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New Forest planning chief to retire after 30 years

Chris Elliott Chris Elliott, the executive head of economy, housing and planning, retires from the authority at the end of May after 29 years and 9 months. He will be succeeded in the role by Flo Churchill who joins NFDC from Sheffield City Council where she was interim head of planning.

Chris began his career as a graduate trainee planner with Kingswood District Council in Bristol, the city of his birth. A move to Buckinghamshire followed for a job with Chiltern District Council, where he stayed for six years before moving on to Elmbridge Borough Council in Surrey. He joined New Forest District Council's planning department in 1987. Three months short of thirty years on and Chris is still here: "It has been a privilege to live, work and raise my family in such a lovely area. I arrived thirty years ago and I have never wanted to leave" says Chris.

He began as an area team leader in development control, going on to become head of development control then head of planning for the council. His role expanded in December 2015 when he became executive head of economy, housing and planning.

Reflecting on some of the more high profile planning cases of his career Chris says: "When I arrived at NFDC in 1987 a campaign was underway to stop Fawley power station developing a giant new coal-fired power station. I became part of an NFDC team making a case against the development, which we believed would have been an environmental disaster for the Forest. The proposal was withdrawn. Almost 30 years on I am again looking at proposals for redeveloping the awley power station site."

Plans to build 1500 homes on the site, create 2000 jobs, many in the marine sector, and develop transport links and community facilities are now in the pipeline. The planning team at NFDC expects to receive the planning application later this year. "It will be fascinating to see the response to what could be a really exciting opportunity to improve on what is currently on the former industrial site" comments Chris.

Another recurring story for the New Forest is Dibden Bay. Back in the early 2000s the Port of Southampton applied to expand into Dibden Bay on the Forest's eastern edge. The council's planning development control committee rejected the application in 2002. After a lengthy public enquiry it was also turned down by the government planning inspector in 2004. But things have changed since then. Applications for national infrastructure projects on this scale are now considered by the government.

"With increasing pressure on the existing port and Brexit making global trade more important than ever, another application by the port to expand into Dibden Bay now seems inevitable" says Chris. "Our role as a district council will be to work with the government inspector to look at the impacts and do our very best to mitigate them for our area. Whatever happens, it is likely to be very challenging for my planning colleagues over the coming years".

There have been many changes to how the planning system works both in the New Forest and nationally during Chris's time with the council. In 2006 the New Forest National Park was created and the new National Park Authority came into being.

The authority took on planning within the bounds of the national park, leaving NFDC to continue looking after the area of the district outside the boundary. A new planning team at the New Forest NPA was formed by splitting the NFDC planning team, with a third of the staff transferring to the new authority. "We had to divide 60 years' worth of planning files and computer data too" says Chris. "Some of our processes have gone in different directions since the national park was created, but we have developed effective new ways of working together. We have separate development control teams but our building control and land charges teams work across the New Forest and we have maintained a good working relationship with the NFNPA."

Nationally planning has also changed greatly during Chris's 41 year career: "It has become steadily more complicated" he says. "Many of the additional considerations are hugely positive in my view, including such things as greater environmental protections and not building on flood plains, but it has made it much more difficult to grant planning permissions and to explain our decisions."

Chris's wealth of experience has led him to contribute to national planning policy, including the introduction of hazardous substance legislation because of his experience with the Fawley oil refinery. New Forest District Council was also the first authority to establish a rural exception housing policy, allowing small housing developments specifically for local people to be built in the countryside. In spite of strong opposition from developers, the policy was introduced and Deering Close in Lyndhurst was one of the first schemes to be allowed under the new policy. Rural exception policies have since been adopted by most rural local authorities.

Back to the local and Chris reflects on an ongoing issue facing the Forest. "I have seen housebuilding rates come almost full circle" says Chris. "During the late 1980s and '90s there was massive housing growth in the New Forest. At its peak 1300-1400 houses were completed in one year.

"As planners we faced a huge challenge in trying to ensure that those new estates were good quality and attractive. It became clear that this level of growth wasn't sustainable or compatible with the special nature of the New Forest and we began working on slowing the growth."

In the last ten years the rate of housebuilding has dropped to around 200 homes a year. NFDC is now developing a new Local Plan focused on encouraging controlled growth in housebuilding to meet local need and the government's new housing targets. The second draft of the plan, which aims to shape development in the area for the next 20 years, will be published for public comment this summer. In September the council's ruling cabinet will make a decision on how many houses will be built in the district and the Local Plan will be submitted to the government.

"But it may not be welcomed by everyone" says Chris "because it includes plans to build many thousands of new homes over the next 20 years. I do believe that new homes are essential for our children to be able to get onto the housing ladder and that we can accommodate some more new homes, but I also believe it must be done sensitively somewhere as unique as the New Forest."

Chris is looking forward to his retirement, with plans to tour Scandinavia this summer with his wife Sally in their new motor-home. Reflecting finally on his time with New Forest District Council he says: "I hope I have made a contribution to the long term protection, preservation and development of this lovely part of the world."

He refrains from offering advice to his successor, Flo Churchill, who is joining the council at the end of May: "She must do things her own way," he says "but I hope she enjoys it as much as I have."

 

Updated: 15 May 2017
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