The proposal, for a plot of land at Cardwell Farm off the A6 Garstang Road, is one of a series of controversial planning applications that were initially approved by the authority - before later being reconsidered and refused.
Housebuilder Wainhomes last year launched an appeal against that move - and on the first day of the resultant planning inquiry on Tuesday, the firm’s barrister described the case as having a “somewhat unusual history”.
It is a history shared with eight other sites in and around villages across the rural north of Preston, where developers have sought to build over 900 new properties on plots of land that were not earmarked for housing in the city council’s local plan.
The Cardwell Farm inquiry is the first in a flurry of appeals that will be heard in the coming months - with a combined hearing into proposals for multiple developments in Whittingham and Goosnargh due to be staged in April.
They all hinge on complex quirks of the planning system that will be picked over by legal experts before an inspector rules whether the city council was right to reject applications that have been met with staunch opposition from residents living close to the proposed sites.
In his opening statement at the Cardwell Farm hearing, Vincent Fraser QC, representing Wainhomes, said that the “only logical conclusion” was that the authority should have granted permission for the development - adding that some of the evidence to be presented would demonstrate “the difficulty in which the council finds itself”.
However, the barrister representing Preston City Council, Martin Carter, countered that Wainhomes’ argument “relied upon an over-literal interpretation and application” of planning guidance and an “absurd” position that ignored “significant changes in circumstances” which have occurred since a key moment in the development of Central Lancashire's planning policies in 2017.
That was the year that the area’s three district authorities - Preston, South Ribble and Chorley - entered into a so-called “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) to continue a policy first adopted in 2012 of co-operating over the number of new homes that needed to be built across the area each year.
The trio agreed that although their housing needs were assessed as being slightly lower than they were five years earlier - 1,184 new dwellings compared to 1,341 - they would continue to operate on the basis of the higher figure and split the total in the same way as they had previously.
That meant Preston was required to build 507 homes per year, with Chorley and South Ribble 410 each.
However, at an appeal case in 2018, the authority’s planners conceded that they did not have five years’ worth of land available to meet that quota - as required under the government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
As a result, the council was left subject to a rule known as the "tilted balance”, meaning that it was obliged to approve all applications for sustainable development - even on land not reserved for housing - unless the negative impact of doing so would “significantly outweigh” the benefits of the schemes being proposed.
It was under that scenario that the Cardwell Farm application was first approved in October 2019 - but then revisited and rejected less than six months later in February 2020 and again in November.
By early 2020, a separate appeal decision in another case involving Wainhomes across the river in South Ribble - a proposal for 100 homes on Chain House Lane in Whitestake - had seen an inspector conclude that the three Central Lancashire councils should be using the government's new “standard methodology”, introduced 12 months earlier, to calculate their local housing need.
The initial approval had not been confirmed in a decision notice, pending a possible government ”call-in” at the request of Wyre and Preston North MP Ben Wallace - giving the council’s planning committee the chance for a rethink.
In the Chain House Lane case, the 2017 MOU had not been deemed to be a formal review of the “core strategy” agreement from 2012 - meaning that the earlier policy and the housing targets within it were considered out of date, because they were over five years old. Had they been reviewed and considered not to need updating, the revised version of the NPPF, introduced in early 2019, stipulates that they would have continued to apply.
The three Central Lancashire neighbours then entered into a new agreement last year - MOU 2 - to pool and redistribute the lower collective housing need figure arrived at under the standard methodology, It put all of the councils in a position which allowed them to demonstrate a five-year supply of housing land.
The 1,010 dwellings calculated to be required was split according to the higher needs created by the housing-driven City Deal covering Preston and South Ribble - which took 404 and 328 dwellings respectively - and in acknowledgement that Chorley has the most green belt out of the three areas and should be allocated the lowest number, of 278 properties.
However, the Chain House Lane ruling was quashed last August by a High Court judge who concluded that it was flawed to find that the process leading up to the MOU in 2017 did not amount to a review - and at the Cardwell Farm hearing, Preston City Council also accepted that such a review had indeed taken place.
Vincent Fraser, cross-examining the authority’s planning policy team lead, Chris Blackburn, put it to him: “On the face of it, that would suggest...that [Preston] should be continuing to apply the figures in [core strategy] policy 4.”
However, Mr. Blackburn rejected the idea that the council should still be held to the higher target under the 2012 policy - which would result in it having fractionally less than the five-year supply of housing land available and so once again leave it at the mercy of the tilted balance.
He said it was “a simplistic suggestion and would not take account of all of the other things that have transpired locally”.
That includes the outcome of another appeal in Central Lancashire’s increasingly interwoven planning story, in which Chorley Council last year had a decision to reject plans for 180 homes on Pear Tree Lane in Euxton overturned.
The planning inspector in that case concluded that the fresh MOU 2 agreed in 2020 should be afforded only limited weight in determining whether a council has sufficient land available for development, because it was struck separately to ongoing work to create a joint local plan for Central Lancashire.
The decision caused Preston to withdraw from the agreement late last year - just six months after signing up to it. In doing so, it moved to calculating its minimum housing need on the basis of the figure generated by the standard methodology solely for the city council area.
Outside of the redistribution arrangement, that resulted in Preston’s minimum requirement dropping to just 250 - allowing it to show that it had enough land allocated for 13 years’ worth of development.
In answer to questions from Martin Carter, Mr. Blackburn said that the Pear Tree Lane decision was not something that Preston could ignore.
“We wanted to align ourselves to be entirely consistent with national planning policy and guidance,” he said, adding that it would “fly in the face of everything that had happened in the intervening period” for the council to revert to the higher core strategy figure after departing from MOU 2, rather than the standard methodology.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Carter had earlier responded to what he jocularly described as a “provocation” from his opposite number, in which it had been suggested that Preston’s reconsideration of the Cardwell Farm application had been prompted by the Chain House Lane appeal ruling - which had now been thrown out.
He said that if any decision was being relied upon it was that relating to Pear Tree Lane, “which was not challenged, let alone quashed”.
However, Mr. Fraser said that the city council had been correct in adhering to the core strategy policy on the 24 occasions it had done so between the summer of 2018 and the end of 2019 - including in its original Cardwell Farm decision.
He also said that the revised NPPF specifically intended for the standard methodology to come into effect in different areas at different times - depending on whether local development policies had been either adopted or reviewed within the past five years.
“That’s quite a different situation from [one] where you have got a development plan in force and you are wanting to review it, isn’t it?” Mr. Carter asked.
“[The NPPF] doesn’t provide you with any succour for some informal approach [of] simply [resolving] to apply the standard methodology - there is no support for that at all anywhere in the guidance or policy.”
Mr. Blackburn said that the NPPF did not comment one way or the other on the matter, but Mr. Carter responded that it was “transparently obvious” what the intention was behind the policy.
Separately, Chris Blackburn said that the city council was not using the standard methodology to suggest that only 250 new homes were needed in Preston each year - noting that the authority had granted permission for almost 5,000 properties in just the last two years.
“So a suggestion that the council isn't doing its bit in terms of contributing to the City Deal is ludicrous,” he added.
The inquiry is expected to run until Friday. The inspector hearing the case, Mark Dakeyne, will publish his conclusion at a later date.
THE "HUMAN PRICE" OF OVER-DEVELOPMENT’
The inquiry heard that the housing stock in Barton will have ballooned by more than 50 percent since 2015, once the 415 homes granted permission by Preston City Council in that period - and the 39 expected to be approved in that part of the village covered by Wyre Council - are all built.
“This is the very definition of unsustainable,” said Barton parish councillor John Parker.
“The parish council feels this does not represent a reasonable or, more to the point, sustainable figure for such a small community. There is no given need for this development - and infrastructure cannot keep pace with high expansion levels.”
Mr. Parker also told the planning inspector of the “human price” being paid by existing locals.
“The psychological stress placed on residents due to the nature of this and other applications is a hidden burden we all share.
"I personally know six families that have taken the reluctant step of moving away from Barton, because the character of the village has been eroded by unsustainable growth - damaging its very fabric forever.”