THE DECISION to allow 62 homes to be built on land off Croft Road has been labelled as “the final nail in the coffin for local self-determination” by the chairman of South Swindon Parish Council.

Chris Watts’ comments came after permission for the controversial Taylor Wimpey development was granted, going against not only the Local Plan but also the impassioned appeals from councillors of both main parties, residents, and a petition carrying more than 1,000 signatures.

The debate that followed went along an increasingly familiar path with residents opposing a development proposal on land not identified for homes in the Local Plan, councillors acknowledging their concerns and expressing sympathy, but the committee then being unable to refuse permission on the grounds that Swindon cannot demonstrate that it can deliver its target number of homes for the next five years.

Of course, the very same councillors tasked with deciding on planning matters have already granted more than enough permissions to provide well over the number of homes Swindon is required to build.

But, while developers sit on land without starting to build, all the time pursuing speculative applications elsewhere, and until there is a change in the planning rules, many of those permissions cannot be counted towards the five-year total.

It was this loophole – the most powerful weapon in the armoury of developers going to appeal across the country – that was the subject of a motion at last month’s meeting of the full council.

It called for a change to the law, so that all permissions would go towards the rolling calculation of housing land supply, not just those where developed was underway or imminent.

However, as the law currently stands, refusing permission would inevitably attract an appeal by the developer, one that they would almost certainly win, with an award of costs likely to follow to be paid by Swindon taxpayers.

The council’s head of planning issued just that warning on Tuesday evening, cautioning that while he was as frustrated with the predicament as anyone else, any planning QC instructed by developers in an appeal would make light work of getting a decision overturned in the circumstances.

Defiance, it has become clear, stands little chance of sending a message to rogue developers and every chance of landing Swindon residents with another bill.

Moreover, if the number of appeals coming out of one local authority became too great, there would also be the possibility that special measures could be imposed thereby taking decision making powers out of the council’s hands altogether.

But despite this context and the likelihood of a successful appeal, Labour councillor Nadine Watts said she would still have liked to see more resolve from the committee.

“I tried to stand up for local residents,” said Coun Watts. “Outlining their many valid concerns particularly in relation to the unsuitability of this site and traffic issues in the light of other nearby new house builds.

“I feel that SBC should have been up for the fight, but it was the fear of legal costs that deterred them from standing up for the residents of Swindon and defending the democratically determined Local Plan.

“If it is the threat of these costs that is leading the decision-making process of our planning committee, then localism is all but finished.

“I believe that significant harm will be caused by this loss of open green space. I would like to thank Marco Di Pinto for gaining over 1,000 petition signatures and giving a well-researched speech.

“A change in legislation is needed.”

Earlier, Coun Watts’ fellow ward councillor, Jane Milner-Barry, had warned that how the committee voted on the application would determine whether the Local Plan mattered, or if instead it was destined to be “just another report consigned to a cupboard somewhere".

The Labour councillors were by no means standing alone in opposition to the proposals, with Conservative borough and parish councillors, as well as South Swindon MP Robert Buckland, backing the residents’ campaign of opposition.

Conservative parish councillor Nick Burns-Howell spoke at the meeting to urge developers to get on and build where they had already been given permission to do so instead of land banking to push through rogue proposals elsewhere in the borough.

After the meeting, Coun Burns-Howell said: “Councillor Claire Ellis and I are very disappointed the committee has decided to approve the inappropriate development on Ambrose Field, despite significant public objections and the lasting negative impact this will have on the local area.

“We both spoke at the committee to outline our objections and we share residents' frustration that this was approved.

“We will be meeting local residents to understand how we can reduce the detrimental impact of this proposal and, following our request at the meeting, how we can implement a thorough design code which will give residents a real say over how the houses are built.”

Unsurprisingly, the committee’s decision to grant approval was welcomed by the developers, Taylor Wimpey.

Struan Power, the firm’s strategic land and planning manager, said: "We are delighted that Swindon Council's Planning Committee has approved our proposals for 62 much needed new homes off Croft Road.

“We have worked hard at engaging with local residents and stakeholders and addressing some of the concerns raised.

“Taylor Wimpey will continue to work with the residents of Swindon over the coming months and we look forward to creating a new community for generations to come to call home.”

Taylor Wimpey have pushed hard throughout the planning process, to such an extent in fact that some observers have questioned whether this site carried more significance than solely getting permission for 62 homes.

Sarah Church, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for South Swindon at the recent General Election, spoke with residents as they left the meeting.

Reflecting on the strength of feeling among them, she said: “The residents of Croft Road and Ambrose Field area, over 1,000 of whom signed a petition against the proposed development, are angry and disappointed that the fear of appeal from the developer has now set a precedent for undemocratic development to go ahead across Swindon.

“There is a high degree of cynicism about how hard Taylor Wimpey has fought for just 62 homes – this could be just the start.

“The time has come for a change in the law. A policy of ‘use it or lose it’ is long overdue as an amendment to the Town and Country Planning Act.

“We all recognise the need for housing, but not development that only benefits the slow release to market of high-value homes and a steamroller over local peoples’ concerns.

“The call from SBC for granted planning permissions to count towards fulfilment of the quota is a small step in the right direction, but that in itself will not get houses built in line with the democratically agreed Local Plan.”