A village near Preston has become a key battleground for a dispute that could shape the future of development across the city region.
Next month a planning inspector will publish the conclusion of an appeal into the decision to reject around 220 homes near Broughton.
What it effectively does is tilt the balance in favour of an approval of planning permission, particularly when one increases the amount of housing supply.
If the decision goes against the council, it could see the local authority “lose a degree of control” in determining housing applications.
An influx of development bids could then be expected as a knock-on effect, with developers emboldened by the decision that would deem the authority does not have a government-required five-year supply of houses.
This would, no doubt, set off alarm bells for parish councils and green belt campaigners passionate about preserving the identity of Preston’s rural communities.
And while this test case remains “up in the air”, the spectre of widespread government reform for the planning system looms on the horizon.
The appeal decision and impending reforms may therefore add up to a potentially uncertain 2018 in planning terms.
If the inspector deems that Preston does not have a five-year supply and over-rules the council’s decision to reject the Broughton houses, it will place the town hall in a vulnerable position.
“It means they (the council) loses a degree of control, it’s fair to say,” explains Paul Walton, director of PWA Planning.
“What it effectively does is tilt the balance in favour of an approval of planning permission, particularly when one increases the amount of housing supply.
“It doesn’t over-ride all other considerations, I hasten to add. It’s not a panacea in all cases, the implications and impact of the development all have to be taken into account, such as scale, landscape and sustainability. But it tilts the balance in favour of it.”
At the heart of the issue is the distinction between the number of houses earmarked for development compared to those completed.
“It’s all about delivery of units, you might have granted consent for 1,000 dwellings but you’ve got to look at how many will be built out in the five-year period,” said Mr Walton.
“There’s always a lag, it takes two to three years to start for an outline application and delivery is sometimes constrained by infrastructure improvements required, for instance.
“As much as the council grants consent, they don’t build houses and often developers are tardy in doing that, they will sell what they can sell.
“It’s about delivery, people’s perception that there’s lots of consent granted, you’ve then got to sift that down into how many have been built in the five years and that’s the crucial part of the equation.”
Although far from an ideal situation for the local authority, it does not mean a development free-for-all with developers handed an open-goal in terms of getting plans through.
Mr Walton added: “It was a little more like that several years ago, but it’s been tested in court and more recently it doesn’t mean everything can go ahead.
“There is still a consideration of the local plan and if (an application) is in contravention of that it would have to be weighed against the harm that would be caused. But it would also be weighed in favour that boosting the supply of housing is a vital consideration. That’s why the terminology tilted balance is being used.”
The council’s stance
Preston City Council’s head of planning policy Mike Molyneux says the dispute exposed during the planning appeal was due in part to the town hall arguing they had access to more up to date figures than the developers.
But because this data had not been subject to the required tests, they were not deemed permissible at this stage.
He said: “Things are up in the air” until the appeal decision. And if the council is found not to have a five-year supply, to what extent they are deemed to have fallen short could be significant.
He told the Lancashire Post: “We had a very different approach to calculating the five-year supply than the appellants in this case because we’ve got some up to date evidence of housing need.
“But their argument was you’ve still got a development plan and you should still be sticking to that.
“The inspector must work out how much weight he gives to this new evidence.
“The other thing is if it goes (in favour of) the appellants, (the inspector) has got to make a decision on how much of a supply we do have, depending on various factors.
“So it can get quite technical on whether we can make up a shortfall over the remainder of the plan period or over the next five years.
“Wherever that goes, it could be saying there actually is a five year supply. But then if he does say that there isn’t, there’s a decision on whether there’s 4.4 years or three year supply.”
To further muddy the waters, the dispute over the supply figure could become a moot point later in the year when the government publishes its new guidelines.
Mr Molyneux said: “We’re due to be seeing a draft of the new policy at Easter and the final version will be published in the summer.
“It’s not entirely clear, that’s the time-scales they are saying. I think the government is well aware of the issue of time and resources being contested .
“The figure for Preston in that methodology is 225, that’s even lower than our own latest need figures, on that basis we’ve got more like a 15 year supply.”
The applications that triggered the appeal
Developers had triggered the appeal after two sites in Broughton were rejected last year by the town hall over concerns they would cause an “inappropriate expansion of a rural village”.
The plans, either side of Garstang Road, are for up to 227 homes. They were rejected after being deemed to be counter to local planning guidelines.
The planning inspector will announce a decision at the start of April.
Broughton Parish Council, which made representations to the inspector during the inquiry, hopes it has still done enough for the council’s original decisions to reject to be upheld.
A spokesman said: “We can only hope that we have made a good enough case.”
During the proceedings the council “ended its participation” in the inquiry on legal advice because officers had to recognise the authority “cannot demonstrate a five-year supply” .
Chris Hayward, director of planning, said in the aftermath of the appeal proceedings: “Upon advice from our barrister, we took the decision to end our participation in the inquiry. We continue to have concerns about the policy on housing land supply and the uncertainty this creates, even when there is a recently-adopted local plan in place.
“We feel that this undermines confidence in the planning system, a view we have already expressed to the minister for planning.”
At the most recent meeting of the full council, cabinet member for member for planning and regulation Peter Moss responded to a question regarding what had happened at the planning appeal and the implications.
He said: “It’s perhaps a little bit premature because it may happen that the inspector comes back about the five year housing supply and it may be that the gap isn’t as wide as we thought.
“Obviously when we get there we will have to make some further assessments.
“For members’ benefit, the issue is a complicated one, on how the inspector has come to the conclusion we don’t have a supply at the moment. That’s frustrating for everybody, councillors and officers.
“As you well know, we’ve had concerns about the policy in the past.”
Coun Moss pointed out that the government currently has its seventh housing minister in as many years, suggesting this has had an impact on the consistency of housing supply guidelines.
He added: “We’ll await the inspector’s decision, it’s not cut and dried yet. Only last year, at a housing appeal in Barton, we were told we did have a five year supply.”
What is a five-year supply?
To help with boosting the supply of housing, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) requires local planning authorities to identify and keep up-to-date a deliverable five year housing land supply. Without this, even recently adopted planning policies for the supply of housing will be considered out of date.
This is particularly important given that the NPPF states that where relevant policies are out-of-date, permission should be granted unless any adverse impacts outweigh the benefits.
Mr Molyneux added: “There’s currently 5,300 houses with permission in Preston but the difficulty in calculating the five year supply figure, the tests we apply to those sites is how achievable the development is over five years.
“We’re reliant on the private sector in the main, about 90 per cent, and they will build what they can sell.”