitable location with a garage next door. Wealden District Council just do not care about business or seeing firms grow. They should be ashamed of themselves. This ‘rule’ was enforced with no discussion.”

Making the case for reconsidering the refusal of consent for 160 Heathfield homes were County Councillor Rupert Simmons and Parish Council planning committee chairman Patrick Coffey.

Patrick told the Express: “It was a busy day and we were the last on the agenda. The Inspector was extremely good and very fair and we made the points we wanted to make. From his Heathfield Partnership role Rupert spoke about the economic viability of the town if minimal growth was not allowed. I covered the issues of housing need, particularly affordable housing. We stressed how Heathfield has not had a share of housebuilding for about 20 years and this tract of land is within the town’s development boundary and ideally situated for local schools, shops and public transport.” He told the Inspector this scheme would deliver about 55 much-needed affordable homes and explained there are no other suitable sites in the town.