Preston village 'saved from destruction' after plans for over 500 homes thrown out

A three-year battle over plans to build more than 550 homes in a Preston village has ended with a ruling that only 40 of them will be allowed to get off the ground.

By Paul Faulkner
Monday, 7th February 2022, 7:56 pm
Updated Monday, 7th February 2022, 7:58 pm

A planning inspector has dismissed five out of the six appeals brought by housebuilders against Preston City Council’s refusal of permission for the proposed developments in Goosnargh, which would have seen the settlement double in size. A seventh application for an estate in Longridge has also been thrown out following a joint public inquiry staged last April.

Separately, a different inspector has refused an appeal over a previously-rejected bid to build 125 homes on land off Jepps Lane in Barton.

However, the council’s original refusal of a proposal for more than three dozen properties on part of the plot currently occupied by Swainson Farm, off Goosnargh Lane, was overturned and is now set to go ahead.

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The sun will continue to rise over open fields at Bushells Farm off Mill Lane in Goosnargh after plans to build 140 homes on the land were dismissed at a planning appeal (image: Fred Rumming)

But for the other sites – barring a further appeal by the housebuilders concerned – the inspectors’ decisions appear to mark the end of a seemingly interminable planning wrangle which has raged since a slew of applications were submitted to the city council in 2018/19.

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The proposals – for estates that would not ordinarily have been permitted because of their locations in areas of open countryside – included plans for a 140-dwelling development at Bushells Farm on Mill Lane and a total of 290 homes across three separate plots off Whittingham Lane.

At the time, the authority was unable to show that it had set aside enough land to meet its minimum annual new housing requirement for the next five years – leaving town hall officers forced to recommend that councillors on the city authority’s planning committee approve the developments in order to comply with government planning rules.

Swainson Farm is home to the only one of six sites in Goosnargh where plans for new homes in the village have been approved

However, after the permissions were granted, Wyre and Preston North MP Ben Wallace intervened in an attempt to have several of the proposals ‘called in’, which would have seen the local government secretary make the final decision.

That request saw confirmation of the approvals delayed, during which time the outcome of an entirely separate planning inquiry in neighbouring South Ribble led to a change in the way housebuilding targets across Central Lancashire were calculated – more than halving the number that had to be built in Preston.

As the Local Democracy Reporting Service has previously revealed, it paved the way for a bizarre planning twist which then allowed Preston City Council to revisit the controversial countryside applications and reject them – in many cases, a full year after they had first given them the green light.

The developers appealed against the council’s reversal, culminating in a three-week public inquiry last spring to consider the Goosnargh and Longridge applications. Planning inspector George Baird heard evidence about issues specific to each site, as well as claim and counterclaim about the overarching matter of how many new homes needed to be built in Preston.

Barristers for the housebuilders said that the city council was engaged in an “exercise in wishful thinking” about that tally. However, one of the authority’s planning chiefs said that there was “absolutely no justification” for allowing over 600 properties to spring up on greenfield sites given how many properties were being – and would continue to be – delivered in Preston.

Chris Blackburn, the city council’s planning policy team lead also told the inquiry that the “cumulative impact” of such significant development around Goosnargh would have had a “significantly detrimental impact on [its] character”.

That was an argument echoed by Goosnargh residents who claimed that such rapacious and rapid housebuilding surrounding their village would represent “an absolute onslaught”.

Responding to the long-waited outcome of last year’s hearing, Whittingham parish councillor Michelle Woodburn – who has helped lead a campaign against the “overdevelopment” of Whittingham and Goosnargh – said she had always been hopeful of securing the outcome that she and so many residents had wanted.

“I would have been very surprised if all the applications had been allowed to go through after the inspector visited the village and we walked him through and showed him all of the [issues].

“And we’re really lucky that Ben Wallace had these proposals put on hold, because they would have been built otherwise.

“Can you imagine what it would have been like if all these developments had started at the same time? We’d have been completely surrounded,” said Michelle.

As well as the medium-term prospect of living alongside so many building sites, she says that locals had also been concerned about the permanent problems that they feared would flow from such significant development – specifically, the potential for it to cause flooding.

“The infrastructure isn’t suitable – the sewers around here are Victorian and they can’t be made any bigger. The water comes down off the fields and into a stream and when it rains really heavily, some of the properties have sewage backing up into their gardens.

“The fact is that we have been banging on about the issue of cumulative impact since 2018 – but those of us who live here aren’t listened to.

“I probably know all of the people who own the land where these houses would have been built – and this has never been anything personal [against them] – it’s just been about saving the village from destruction.”

Meanwhile, Ben Wallace said that the inspector’s decision was “a most welcome outcome for Goosnargh”.

“The proposed developments would have changed the village in such a way as to make it unrecognisable. I wish to thank local campaigners, particularly Michelle Woodburn, for all their hard work,” said the MP.

In a statement following publication of the planning inspector’s decision, Preston City Council’s cabinet member for planning and regulation, David Borrow, hailed it as “extremely good news”.

He added: “[It is] a testament to the hard work and dedicated time by officers at the council, who produced a comprehensive suite of evidence and robustly defended the council’s decisions.

“New housing developments are necessary and as a city council, we are committed to delivering real homes for real people in need – therefore we will continue to resist applications for housing in inappropriate locations.

“We will continue to ensure that any new developments are in sustainable locations outlined by the local development plan. It is vital that they do not adversely impact residents in our rural communities and that they are supported with the necessary infrastructure in terms of access to roads, public transport and schools.” Cllr Borrow said.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service attempted to contact all of the applicants involved in the appeal cases, although was unable to reach Setantii Holding Limited, the group behind the Swainson Farm plans. Of the remainder, only Community Gateway Association responded to say that it was “taking stock of the decision”.

REASONS FOR REFUSAL

While decisions over new developments usually hinge on the merits of individual housebuilding proposals, Central Lancashire’s three district councils – Preston, Chorley and South Ribble – have found themselves embroiled in a long-running saga over how many homes should be built in each area.

Those figures depend on the calculation used to determine them – a complexity which has come to dominate a whole series of major planning applications in recent years.

Decisions have turned on whatever methodology council planners have concluded is the correct one – and, usually, what planning inspectors have subsequently had to say about their judgements when the issue invariably ends up being taken to appeal by aggrieved developers.

Although an application for 100 homes in the South Ribble village of Whitestake has often lain at the centre of this contention, the intertwined nature of the planning system in Central Lancashire means that the consequences of decisions and rulings in that single case have been felt right across the sub-region – and nowhere more so than in the approved-then-refused applications for eight estates to the north of Preston.

How many homes?

Preston, Chorley and South Ribble councils have co-operated over the minimum number of homes that needs to be built in each area since 2012 – signing up to a so-called “joint core strategy” which saw them pool and then redistribute the Central Lancashire-wide total.

The approach was reaffirmed in a memorandum of understanding in 2017, when the trio agreed to continue with the split of at least 507 homes being provided in Preston every year and 417 in each of Chorley and South Ribble.

That was done on the basis of factors including the volume of greenbelt in Chorley and the need for Preston and South Ribble to keep housing delivery at a level which would enable them to meet their commitments under the homes, jobs and infrastructure-boosting City Deal with the government.

However, Preston ran into trouble in 2018 when it could no longer demonstrate that it had granted five year’s worth of planning permissions that would enable it to meet its 507 minimum – exposing it to what is known in planning legislation as the “tilted balance”. That meant the city council was forced to approve proposals for development that would otherwise have been refused because of conflict with its own local planning policies – unless any disadvantages to such approval could be shown to “significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits”.

It was that situation that led to the Goosnargh, Barton and Longridge applications being approved in 2018/19, even though they were in areas defined as open countryside and where only very small-scale development would usually have been permitted.

Things changed in the wake of the Whitestake appeal in late 2019 when the inspector in that case considered that the Central Lancashire’s authorities should begin basing their minimum housebuilding targets on a new approach called the “standard method”, introduced by the government a year earlier. He concluded that the memorandum of understanding between the neighbouring authorities did not constitute a formal review of their 2012 agreement, which was the only scenario in which they should have been continuing to use those figures after more than five years had elapsed since they were agreed.

Crucially, at that point, the standard method slashed Preston’s non-redistributed target to 250 – which has since risen to a slightly higher 254. But it meant that the authority could easily demonstrate it had more than five years’ worth of land allocated to meet its newly-reduced minimum requirement.

It allowed the city council to reconsider the controversial countryside applications – which had been held in planning limbo by the possibility of a government call-in – and refuse them.

Plenty of planning water has passed under the bridge in the past two years – the Whitestake decision was overturned in the high court and then reinstated at a reconvened appeal. There have also been wrangles over whether the collective Central Lancashire target should be able to be redistributed between the three neighbouring authorities before they settle on a new joint local plan in around two years.

However, at last year’s Goosnargh/Longridge appeals, the developers argued that the 507 core strategy figure should stand in Preston, given that both they and the council now agreed that the memorandum of understanding was, indeed, a review of an existing arrangement – thereby meaning it should override the new standard method.

But the local authority countered that claim by suggesting that the very introduction of the standard method represented a “significant change” in circumstances, the like of which should permit it to deviate from the core strategy agreement and adopt the new, lower, minimum requirement.

While the developers stated that neither planning policy nor accompanying guidance referred to the concept of significant change, the inspector, George Baird, highlighted a need stated within the National Planning Policy Framework (NPFF) for the relevant documents to be read “as a whole”.

He said that the approach of the appellants had been to treat the framework and guidance “as silos to be applied in isolation”. Assessing what he described as the “totality of the evidence”, he concluded that the halving of Preston’s minimum housing requirement under the standard method amounted to a “significant change that renders this policy out-of-date”.

Mr. Baird also noted that under the most recent assessment of its allocated housing land, Preston could show that it had a five-year supply, irrespective of whether it was being held to the 507 or 254 minimum, with 6.1 years available to meet the former and 15.3 years the latter.

Considering another key reason that could bring the “tilted balance” into play – whether an authority’s most important policies for determining planning applications are out of date – the inspector found that just because the section dealing with the housing requirement had been found to be redundant, it did not automatically follow that the same applied to other elements of local policy, such as the spatial strategy for Central Lancashire as a whole, which seeks to direct development away from the lowest-order locations in the settlement hierarchy. It would not be possible to “retrofit” such a conclusion,” Mr, Baird wrote.

He concluded that while the provision of the needed market-rate and affordable housing that would have been provided by the proposals should attract “substantial” weight”, it did not outweigh the “fundamental conflict with the spatial strategy and the very healthy supply of housing land”.

Would 557 new homes have wrecked Goosnargh?

Mr. Baird was less convinced about the claimed cumulative impact of the proposed estates on the village. In his decision notice, he said that the form of Goosnargh had begun to change from 1970 onwards, and especially in more recent years.

He also concluded that the degree of separation between the appeal sites themselves and between their location and the historic and civic village hub around Goosnargh Lane and Church Lane meant that there would be “no material direct or indirect effect on the historic form of the village”.

THE ONE THAT GOT THROUGH

The inspector ruled that a proposal for 40 homes on the existing farmstead of Swainson Farm should be allowed on the basis of its capacity to lead to an “improvement to the approach to the village, and [because of] the provision of the market and affordable housing [and] the significant weight attached to the economic benefits”. A separate application for 87 properties on the agricultural plot was refused.

WHAT ABOUT BARTON?

Following a planning inquiry convened last October, planning inspector Jonathan Price upheld Preston City Council’s decision to refuse an application by Story Homes to build 125 properties off Jepps Lane in Barton. He said that the proposal “amounts to a housing scheme of a significant scale that creates a commensurate degree of conflict with development plan policy, to which I attach substantial weight and find the equivalent degree of harm”.

APPEALING SITES FOR DEVELOPMENT

These are the eight plots where developers had wanted permission to build:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jepps Lane, Barton – 125 homes (applicant: Story Homes) – rejected

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