Rural Lancashire looks set to be protected from almost 1,000 new homes following landmark ruling on housing needs

Plans for almost 1,000 new homes in rural Lancashire look set to be rejected following a recent landmark ruling on the area’s housing needs.

Thursday, 23rd January 2020, 6:00 am
Residents in Goosnargh and Whittingham staging a demonstration as part of its fight against over-development.

Campaigners have welcomed the move, which they say could signal the end of over-development in many communities where infrastructure is already struggling to keep pace with a growing population.

Senior officers have ruled that up to 10 separate applications for 974 homes should be refused by councillors at a planning meeting at Preston City Council in February.

It follows a recent planning inspectorate decision reducing the number of new homes Preston, South Ribble and Chorley councils are required by law to build every year.

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The applications set to be rejected at the February 13 meeting are dotted around the Broughton, Goosnargh and Grimsargh areas north of Preston.

Michelle Woodburn has been fighting against the number of homes being passed for villages North of Preston for at least two years, even setting up a campaign group, Goosnargh and Whittingham Against Overdevelopment, to coordinate the cause.

She said: “It’s been a long and very frustrating time.

“There have been a lot of planning applications affecting our villages of Goosnargh and Whittingham - in total 2,494 homes in our parish.

“We are against over-development and all these applications are definitely classed as over-development in our village, considering there is a total lack of infrastructure to support more than 2,000 homes.

“After securing hold notices on seven applications, which is a total of 694 homes, with the help of our MP Ben Wallace, we feel that we have at least so far stopped the building going ahead with these seven applications.

“That was a miracle, as our village would have been swamped with diggers and machinery as they all came in within months of each other.”

In a campaign spearheaded by Michelle, residents in North Preston fought against what they saw as over-development, warning that if homes kept being waved through Whittingham and Goosnargh would more than triple in size.

Meanwhile three parish councils, Whittingham, Broughton and Woodplumpton, all declared a motion of no confidence in Preston City Council’s planning department, officially registering their dismay over the numbers of homes being recommended by the authority for approval.

And MP for Wyre and Preston North Ben Wallace requested that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), put a holding direction on PCC for nine planning proposals for the Secretary of State to consider calling in the applications for his own determination.

Prior to the inspectorate’s ruling, councillors often found themselves hamstrung, forced to pass applications into the face of angry local opposition in order to meet strict Government targets for housing land supply.

That changed following an appeal decision in South Ribble over plans for 100 homes at Chain House Lane in Whitestake when a ruling from an inspector provided a breakthrough for residents.

It meant Preston City Council could change how it calculated its housing land supply, with the target lowered from 507 to 410.

Consequently a total of 974 houses now look set to be blocked at a meeting of Preston City Council’s Planning Committee.

In a full day revisiting planning applications the committee will consider 15 proposals for homes.

Officers have recommended city councillors to refuse 10 of the applications.

Michelle said following the inspector’s ruling the council now has the backing to be able to block developments which are not on brownfield sites or supported by other infrastructure.

“There is no need for this amount of housing and now Preston has reduced its housing figures, it means it now has a reason to legally refuse these large developments,“ she said.

“If they are refused at the meeting, this would have a massive impact on the village.

“We already have homes being built on two sites, one is already causing disruption in the village because of where it is situated.

“The footprint of the village has already been changed with these two sites and should the other seven developments go ahead, it will more than treble the size of the village.

“Councillors at previous meetings said that they were helpless to refuse these applications, but now they have the tools to refuse and should the developers appeal, they can now fight back.”

TAKE BACK CONTROL

Preston has been preyed upon by developers deploying tactics designed to take advantage of a ruling that has left it largely powerless to refuse housing applications for the last two years.

That was the verdict of the man in charge of planning at the city council who said that he had been waiting a long time “to take back control” of the policies on which those decisions would normally be based.

Coun Peter Moss was reacting to the judgement of a planning inspector in a case in neighbouring South Ribble which will have a ripple effect across Central Lancashire. It signals an end to the situation faced by planners in Preston which has seen them forced to approve applications for housebuilding on land that has not been earmarked for development.

“Developers know they can exploit [that situation] - and they have done, quite ruthlessly at times,” coun Moss says.

Preston’s problems began in April 2018 when the council lost an appeal against a decision by its planning committee to refuse permission for two developments in Broughton. In the process, the authority was deemed not to have a five-year supply of land available to meet its new housing needs - as required by government policy.

All applications since have had to be determined on the basis of a concept known as the “tilted balance” - meaning that there is a presumption that they will be approved, irrespective of location, unless their benefits are "significantly and demonstrably outweighed" by their negative impacts.

Hundreds of homes at a time have been given the green light in areas which lie outside the council’s local plan dictating where houses should be built - many around Whittingham, Goosnargh and Grimsargh, some in areas of open countryside.

Coun Moss says that he understands the frustration of residents during the time he claims that the council’s hands have been tied.

“If I had a house that looked out over a green field, the last thing I would want is for a housing estate to be built there. I empathise with them and it’s not something we ever wanted to do,” the Labour politician adds.

The ruling in the South Ribble case, which upheld refusal for 100 homes in Whitestake, concluded that five-year supply figures should be calculated differently - and in a way which would enable Preston to show that it had enough land set aside for housing.

One of the city’s senior planners says that the contrasting judgements reflect the paradoxical vagaries of a system that is underpinned by seemingly strict policies.

“Working in the planning profession, you just have to accept that it’s subjective,” reflects Chris Blackburn, Preston City Council’s planning policy team leader.

“Arguments can be played out on both sides and both could be equally robust, but one will win and one will lose - there are never any draws.

“Residents would like to hear that the approach we’ve got now is bullet proof and will win all appeals - but we can’t guarantee that in the slightest. However, we will defend it as long as it’s legally sound for us to do so.”

Coun Moss claims that the turbulence faced by Preston in recent years can be traced back more than a decade to the credit crunch. The nationwide housebuilding slowdown left the city with an historical shortfall in housing delivery of more than 1,500 properties - which continues to be felt in the figures determining how many homes are needed today.

“Developers just stopped building and went into hibernation - I think two houses were built in a whole year in Preston around that time,” Coun Moss recalls.

Mr. Blackburn adds: “If you look at our housing delivery between 2008 and 2014 - compared to how many we delivered prior to that and how many since - it’s that six-year period where not enough were built. It was because of things outside our control and we’ve had to live with those consequences.

“Yet at the same time we have allocated a lot of land for housing development, embracing our city status.”

Meanwhile, Coun Moss is keen to stress the benefits of housebuilding for Preston - provided it is in the right place.

“We need to be able to provide accommodation to retain graduates as well as affordable homes - and we’ve delivered more of them than anywhere else in Lancashire.

“As wages have stagnated and house prices increased, delivering affordable homes has been really important - but it comes on the back of being able to grant planning permission.”

'WE SHOULD HAVE TAKEN A PUNT'

According to Preston’s Conservative opposition leader Susan Whittam, her party’s new government should be prepared to toughen up the rules so that local planning policies carry the weight of which they are worthy.

“The local plan should be unchallenged for a period after it’s adopted. It is supposed to last 15 years and yet Preston’s was challenged within months - I think there should be at least 18 months before that can happen,” Coun Whittam suggests.

“These plans have been through due process, public consultation and a planning inspector, so it can’t be right that they are open to challenge straight away.”

But she also says that the city council should have been braver at times over the past two years - by refusing some of the applications that it has granted and forcing a developer into an appeal which might have brought clarity sooner.

“With hindsight, we could have taken a punt, but that costs money and sometimes people say you are being reckless - but it shouldn’t just be about that.”

It is an assessment with which Liberal Democrat group leader John Potter agrees.

“Given it’s financial position, Preston is always going to be risk averse - I get that. But these developments would affect these communities for the rest of time,” Coun Potter says.

“We now need to do all we can to protect ourselves from this situation in future and make sure we keep a five-year supply so that developers don’t get the upper hand.

“We need good sites going forward for the next 10 years - and they need to be in the local plan, so you can make sure you have the infrastructure to go with them.”

Clerk to both Woodplumpton and Whittingham Parish Councils Julie Buttle is also in agreement.

“The irony of this is that Preston City Council could still get that challenge of an appeal now,” she said.

“It’s all very well saying well we can’t afford an appeal but if they just let one through and it would have gone to appeal then we would have something in the public domain. But we didn’t have that opportunity.

“The city council’s legal advice has now been overturned by the planning inspector but it does beg the question why it couldn’t have been done earlier.”

‘NO POINT LOOKING BACK’

At the height of the controversy over the glut of planning applications being approved on land not allocated for development to the north of Preston, three parish councils - Broughton, Whittingham and Woodplumpton - passed motions of no confidence in the city council’s planning department.

Pat Hastings, chair of Broughton Parish Council, said she was pleased that the latest planning inspectorate ruling had come in time potentially to spare neighbouring villages from developments that had previously been approved against Preston City Council’s own policies.

However, with work poised to begin on the Broughton estates whose controversial approval sparked the last two years of planning turmoil - on Sandy Lane and Key Fold Farm - she does not feel that the village has much to celebrate.

“We can’t be happy about something that’s given us hundreds of new homes when we shouldn’t have had them,” Ms. Hastings said.

“We’re the one village that lost out and we’re the one village that did a neighbourhood plan [outlying how the area should develop]. It’s rather annoying that it’s now a fait accomplis - but we’ve moved on."

She also seeks to draw a line under the parish’s strained relationship with the city council - and warns that the battle against development in the wider area may not be over.

“We can’t blame anybody, it was a snapshot in time that led us to this conclusion. But if you look at all the sites [that are recommended for refusal] next month, they are also listed in the consultation for the next local plan.”

The three Central Lancashire authorities have recently published details of around 500 sites suggested for development over the next 15 years. However, the inclusion of land on the list does not mean it will ultimately be earmarked for housebuilding - that will depend on the outcome of the ongoing consultation and a later assessment of the proposals by a planning inspector.

Julie Buttle, clerk to both Woodplumpton and Whittingham Parish Councils said she welcomed the ruling from the inspector, albeit cautiously.

“We are delighted,” she said. “As with any application the developers will have a right of appeal. Obviously given the nature of how this turned from a city council saying it didn’t have a five year land supply to suddenly having a supply it probably will still need to be tested in some form.

“So that’s the concern. We really welcome the decision but we know that it could switch back again. We’ve seen it previously.

“One application could switch it all on its head and we could go back to not having a five year land supply so we have still got to be wise to the fact that the situation could change again.

“We have got to treat it cautiously but at the moment, yes, we are pleased.

“We have no problem with Preston wanting to be a growth town but it has to be certain that the houses put up where infrastructure can support them.

“Housing has got to go where infrastructure can support them which is first and foremost has to be brownfield sites. The second is for housing to be placed near infrastructure.

“It’s important to note that the Whittingham Hospital site is a strategic location and I’m pleased that that is recommended for approval.”

CONSTRUCTION CALCULATIONS

To determine whether they have a five-year supply of land to meet their housing targets, local authorities have to make a complex calculation based on the number of sites that have been granted planning permission and the likelihood of how many will actually be developed during the relevant period.

The assumptions about delivery have to be realistic and based on evidence of past performance. But according to Coun Moss, planning departments are often left struggling to discharge their primary duty - to plan.

“The city council doesn't build houses, developers do - and once we’ve approved an application, they have three years in most cases that they can sit on that land,” he explains, adding his personal view - not town hall policy - that housebuilders should be charged council tax from the moment permission is granted in order to “focus the mind”.

But Andrew Whitaker, planning director of the Home Builders' Federation, says that councils know the rules.

"Since 2012, the government has been very clear that local planning authorities need an up to date plan, a five-year supply of deliverable and developable land for housing and that they must deliver against their adopted housing targets.

“We accept that the situation changes over time, but this merely means that councils cannot fly too close to the wire with their land supply as the five-year test is a simple yes or no.

“Councils need to work with developers to ensure allocated sites are developed and cannot just assume that ‘love will find a way’ and that any site they decide to allocate will be developed just because they want it to be.”

MAKING THE NUMBERS ADD UP

Preston, Chorey and South Ribble councils began collaborating over their individual housing targets back in 2012, sharing them out across the Central Lancashire region under a policy called the Core Strategy.

For eight years, that has seen Preston aiming to build 507 homes per year, with South Ribble and Chorley 417 each. That position was confirmed by a new assessment carried out by the authorities in 2017 - and it was under that target that Preston was later deemed not to have a five-year supply of deliverable developments.

But new national planning rules introduced last year brought in a different way of calculating the targets - known as the “standard method”.

At South Ribble’s recent appeal, the planning inspector ruled that the new method should take precedence over the three-way Central Lancashire agreement from 2012 - because that was now “out of date”.

His decision hinged upon whether the 2017 reassessment constituted a formal revision of the councils' collective policy, which would have meant it retained primacy over the new nationwide guidance for five years - and Preston would have been held to delivering the 507 target. But he concluded that it did not.

Under the new system, after another agreed redistribution of the targets across the three councils, Preston would be expected to build 410 properties, South Ribble 334 and Chorley 282 - with each able to show that it has five years’ worth of land available. The three authorities are currently formulating a new “memorandum of understanding” to enshrine the new targets while they formulate the first joint local plan for Central Lancashire, on which the public are currently being consulted. The document is due in 2022.

A consortium of developers and planning agents had threatened to bring a legal challenge against the memorandum of understanding process, after complaining that its own separate consultation period last autumn was too short. It was later extended and responses are now being assessed ahead of an expected decision by each of the three Central Lancashire authorities next month.

SHOULD CHORLEY BE CONCERNED?

While Preston and South Ribble have been liberated by the planning inspector's decision in the Whitestake case, he had a word of caution for Chorley.

His judgement noted that the borough would not be able to demonstrate the all-important five-year housing land supply if it applied the new standard method of calculating housing need in its bare form - in spite of Chorley's history of over-delivering dwellings against previous targets. But the condition would be met if the three Central Lancashire authorities shared the housing burden in the way they are currently proposing.

Chorley Council leader Alistair Bradley said: “Working together is vital to ensure future distribution of development is in the best place and is supported by the infrastructure such as schools, public transport and health facilities.

“We’ve been delivering many homes in Chorley so when the government looked to increase our target last year we felt that we were being penalised for doing what they wanted.

“It’s disappointing that the planning inspectorate has cast doubt over our five-year housing supply, when we have continually delivered on our targets and are now working on a joint plan for Central Lancashire to do what is best for residents. We are satisfied that we have more than a five-year supply.”

A PERSPECTIVE FROM A DEVELOPER

Gladman Developments Ltd has written to Preston City Council in the light of the recommendation to refuse plans for 145 homes at land off Whittingham Lane in Goosnargh.

The developer put forward several arguments for Preston City Council to vote the applications through.

In one point the statement said: “It is notable that prior to the Whitestake decision, PCC accepted that it could not demonstrate a five year housing land supply.

“There has been no recent change in national policy; the Whitestake decision represents an interpretation of policy by an Inspector based upon the evidence presented in that case.

“Gladman therefore respectfully consider that this Whitestake decision of itself is not determinative as to the housing land supply position in Preston.”