Where would you build a new Dorset town?

The increase in second homes combined with rocketing property prices in the south west mean tough decisions must be made for planners wanting to house modestly-paid key workers, says Rachael Rowe.

Dorset is in desperate need of new affordable homes. Radical new plans Councillor Spencer Flower, Leader of the Council, has discussed with the Secretary of State include fewer, but larger, new housing developments – potentially a new town

Local plans are essential as they shape how land use and places will change and develop in the future. When Dorset Council recently conducted a public consultation on its local plan, more than 9,000 people responded. Many of the views received felt the plan focused on housing numbers and not the needs of the people of Dorset. As a result, a radical new approach has been proposed.

The Proposal for Dorset

In his response to the consultation results, the Leader of Dorset Council, Spencer Flower, has instigated a radical proposal and discussed it with Secretary of State, Michael Gove.

He has asked whether Dorset can pilot a radically different approach to planning. Cllr Flower has also requested to break the link between the housing land supply numbers and the Duty to Cooperate – i.e. the requirement for Dorset Council to accept unmet housing needs from neighbouring councils. As a result, there is potential to have fewer but larger developments that could include a new town. But what does all this mean for people in Dorset?

It is not the first time Dorset has bucked the trend by asking to adapt the national policy to suit the needs of the people.
For example, in 2013, the Health and Social Care Act was adapted locally, retaining vital expertise in planning healthcare. So, how common is it for a national policy to be adapted locally as Dorset Council aspires?

Cllr Flower explains: ’It’s not the first time I have challenged the government. Of course, we have to use standard methodology with planning, but we need to look at the best way of doing it to get the best outcomes. I’m an advocate for Dorset and not an apologist for the government.”

Soaring house prices

There are currently 2,497 people on the
Dorset housing register, so there is a need
for homes that people can afford. However,
key workers have difficulty finding suitable housing, and housing prices have increased.
One thing that concerns people in the South West, including Dorset, is the proliferation
of second homes.
So how will Councillor Flower deal with the challenge of creating a new settlement, potentially in the countryside, and ensure homes are prioritised for people in Dorset and not second homeowners or AirBnB?
“The key thing for me with a new settlement is that we have a lot of master planning that goes with it. So it includes the importance of upskilling local people so they can stay in Dorset and not have to move away.”
Dorset CPRE Chair Peter Bowyer said: “We’re broadly supportive of these plans but would like to see homes that suit the needs of Dorset and fewer houses.”
A new settlement like a small town needs significant design and options appraisals. So, how will Dorset Council work with parish and town councils and the wider public in shaping a new vision? I asked Cllr Flower how valid will existing neighbourhood plans be?
“Neighbourhood plans are subservient to local plans. So I’d encourage all communities to have a plan. And some neighbourhood plans may need to be reviewed. We want to give people an opportunity to inform these developments.”

Councillor Spencer Flower, Leader of the Council, has instigated a radical proposal and discussed it with Secretary of State, Michael Gove

A new town in Dorset?

The one question in readers minds will be where any large settlement will be sited. The idea of Dorset creating a plan that meets local people’s needs is a compelling one. Until that is, a new town is planned next door to you. So how does Spencer Flower plan to deal with what could be unpopular choices?

“We have to do a lot of work on where a new development will fit into Dorset. It needs to be the right housing, the right quality, in the right place, and the right infrastructure. It needs to be a lasting legacy for 30 years or more.”

Peter Bowyer said: “We need to prioritise local Dorset requirements for houses that are affordable or rented so that people can afford to live here. We have an ageing population that will need support, and we will need people to provide that care. At the moment, those people cannot afford local housing.”
There’s another thorny question. What about all those plans that have already been passed? How will that impact a new proposal? Will we end up with even more builds than anticipated? Cllr Flower said: “We are using those plans as legacy planning to inform this new development.” Whatever you think about building, we must find a solution for people requiring housing and affordable homes.
The Local Plan for Dorset is one to watch. It also demonstrates why we all need to be proactive in consultations and be aware of what is happening in the wider world.
Finally, it shows the importance of questioning national (often city-centric) policy, especially in rural areas, and thinking outside the box for a sustainable solution.

by Rachael Rowe

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