After years of hard work in preparation, the Bridge Neighbourhood Plan has been presented publicly for consultation with the people of the parish. All residents are invited to comment. So, how does it look from the perspective of Nature, wildlife conservation and agriculture?
The plan appears to be very much geared towards preserving the unique identity of Bridge, maintaining a strong sense of separation from the city of Canterbury and protecting green spaces around the village. It presents as a ‘green plan’ accepting and supporting the use of environmentally friendly initiatives and technologies as they arise. These include: maintaining public transport links, an improved cycle route to Canterbury, clean air policies, electric car charging points, preservation of green spaces in and around the village, flood and sewage pollution prevention policies and sustainable building practices.
We sense that this plan is also a valiant attempt to resist major development in Bridge while fulfilling a demand for need established affordable homes. The latter is a generous gesture and it may win public approval, but even the building of affordable homes of this type is only intended to be allowed within an AONB in exceptional circumstances, and these might be considered hard to justify when so many new houses are about to be built outside the AONB just a few minutes away at Mountfield Park.
Unfortunately, there is a further sense within the plan that various policies on development contradict each other. Policy C3 expresses support for the proposal to build 40 houses near Bridge Surgery, although the need for more housing than 11 affordable homes has not been established. This does not comply with national planning legislation (NPPF 2012), current AONB management policies, CCC’s District Plan, or indeed other policies within the Bridge Neighbourhood Plan itself. Residents should recall that, in a trade off for the recreation ground, this proposal was voted into the plan by the public, but that does not mean the idea is appropriate or that it will pass muster with the planning authority.
The idea that Bridge includes, and is surrounded by, green space is made much of within the plan, but it is described in an abstract sense and there is surprisingly little acknowledgement that the surrounding fields are working farmland in an historic and beautiful corner of England: one that has been protected for future generations by AONB designation of the same status as that of a National Park. A further indicator of this omission is the poor presentation of the pictures showing protected views within the plan, sometimes as tiny images, which can barely be seen. Better presentation might endorse the recognition that these views are worth protecting.
Sadly this does not look and read like a Neighbourhood Plan which values farming: indeed, there is so little mention of farming, farmland and the outlying countryside of our parish that it reads like a plan for the village centre, which only acknowledges farming as a scenic view from the window, and only appreciates countryside as a place of recreational pursuits. On page 26, in general text we read, “The plan will encourage and support the use of land to establish sustainable farming, allotments and community orchards…”, but that sounds almost like a slap in the face for existing farming, which faces many complex environmental, economic and political challenges. On the same page we are offered Project F2, which says it will “support new developments that allocate land to uses such as sustainable farming, allotments and community orchards”. Is this saying it will approve new housing development if such land is offered as a sweetener? It certainly reads that way and it is alarming. The plan needs clarity here. Perhaps Project F2 should be replaced with a project which states, “Sustainable farming will be supported and the further use of land to establish allotments and community orchards will be encouraged”. And what of a project statement on local woodland? And on wildlife conservation?
Of further concern is Policy A3 which supports a proposal to convert redundant farm buildings at Great Pett Farm, Bridge, to light industrial/commercial units. This is a proposal from agents acting for the landowner; but how and why are the landowner and the authors of the plan so sure that Great Pett Farm will never again need its barns and its farmyard? What is the long term ambition for farming in the fields around Bridge? We don’t find an answer in the Bridge Neighbourhood Plan.
To be fair, we are perhaps asking the plan to speak beyond its basic remit on some of these issues, but maybe it should. This should be a plan presenting, not just a defence of our village from urban expansion, but a vision of Bridge parish as a thriving, historic, rural landscape which treasures its AONB status, its countryside, its farming heritage and its wildlife, along with its community. The plan is a bold effort, but our parish has much to be proud of, and we should not hesitate to speak loudly in praise of what it is we are defending: a little more expressive recognition of farming and countryside would be welcome.