3 keys to public engagement
1. The power of a team
On 18 September, the recently formed Beaminster ECO Committee held its first public event – a Big Green Day, which was the town’s contribution to the national Great Big Green Week 18 to 26 September. The aim of the Day was to offer practical ideas on how we can all reduce living costs, cut waste, reduce our carbon footprint, encourage wildlife in our gardens, enjoy local food, plant trees and make our homes more energy-efficient.
The Day included children’s activities on The Square and in the Public Hall; a range of displays in the Public Hall; and free refreshments, including excellent soup made of organic vegetables. The displays focused on wildlife in your garden, planting trees, a beehive, the Green Living project, a food project, Open Greener Homes, retrofit of older houses, electric bicycles and an electric car.
Most striking was the strength of the wide team which organised the whole event. This team was drawn from the Town Council, Beaminster Area ECO Group, the Church ECO Group, Beaminster School, Young Farmers, Army Cadets, Scouts, Women’s Institute, Prout Bridge Community Centre, Dorset Wildlife Trust, Beaminster Probus and others – a total of at least 40 people directly involved in organising the event. The public response was strong, including many Beaminster people not previously involved in environmental activity. After the event, one of the participants commented “It was a wonderful day and I loved that everyone of all ages just got on with what they needed to do to bring it all together, without anyone seeming to be in charge. Great stuff !”
2. The power of practical examples
Beaminster and neighbouring villages have contributed 6 of the total of 50 Dorset Greener Homes within the programme organised by Dorset CAN this year. Two of these homes illustrate beautifully the power of an idea as seen in practice. A newcomer to the Greener Homes family is Ubuntu, a brand-new home on the northern edge of Beaminster created by Sue Wardell and Mark Oppe. It has high levels of insulation and triple glazing to passive house standard, solar PV with batteries, air source heat pump and mechanical ventilation/heat retrieval. Introducing the house, Sue says “We were inspired and encouraged by houses we saw through Dorset Eco Homes”.
In the centre of Beaminster is Honeysuckle House, owned by Gillian Perrott and Sue Counsell. Their house, built in 1997, has insulated walls, double glazing and loft insulation, achieving high standards of energy efficiency. The living area is heated by a gas-fired Aga, and a Norwegian Jotul wood-burning stove using timber from this their own woodland. In 2010, they installed 16 solar panels (capacity 3kW) on the south-facing roof of the adjoining barn. This year, they installed an air source heat pump, replacing the gas boiler for heating & hot water. On their first open day, 19 September, they were visited just by one local couple, and spent two hours with them. On their feedback form, the visitors said “It was inspiring to see the equipment in place and to have an explanation of the practical implications, problems and benefits. We intend to arrange a survey related to insulation generally and to installing solar panels and an air source heat pump”.
3. The power of public opinion
Parnham House, a fine historic house set in parkland on the south side of Beaminster, has for centuries been a major feature in the life and economy of the town. The townspeople were deeply shocked in 2017 when the mansion was destroyed by fire. They hoped for someone to take on the estate, with the resources to restore the building. So, they were pleased when, last year, James Perkins bought the Parnham estate, with the stated intention to restore the mansion. They welcomed the prospect of a restored historic building, and its sympathetic use as, perhaps, a hotel.
Then came an interview in Bridport News in which James Perkins, described as former head of the rave scene promoter Fantazia, spoke of his desire to turn Parnham into an “adventure wonderland where people of all ages can come and enjoy, creating hundreds of jobs in the process”. Local people began to fear what might happen on the estate. In July, the Estate submitted to Dorset Council an application for an entertainment licence, stating the intention to turn the whole estate into an ‘events venue’. The licence would enable it to organise a wide range of activities and events on the estate, including films, plays, musical and sporting events, with significant numbers of people. Included would be late-night activity, running into the small hours, with available alcohol and (on some occasions) amplified music. The estate proposed to build a pub, restaurant, shop and other facilities, alongside the restoration of Parnham House.
This application attracted a storm of protest from people living in Beaminster and Netherbury. Dorset Council’s Licensing Committee received an unprecedented number of objections, and very few messages expressing support. The outcome was a Committee Meeting lasting one and a half days, during which objectors argued passionately for restriction in the numbers of visitors, the frequency of events, the hours of opening and the parts of the estate on which large events, the sale of alcohol and the use of amplified sound could apply. In response, the estate manager stated that the normal maximum number of people attending events on the estate would not exceed 130; that events in larger numbers would be very few; and that the estate was ready to restrict the large events to a limited area surrounding the historic house and its associated buildings and formal gardens. Two days after the public meeting, the Committee published its decision to grant the licence, including most of the conditions which had been demanded by the objectors.
The next steps are likely to include planning applications for new buildings on the estate, which will be appraised with great vigilance by the local community. They will wish to see an outcome which is productive for the estate and which makes a strong positive contribution to the well-being of the local community and economy.
The draft Local Plan for the whole of Dorset, published in January, has attracted wide concern across the county because of the sheer scale of proposed development – over 39,000 new houses between now and 2038, new industrial estates, roads and other infrastructure. In Dorset CAN’s formal response, submitted in March, we pointed to the impact which this would have on the landscape and natural resources of the County, encroaching on the Green Belt and the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and making heavy use of greenfield land, including a proposed estate of 3,500 homes on the north side of Dorchester. It would add greatly to the challenge of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to zero, which is the central aim of Dorset Council’s Climate Strategy, published only 3 months before the Local Plan.
So, we called on Dorset Council to ‘Re-think the Plan’, cut the number of new houses to 20,000, avoid encroachment on the Green Belt, avoid heavy use of greenfield land, and use more ‘brownfield’ land in the towns. We followed this with public questions to Dorset Council meetings, receiving only ‘stonewall’ replies from Councillor David Walsh, Cabinet member responsible for the Plan. So, we decided to launch a campaign to pressurise the Council towards re-thinking. We wished this campaign to be realistic; and therefore asked the leading Council officials for a meeting so that we can understand what is driving the proposals in the Plan.
On 14 June, a team of four from Dorset CAN – Rob Waitt, Michael Dower, Giles Watts and Rosemary Lunt – had a Zoom meeting with Hilary Jordan, Service Manager for Spatial Planning and Terry Sneller, Strategic Planning Manager. This meeting was candid and friendly. The officers made plain that local planning authorities are required by the Government to support the drive towards building houses, and must use the Government’s formula for calculating the number of new houses unless ‘exceptional circumstances’ apply. We had argued that Dorset’s unique combination of scenic, natural, geological and historic heritage amounted to exceptional circumstances which would justify an alternative calculation of housing need. The officers advised, from experience of decisions by planning Inspectors and Ministers, that this would not suffice. They recognised that development on the scale proposed would have the impact and implications that we described. They stated that there may be room for reduction in the number of houses, in the face of public reaction and of continuing studies by the Environment Agency and others. The Plan will be reviewed in the light of the very wide response to the public consultation : but they could not promise any substantial reduction.
This discussion, plus the answers to our detailed questions which the planners have readily answered, will help us in mounting a vigorous campaign. We expect to launch this campaign in late July, following a meeting on the evening of Tuesday 13 July of county-level and local organisations whom we are inviting to contribute to it. We will be appealing, through e-mail and social media, to Dorset CAN members and all Dorset citizens to support this campaign of pressure upon Dorset Council. If your organisation wishes to take part in the 13 July meeting or in the campaign, please contact Giles Watts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Liberal Democrats' spectacular by-election win in a previously safe Tory seat in Buckinghamshire is likely to see the government face increased opposition to its proposed changes to the planning system and potentially water down the more radical measures, commentators expect.
See the comment from Planning Resource website
Comment from Prof. Michael Dower:
"In the recent Queen’s speech, the government stated its intention to bring forward in the autumn legislation to change the current basis of Planning. Its aim is to speed up the process of giving planning permission for new development, particularly housing. The central idea is that the zoning of land for development by local planning authorities would be replaced by a simplistic top-down zoning directly by the government. This would focus on three types of zone – those for growth, with automatic permission for development; those for protection; and those for regeneration, where special government resources would be available to assist development.
This proposal has attracted widespread opposition from professional planning organisations, from local authorities whose powers would be reduced, and from the public. This opposition is seen as a major factor in the 25% swing in voting in the Chesham and Amersham by-election, through which the seat fell to a liberal Democrat with the appropriate name of Sarah Green. There is growing revolt among Conservative MPs in southern England, and the government may well be forced to think again. If the legislation did go through, it would ‘change the game’ for planning in Dorset. "
Headlined "think again", Dorset CAN's detailed response was spearheaded by Prof. Michael Dower, who said:
“The Council has made a heavy rod for all our backs by choosing - quite unnecessarily - a method which exaggerates the number of new houses and workspaces that are needed. Before we are all dragged by this false start into a deeply damaging scale of new development, we plead with the Council to think again.”
Dorset Council’s estimate of need for over 39,000 new houses is based on a standard method of assessment used by the Government, plus a deliberate policy of over-supply adopted by the Council. But Dorset CAN says that Government rules, set out in the National Planning Policy Framework, allow local authorities to adopt an alternative method if they face ‘exceptional circumstances’. It urges the Council to use the unique richness of the county’s landscape, wildlife, historic and coastal heritage to justify a different approach, focused truly on local need for housing and workspace.
Read the response and press release here
Dorset’s Local Plan distinguishes between ‘large built-up areas’ and ‘towns and other main settlements’ spread across our essentially rural landscape. Shaftesbury, perched on a hilltop to the north, falls into this latter category. Environmental activists here share many of the same challenges as arise in other settlements in this group as we encourage our local population (c.8000) to respond to the climate & ecological emergencies.
Planet Shaftesbury comprises around 130 local people sharing a concern about climate breakdown. Responding to diverse triggers for involvement, each of us feels driven to act in our own way. We connect through physical meetings (monthly when permitted/safe), informal weekly zoom meetings, a monthly email newsletter, a website, and some use of social media, as well as collaboration on those projects we choose to engage with. Our combined aim is to seek changes that contribute to nature's recovery and enable us to live more sustainably. Coming together has led to more robust support for pre-existing groups and the emergence of new initiatives. It has also given us the capacity to mount public events that draw additional people in. (Visit the .Planet Shaftesbury website)
How do we communicate with our wider community?
When seeking publicity for a public event we’ve used:
Any special happenings in February?
Karen Wimhurst's chamber opera about Plastics has been adapted for online presentation. Karen is an environmental activist and professional musician and composer, a co-leader of Shaftesbury’s Community Choir, and one of the founder members of Planet Shaftesbury. You can hear an interview with her on the Alfred Daily podcast for 5 February, book tickets for the premier, and find out about other ways to hear the opera here.
Act Now and Have Your Say! Help Create a Future Vision for Dorset :
People's Assemblies on the Dorset Local Plan
Caz Dennett says: "The Local Plan outlines the strategy for meeting the needs of the area such as housing, employment, community services and facilities including schools, shops, retail and leisure and is now out for public consultation which ends on 15 March 2021.
The Plan will last at least until 2038, so will shape all development for the next 17 years – that’s a long time. And anything built in that time will leave a legacy lasting for several generations. We cannot afford to get it wrong.
Town and Parish Council’s across Dorset will be putting in submissions to the consultation. Some are also keen to hear everyone’s thoughts and ideas. So they asked if Assemblies could be arranged to do this. The Assemblies are open to all."
Please join one of our People’s Assemblies using these Zoom links:
Sun 28th Feb 4pm-6pm - Dorchester Area
Sat 6th March 2pm-4pm – Dorset wide
Tues 2nd March 7.30pm - Corfe Castle Parish Council
Come along and discuss with others. Everyone welcome! More information about these People's Assemblies is here.
Posters and social media banners are below and available to download or copy here.
Dorset Council says: “The plan directs development to the most suitable locations near to existing facilities, and detailed policies promote high quality development that respects and enhances the character of each local area. The plan also protects Dorset’s natural environment and contributes towards the mitigation and adaptation to climate change”.
But where do you think things like new housing should be built? How many homes do we need? Is it the right housing e.g. how it’s built, materials used, rental or ownership, affordable, social, etc?
For further info about the Dorchester and Dorset-wide events please contact:
Caz Dennett (email@example.com)
or Julie-Ann Booker (firstname.lastname@example.org)
and (for Corfe Castle) Helen Sumbler (email@example.com).