The method of deciding how many new homes are built in different parts of Central Lancashire could face a legal challenge from developers and planning agents.
A consortium of more than a dozen “interested parties” have written a joint letter to Preston, Chorley and South Ribble councils suggesting that the approach which the authorities have taken may be “unlawful”.
The three neighbouring districts are poised to enter into a so-called “memorandum of understanding” about how many properties each of them should accommodate over the next three years, ahead of the creation of a longer-term plan to be drawn up by 2022.
The target for the total number of homes to be built across the wider area is based on a calculation set by central government. An annual figure of 1,026 dwellings is expected to be delivered by Central Lancashire as a whole, under new criteria introduced earlier this year.
Individual councils are also given their own housebuilding target, but are permitted to redistribute that total between themselves to meet their own needs - provided the overall number is still achieved.
The original calculation suggested that Chorley should take 57 percent of all new development, with Preston receiving 23 percent and South Ribble 20 percent.
The authorities commissioned independent analysis which concluded that the proposed split left Preston and South Ribble short of their actual requirements. The jobs and homes-creating City Deal is likely to boost the housing numbers which will be delivered across those two districts.
In particular, the 20-year vision to build 5,500 new homes in North West Preston could have resulted in the city significantly exceeding the minimum numbers that had been allocated under the standard housing calculation.
Under the new agreement between the three authorities, the balance is proposed to be shifted, so that Preston takes the lion’s share of future development, at 40 percent, with South Ribble getting 32.5 percent and Chorley - the area with the most greenbelt in Central Lancashire - now slated to receive the fewest new homes at 27.5 percent of the total.
But development consultants PWA Planning have threatened to bring a legal challenge against the new calve-up, claiming that the entire process - including a fortnight-long consultation - was flawed.
“The implications of this process can be quite severe for those who have a reasonable expectation of receiving planning permission,” said Paul Walton, the firm's managing director.
“It’s also unheard of to have just a two-week consultation on a document like this - and that consultation should have been about the consequences of the proposal.
“It might be politically convenient for the councils to review their housing figures, but they are skirting with the lawfulness of the process.”
The Preston-based firm says that it will wait to see whether each of the authorities formally adopts the memorandum before deciding what action to take. Chorley will be the first to consider the proposal at a meeting of its full council this week. All three councils would have to approve the document before it becomes official policy across Central Lancashire.
Details of the letter emerged at South Ribble Borough Council's cabinet meeting, where director of planning Jonathan Noad told members that the consortium had "sought legal advice from a barrister about our approach - and, in their view, [it] is unlawful".
But according to the memorandum, the revised allocations are “evidence-based”. It states that the original figures would be “significantly at odds with the distribution of people, jobs and services”.
Preston accounts for almost half of the jobs in Central Lancashire, with South Ribble just under a third and Chorley less than a quarter. However, the distribution of the workforce is more evenly split - Preston houses 38 percent of workers, while 32 percent live in Chorley and 30 percent in South Ribble.
Mr. Walton added that it was “quite convenient” that the revised housing allocations still allowed each of the councils to meet the requirement for them to have a five-year supply of housing.
“There has been no opportunity to test these figures and they need to be tested.
“The councils were entitled to create a memorandum of understanding the last time they did so in 2017, but the rules have since changed and now they require a statement of common ground,” he said.
The proposed overall annual housing development figure of 1,026 new properties across Central Lancashire is more than 300 fewer than the target which has been in place since 2012.
A spokesperson on behalf of Preston City Council, South Ribble Borough Council and Chorley Council said: “As many are aware, our local plan is over five years old. As such, we are actively seeking to establish a position which is compliant with national policy on housing land supply. The proposed memorandum of understanding is a key step in achieving this, in advance of the completion of the updated local plan.
"We have received a letter from PWA Planning consultants, on behalf of a consortia of interested parties, which we are now reviewing.
"As always, we are looking to act in the best interests of residents of Central Lancashire by implementing a plan-led approach to planning decisions in the area.”
Preston, Chorley and South Ribble councils are in the process of drawing up a joint local plan for Central Lancashire which will dictate where - and in what numbers - new housing will be built in the three districts over a 15-year period.
However, it is not due to come into effect until 2022, by which time the previous plans for each individual area will be seven years old - and a decade will have gone by since the creation of the “core strategy” policy which is the basis for the current level of co-operarion between the councils over housing numbers.
Subsequent changes to the way in which housing targets are calculated means that the figures on which the Central Lancashire-wide document is based are “dated and superseded by more recent policy approaches”, according to papers presented to the latest meeting of South Ribble Borough Council’s cabinet.
Members were told that the adoption of a "memorandum of understanding" until a single local plan for Central Lancashire is created could “strengthen the hand” of the local authorities when it comes to defending themselves against appeals by developers which have been refused planning permission.
Housebuilders have been known to challenge the applicability of local planning policies based on how long they have been in force.
Just last week, developer Gladman made an unsuccessful third bid to build on so-called “safeguarded land” in the village of Euxton in Chorley. The plot may be released for development under a future local plan in the borough, but is currently protected.
However, the developer argued that the borough’s policies were out of date - removing the safeguarded status of the land unless there were significant “adverse impacts” of any proposed development.
Back in November 2017, a planning inspector upheld Chorley’s initial refusal of the application - and in the process found in favour of a previous memorandum of understanding entered into by Central Lancashire’s three district councils. The inspector ruled that it was legitimate for the authorities to share housing allocations between them.
TILTING THE BALANCE IN FAVOUR OF DEVELOPERS?
All three council areas in Central Lancashire exceeded the number of new homes which they were assessed as needing to deliver over the past four years.
According to the government’s housing delivery test published in February, South Ribble has delivered 126 percent of its requirement since 2015/16 and Chorley 133 percent over the same period.
But Preston produced two and a half times as many dwellings as the government assessed were needed in the area - 252 percent over the target.
Yet Preston City Council’s planning committee has still found itself having to approve developments which it may not otherwise have done - because the authority was deemed unable to demonstrate that it had a five-year supply of land for housing. That means councils have to rule in favour of sustainable developments - irrespective of their own planning policies - unless such developments would be "significantly and demonstrably outweighed" by their negative impacts. The process is known as "tilting the balance" in favour of granting permission.
The effects of under-delivery of housing dating back more than a decade can still be felt in council areas which missed previous targets, even when more recent requirements have been significantly exceeded.
The proposed new memorandum of understanding in Central Lancashire would eradicate this under-supply from previous years by accounting for it in future targets. The move could benefit both Preston and South Ribble.
However, the effect would be reversed in Chorley, where previous over-delivery would similarly be erased from the record.
Michelle Woodburn, from campaign group Goosnargh and Whittingham Against Overdevelopment, said that she would welcome anything which could take the pressure off the two Preston villages - but added that the system is flawed.
“Where is the evidence that we need all of this housing?” she asked.
“They keep moving the goalposts when it comes to what councils are expected to deliver.
“There are 900 homes earmarked for the Whittingham Hospital site - but only 150 have been built. Yet applications are being passed for greenfield sites.
“We should be starting with brownfield sites first, but because they need more work, the developers aren’t willing to spend.”
The Post understands that the government's “housing accelerator” agency Homes England will market the remainder of the Whittingham Hospital site once a decision notice has been issued formally permitting development.
A clutch of proposals for more than 260 homes off Whittingham Lane was approved late last year - but a total of nine applications in the area have now been put on hold while the Secretary of State decides whether to call them in for review.
Ms. Woodburn added that the area is ill-equipped to cope with the volume of new development being proposed.
“There is so little infrastructure - they talk about getting people out of their cars and onto bikes and buses, but there is no prospect of that round here.
“The roads are too dangerous to cycle into Preston and our bus service runs just once an hour and is having to be subsidised by the county council.”
MAKING THE NUMBERS ADD UP
This is how many new homes were initially allocated to each of Central Lancashire's three council areas up to 2022...
South Ribble - 206 homes per year (20 percent of Central Lancashire total)
Preston - 241 homes per year (23 percent of Central Lancashire total)
Chorley - 579 homes per year (57 percent of Central Lancashire total)
...and this is how they now want to divide up the total between them
Chorley - 282 homes per year (27.5 percent of Central Lancashire total)
South Ribble - 334 homes per year (32.5 percent of Central Lancashire total)
Preston - 410 homes per year (40 percent of Central Lancashire total)
TOTAL: 1,026 homes per year across Central Lancashire