'No need' for hundreds of new homes in rural Preston, argues council as Goosnargh planning inquiry begins

There is “absolutely no justification” for building more than 600 homes in the open countryside around Preston simply because the city has a shortfall of a few dozen dwellings against a key housing target.

Thursday, 15th April 2021, 10:29 pm
Updated Friday, 16th April 2021, 4:35 pm

That was the claim from one of Preston City Council’s senior planning officials during the open stages of a major public inquiry into seven controversial proposals for development which were rejected by the authority early last year.

The housebulders behind the schemes – six of which involve prospective sites around the village of Goosnargh – are appealing against the decision to refuse permission for their plans. The inquiry heard that Goosnargh would more than double in size if the applications were approved.

However, the developers say that the city council is engaged in an “exercise in wishful thinking” in its attempt to justify why the proposals should be dismissed.

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Meanwhile, in a twist at the outset of the inquiry – which began on Tuesday – it emerged that the planning inspector hearing the case might not have the final say on the matter. Wyre and Preston North MP Ben Wallace has made a formal request for the government to make the ultimate decision, albeit informed by the inspector’s findings.

Across the first two-and-a-half days of the inquiry hearing, lawyers for the developers and the council set out their broad cases, which hinge on debates that have come to dominate decision-making about housing applications across Central Lancashire in recent years.

The argument turns on the method by which the minimum number of new homes that should be built each year in Preston is calculated – and the implications of that process for whether the city can show that it has a five-year supply of land available to meet that target, as required by the government.

Bushells Farm, bordering Mill Lane and Church Lane in Goosnargh, where 140 homes are proposed

The issue has become intertwined in other Planning Inspectorate decisions considering cases across Preston, South Ribble and Chorley, which have co-operated over their housing needs for around a decade.

Just last month, Preston lost an appeal against a decision to refuse permission for 151 homes at Cardwell Farm off the A6 in Barton. The inspector in that case concluded that the authority had 4.95 years’ worth of land available for the number of new homes it needed to build.

The city council has said that it will launch a High Court challenge to that decision. However, Giles Cannock QC, representing the authority at this week’s seven-way hearing, said that even if the Barton ruling was accepted, the gap to having a five-year supply represented a deficit of just 36 units.

He contrasted that with the 557 properties being proposed for Goosnargh – which are contrary to the council’s development plan and exceed the shortfall “by a considerable degree”.

There are two applications for more than 120 homes at Swainson Farm on Goosnargh Lane. Like four others in the village, they have both previously been refused permission, but are now the subject of an appeal.

“[National policy] emphasises that the planning system should be genuinely plan-led – and…that should not be missed amongst the enthusiasm of the appellants for their own schemes.

“None of the appellants have sought to explain how the current level of housing provision [in Preston] justifies such a level of growth in Goosnargh or Longridge [the location of the seventh site],” Mr. Cannock said.

Chris Blackburn, Preston City Council’s planning policy team lead, told the hearing that the authority would have “well in excess” of a five-year supply at the start of the period covered by the next local plan, a joint document currently being prepared with its two neighbouring Central Lancashire councils.

Asked by Mr. Cannock whether there was any current cause to develop greenfield sites beyond the boundaries of villages like Goosnargh, Mr. Blackburn said: “There is absolutely no justification.”

In addition to conflicting with its development policies – which do not ordinarily permit building in the open countryside and allow only small-scale development within the lowest-order settlements – the council says that it also refused the Goosnargh applications because of their “cumulative impact” on the village.

The inquiry heard complaints from the developers concerned that this recently-introduced reason for refusal should have been raised when the applications were considered by the council’s planning committee – and once it was clear that the village had attracted several proposed housing schemes.

Sarah Reid, representing one of the Goosnargh appellants, but speaking on behalf of all of them about the issue of cumulative impact, said that the council had accepted that the schemes were not at odds with one of its own policies which acknowledged that development in the countryside could, if properly designed, “integrate well into the local settlement pattern”.

She said it was a “clear recognition” that such development was not harmful “per se” – and that the council should have carried out a detailed assessment of whether it was in this case.

Chris Blackburn said that his position remained that “a suburban ring of new development around the village, cumulatively, will have a significantly detrimental impact on [its] character”.

The inquiry was also told that the authority was seeking to argue that it should be held to a lower annual minimum housing requirement – 250 – than the 507 originating from an agreement with South Ribble and Chorley councils dating back almost ten years. The higher tally was judged to be the appropriate figure by the inspector at the Barton inquiry.

However, Paul Tucker QC, speaking on behalf of all the appellants about housing land supply, said that the issue had become “rather convoluted” and the council was mounting was “an unnecessarily complex case”.

He said that there was a “binary” distinction in the national planning policy framework (NPPF) about which figure should be used – and suggested that the council was “inviting the inspector, in assessing five-year land supply, to do something different to that which is set out [in the policy]”.

Acknowledging that it was open to local authorities to deviate from national policy, Mr. Tucker challenged Chris Blackburn to point either to wording in the NPPF that justified such a move or “a single appeal decision, secretary of state decision [or] ministerial letter” that supported the approach the council had taken.

Mr. Blackburn said that he and his colleagues at the authority had been exercising their “planning judgment” in response to a “significant change in circumstances” brought about by the introduction of a new way of calculating an area’s housing need, introduced by the government two years ago.

“National policy doesn’t prescribe for every single eventuality that a local planning authority will find itself in – and we can’t simply take the black-and-white wording [of the NPPF] to be all the story,” said Mr. Blackburn, who added that there was “no support or preclusion in the framework” for the council’s stance.

Until last April, Preston had been required to build 507 properties annually as part of an agreement known as the “core strategy”, drawn up by the three Central Lancashire neighbours back in 2012. The arrangement that it enshrined – for the trio to pool and redistribute the collective target across the three districts – was renewed in 2017, without altering the split between the areas.

The deal was refreshed completely early last year following a planning inspector’s decision in a case in South Ribble that concluded the authorities should be using the so-called “standard method” of calculating new housing need, introduced by the government in 2019.

After redistribution, Preston’s target was then set at 404 properties per year – and, vitally, that meant the authority was able to demonstrate it had a five-year supply of housing for the first time since 2018. In the intervening period, national planning policy dictated that the shortfall would see the city have to approve applications for development – even on land it had not earmarked for housing – unless the negative impact of doing so substantially outweighed the benefits of the individual schemes.

The seven applications now being appealed were all initially given the green light under that scenario, but were left in planning limbo after a previous attempt by Ben Wallace to have them considered, or “called in”, by the government – giving the city council opportunity to reconsider and refuse in the wake of the South Ribble case.

However, the planning inspector’s conclusions in that instance – relating to a proposed 100-home development in Whitestake – have since been overturned on appeal by the developer to the High Court.

Subsequently, the inspector at the Barton inquiry found that only the 2017 renewal of the redistribution agreement of Central Lancashire’s collective housing target – known as memorandum of understanding 1 (MOU1) – constituted a formal review of the 2012 core strategy, which form part of the development policies for Preston, South Ribble and Chorley councils. He concluded that the 2020 revision of that arrangement – MOU2 – had not followed a sufficiently robust process to be classed as a review.

That matters because the NPPF states that a local authority should use the new standard method of calculating housing need – the lower 250 figure in Preston’s case – if it’s own development policies are more than five years old, unless they have been reviewed and found not to require updating.

By concluding in 2017 at the formation of MOU1 that they should continue with the core strategy housing split, that meant the relevant policies of the three councils were not considered to have needed an update – and so should take precedence over the more recently-introduced standard method.

It was under those circumstances – and the resultant need to go back to building 507 homes per year – that Preston was shown to have a housing land supply of only 4.95 years, compared to 13.6 years if the minimum target was 250.

If the inspector at the Goosnargh inquiries comes to the same conclusion as his counterpart in the Barton appeal, it could once again open up the city to the what is known as the “tilted balance” – the presumption in favour of approving developments that originally saw the seven applications given the go-ahead during 2018/19.

However, the current inquiry heard that, since the Barton decision, the city council has approved an application for up to 1,100 homes in Bartle, for the creation of a garden village development.

The expected swift delivery of the initial phases of that scheme – coupled with the rolling over of more than 2,800 housing allocations from the current local plan period – is expected to enable the council to show, at the start of the next plan period, a 5.6-year supply of housing land on a target of 507 homes per year. The authority states that it would have a 11.3-year supply if the 250 figure is adopted.

Another route by which the tilted balance can be brought into play would be if the suite of local policies regarded as “most important” for determining planning applications were deemed to be out of date. While Preston argues that is the case for the element of the core strategy that sets the housing need figure, it maintains that other parts of the strategy – and its own separate local plan – are up to date.

In a statement about his call for the government to come to a final decision on the seven cases – once the inquiry inspector, George Baird, publishes his conclusions – Ben Wallace MP said he was “extremely concerned” about the plans.

“The residential development proposed would completely change and overwhelm the village of Goosnargh. The developers are seeking to override the local plan and this would be devastating for my constituency.

“I feel strongly about this matter and have asked the Secretary of State to recover the seven appeals for his determination so that all the issues can be fully taken into account,” Mr Wallace said.

The inquiry is expected to run until 30th April.

'THERE HAS GOT TO BE A LIMIT'

The planning inspector hearing the appeal cases was told that residents in Goosnargh and Whiitingham were “not against” new homes being built – but that they want to see a major brownfield site in the area developed before any green spaces are concreted over.

The former Whittingham Hospital plot has an outline approval for 900 homes – only 150 of which have so far been built, with another 250 on the way.

Whittingham parish councillor Michelle Woodburn said that the remainder of the site could accommodate all of the other applications being decided at the current appeal.

“We are against overdevelopment in an area that has no infrastructure and is unsustainable to support this number of homes.

“We accept that the village is growing, but surely there has to be a limit.

“There are a total of 1,064 new homes already being built or going ahead [in the area], meaning approximately 2,340 more people – is that not enough for such a small village?” Cllr Woodburn asked.

Another objector, Anthony Ingham, said Goosnargh was facing an “absolute onslaught”.

“There can be few villages of this size that can already claim to be contributing so much to the housing needs of the country and the region.

“Now is the time to stand up and stop the [council’s] development plan being treated as meaningless paperwork,” Mr. Ingham added.

Meanwhile, the standalone Longridge site being considered at the appeal, as well as being in an area of open countryside, also had a separate, specific reason for refusal relating to concern over odour from a nearby agricultural facility.

NUMBERS GAME

The inquiry heard that there had been a 239 percent increase in the delivery of new homes in Preston in the seven years since the City Deal was launched.

The agreement aimed to boost the supply of housing across Preston and South Ribble by funding the infrastructure needed to facilitate it.

The city council’s planning policy team lead, Chris Blackburn, agreed under cross examination that it would be “unconscionable” to row back on that commitment, given the amount of money the area has received for projects such as the Broughton bypass and the under-construction Preston Western Distributor Road.

He said that there was no question of the authority resiling from its City Deal obligations even though it was using a minimum housing target figure that was less “aligned” to the level of housing delivery demanded under the agreement.

A total of 4,101 properties have been completed in Preston since April 2014, with the numbers delivered increasing significantly in the past four years, following a period after the 2008 financial crash during which competitions were generally below 250 per year. In 2009/10, that figure was just five – but last year had reached 1,121.

However, the under-delivery in the early 2010s has left the city council with a shortfall on its rolling housing supply tally, which now stands at 910.

Paul Tucker QC, representing one of the developers at the inquiry, described it as a “very large deficit”.

Chris Blackburn argued that there had clearly been “a turnaround and the direction of travel is a very positive one”.

However, under cross examination, he was forced to concede that an error in one of the figures presented to the inquiry meant that the authority was on track for a deficit of 117 units on the total number of new homes expected to be delivered in the local plan period 2010-2026 – and not the surplus that had been claimed.

Mr. Blackburn said that it was not a “materially different” position, in view of the fact that there were more than 2,500 completions expected to be delivered beyond that timeframe in any event.

Mr. Tucker pointed out that the 117 figure was “broadly speaking “ equivalent to the size of his client’s proposed site at Bushells Farm.

DISTRICT DIVISIONS

Having spent a decade co-operating on housing needs across Central Lancashire, the areas’s three district authorities have found themselves heading in different directions over the past year in the wake of Planning Inspectorate judgements with contrasting implications for each of them.

The divergence stems from the fact that the same method of housing need calculation has a very different effect across the neighbouring councils, particularly in the case of Preston and Chorley.

Last August, a planning inspector in an appeal case in Euxton ruled that Chorley Council should be basing its minimum housing need on the government’s standard method and, crucially, without any subsequent redistribution of the figure across the wider patch. That saw the borough’s annual housing target rocket from 278 dwellings per year to 569.

Preston withdrew from the target-sharing MOU2 as a result of the Euxton decision – just six months after signing up to it. Since then, at both at the current Goosnargh inquiry and the one it lost at Barton last month, the city council has been arguing that it, too, should be subject to a non-redistributed minimum target arrived at under the standard method – which, in Preston’s case, would lower its local housing need figure to 250.

However, Preston’s failure to argue that point successfully in the Barton case has now been seized upon by Chorley to justify its own refusal – just this week – of six applications for over 500 homes on land not earmarked for development. By using the same method of calculation as deemed appropriate by the Barton inspector, Chorley can now claim a minimum local housing need of 144 units per year – a drop of almost three quarters.

In a sign of increasing circularity in the Central Lancashire planning system, Preston is arguing for an opposing decision in the current appeal cases – a fact that was not lost on the barrister for one of the Goosnargh appellants.

Paul Tucker QC said: “We have the bizarre situation where Chorley are now relying on [the core strategy] to assess five-year land supply – because, magically, it gives them a 12-year supply of housing – and their next door authority, their fellow partner in the same core strategy area, is saying: ‘Don’t use the core strategy figure, use the local housing need [figure]’.

“You are inviting the inspector to endorse an approach which is inconsistent with your fellow …partner authority,” Mr. Tucker added.

However, Preston City Council’s Chris Blackburn put that position down to planning inspectors.

“Part of the reason for this inconsistency…is the inconsistent decisions that the Central Lancashire authorities have had in recent times from the Planning Inspectorate as to which is the correct figure to use.”

South Ribble Borough Council resolved earlier this year to use the standard method to set its minimum housing target, which now stands at 191 properties per year as a result.

BIDS TO BUILD

These are the sites developers have set their sights on:

Bushells Farm, Mill Lane, Goosnargh – 140 homes (applicant:Gerald Gornall and Community Gateway Association)

Land north east of Swainson Farm, Goosnargh Lane – 87 homes (applicant: Michael Wells)

Land at Swainson Farm, Goosnargh Lane – 40 homes (applicant: Michael Wells)

Land north of Whittingham Lane – 145 homes (applicant: Gladman Developments Ltd.)

Land south of Whittingham Lane – 80 homes (applicant: Setantii Holdings Ltd.)

Land around 826 Whittingham Lane – 65 homes (applicant:Setantii Holdings Ltd.)

Old Rib Farm, Longridge – 45 homes (applicant: Community Gateway Association)