Planning policy team lead Chris Blackburn said he found it “difficult to get my head around” the fact that constructors were contesting appeals in neighbouring districts on the basis of apparently contradictory positions.
He made the comments on the second day of an appeal hearing into a decision by the authority to refuse a proposal from Wainhomes for 151 new dwellings at Cardwell Farm off the A6 in Barton.
Under cross-examination from Vincent Fraser QC, the barrister representing the firm, Mr. Blackburn drew a contrast between the argument being mounted in that case and the one deployed by a different developer - Gladman - during a successful appeal in Chorley last year, which saw plans for 180 homes approved on Pear Tree Lane in Euxton after twice having been rejected by the borough council.
The inspector making that decision had been invited to conclude that the minimum number of houses to be built in the district each year should be calculated on the basis of the government’s “standard methodology”, introduced in 2019.
However, in the Cardwell Farm appeal, Wainhomes is arguing that Preston should be held to a figure first arrived at back in 2012 under what is known as policy 4 of the “core strategy” - an agreement on planning issues covering the whole of Central Lancashire.
“We would have a completely inconsistent approach across the same joint plan area, where in one [district], policy 4 is not out of date and in the other area [it] is,” Mr. Blackburn told Wednesday's hearing.
“I’d suggest this is a case of...housebuilders picking which figure they think suits them the most in terms of any particular authority within the...area - [and] which will serve them best to release land for development not in compliance with the development plan.”
Implementing the standard methodology in Chorley on a standalone basis has seen the borough’s minimum housing requirement rocket from 282 new homes per year - under an agreement last year to pool and redistribute the figures across the three neighbouring areas - to 579.
However, in Preston, the same calculation - which the city council has voluntarily adopted in the wake of the Pear Tree Lane decision - has reduced its minimum need from 404 dwellings to 250.
Reverting to the core strategy - as Wainhomes argues it should - would more than double Preston’s current annual requirement, pushing it back up to 507 new properties, as was the case between 2012 and 2019.
The firm says that an earlier version of the redistribution agreement entered into in 2017 - the so-called “memorandum of understanding” - constituted a formal review of the city’s development policies. As that process concluded that the documents did not need updating, the revised national planning framework introduced two years ago states that those earlier policies and the figures within them should continue to apply.
If the inspector agrees with that position, Preston will fall fractionally short of being able to demonstrate a five-year supply of housing land, leaving it liable to approve applications like that for Cardwell Farm, even though they are on plots not earmarked for development.
Mr. Blackburn also told the hearing that developers were “having [their] cake and eating it” by claiming that a historical under-delivery of new houses in Preston in the decade from 2003 still needed accounting for, when it had already been factored in to more recent housing calculations, with a new base date set from April 2014.
However, Mr, Fraser alighted upon the fact that the city council stressed that it did not believe the 250 figure generated by the standard methodology represented its actual annual new housing need.
He suggested that the authority’s current position of relying upon that calculation and the resultant total - for the purposes of determining planning applications and defending appeals - would leave the city in limbo over its real-world housing requirements until the completion of the ongoing process of creating a joint local plan for Central Lancashire at the end of 2023.
“What you’re saying is that for over two and a half years, we won't be providing for whatever the need is - because we won’t know what the need is,” Mr. Fraser contended.
Chris Blackburn rejected that claim and said that the fact that the city had a 13.6-year supply of housing land set aside against the 250 minimum showed that its ambitions were “clearly greater than that”.
The pair also locked horns over affordable housing, with Mr. Fraser rubbishing any suggestion that an in-built adjustment to account for affordability within the standard methodology would be sufficient to meet the need for 239 affordable homes in Preston each year, as established by a strategic housing market assessment in 2017.
In his evidence, Ben Pycroft, the housing supply witness for Wainhomes, noted that the affordable tally almost entirely swallowed up the total minimum housing need figure which the city council had now adopted - and said “significant weight” should be attached to affordable housing requirements when assessing planning applications.
“Whilst I do accept that the standard methodology factors in an affordability [element], we know that that uplift...is a fraction of the actual housing need.
“The expression [is that] these are real people that need a home. It doesn’t sit well to say: ‘Well, that’s fine, because the government algorithm says you don't need a home',” Mr. Pycroft added.
Earlier, under cross-examination, Mr. Blackburn said affordable housing was an issue which the city council took “seriously”.
“The council has to embark on a strategy to deliver that need in the most appropriate locations. I’d suggest delivering affordable rented accommodation on sites adjacent to villages isn't the right strategy [for] the council [to] take - we would seek to focus on delivering affordable housing in more sustainable locations in the urban areas,” he explained.
The Cardwell Farm proposal includes a pledge that 35 percent of the properties will fall into the affordable bracket.
The city council's principal planning officer, Robert Major, said that he would afford something close to "significant" weight to the benefits of that element of the plan.
However, he added: "It's not so significant that it outweighs the harm [caused by the overall development].
The hearing was told that only 16.5 percent of all housing completions in the city between April 2019 and September 2020 were affordable homes - although both parties appeared to concede that this was because affordability elements could not be demanded on every approved scheme.
Meanwhile, Mr. Fraser noted that the authority’s planning committee - a cross-party group of councillors - did not always set their face against proposals for housing on land not reserved for the purpose, having granted permission for just such a site on Preston Road in Grimsargh last November.
However, Robert Major said that in that case - a development of just 30 homes - members had felt that the village boundary had already been extended.
There is also an existing permission in place for a much smaller development on the Cardwell Farm site than the one that is the subject of the current appeal - with 55 homes approved on part of the Garstang Road plot.
Mr. Pycroft told the hearing that he did not accept an argument put by Chris Blackburn on day one of the hearing that the new national planning policy framework (NPPF), which came into effect in 2019, was not able to legislate for all planning eventualities.
He added: “Actually, there wasn’t a significant change in terms of five-year housing land supply calculations for scenarios [such] as we find ourselves [in] here. where Preston has reviewed its policy found that it didn't need updating”
The hearing is scheduled to continue until Friday.
‘WHAT’S THE BENEFIT?’
Preston City Council’s principal planning officer Robert Major said that in assessing the benefits of the Cardwell Farm proposal put forward by Wainhomes, he had concluded that many of them were “either neutral...required to mitigate the impacts of the proposed development...or are generic to any major development scheme.”
However, Mr. Fraser said that much of what was being dismissed as generic in Preston had been afforded significant weight in applications elsewhere.
Mr. Pycroft also questioned the need for a proposed community facility as part of the development, given that there is already one such centre in the village.
“I think it will have an impact on the existing village hall.
“Having spoken to the parish council in the past about the village hall, I know the amount of money and work [that has gone] into improving that.
“Another community building in such a small village is surely going to have an impact - and if [the original] were to close down as a result, we’re potentially going to be left in a situation where Barton would have...a community building that would likely be in private ownership,” Mr. Major added.