Wainhomes appealed against the authority’s decision – which was made last February – and has now been given the green light to press ahead with its plans for land at Cardwell Farm off the A6 Garstang Road.
However, the city council has blasted what it says is an “inconsistent approach” taken by different planning inspectors to appeals made by housebuilders across Central Lancashire – which often “favours developers” at the expense of residents.
The authority is also now braced for the broader ramifications of the latest decision, which was based on a conclusion that the city falls fractionally short – at 4.95 years – of being able to demonstrate that it has a five-year supply of land available to meet its new housing needs.
The failure to fulfil that strict government requirement threatens to plunge Preston back into the kind of planning purgatory it experienced during 2018 and 2019, when a deemed shortage of allocated land left it exposed to the so-called “tilted balance” under national planning policy.
That meant the council was forced to approve applications for new housing even in areas not earmarked for development in its local plan – unless the negative impact of a proposal “substantially outweighed” its benefits.
It led to a slew of building proposals being approved in areas of open countryside in and around villages to the north of Preston – which actually included Wainhomes’ Cardwell Farm plans, which were originally given the nod 18 months ago. However, an entirely separate appeal involving refused plans for 100 homes in the village of Whitestake in South Ribble concluded in late 2019 that Central Lancashire’s three district authorities should be using a different method of calculating their housing targets, which gave Preston a lower minimum requirement and allowed it to show that it had sufficient land set aside for development.
That enabled the authority to revisit the Cardwell Farm application – along with other approvals totalling over 900 homes – and, during a period of limbo when the government was considering whether to ‘call in’ the controversial proposals, to reverse the previous permissions and block the housebuilders’ plans.
The decision in the Barton appeal against that move turned on the minimum number of new homes that should be built in Preston – and how it should be calculated.
Preston, South Ribble and Chorley councils entered into a new agreement early last year to pool and redistribute their collective housing need figures as arrived at under the government’s new “standard methodology”, introduced in early 2019.
That was the calculation that the inspector in the Whitestake case ruled should be used. It resulted in a lower annual total for Central Lancashire – of 1,010 properties – than had been the case under previous pooling arrangements dating back to 2012, when 1,341 properties were deemed to be required in the area’s “core strategy”
After the agreed redistribution last year, Preston’s share stood at 404 homes per year – crucially meaning that the city was able to demonstrate a five-year supply of housing land.
The standard methodology was considered to be the correct way of calculating housing need in the Whitestake appeal, because the inspector in that case concluded that a memorandum of understanding (MOU1) between the three neighbouring authorities in 2017 – in which they agreed to continue to hold themselves to the higher core strategy figure – was not a formal review of that arrangement.
Had it been, national planning policy would have meant that the older tally continued to apply even after the introduction of the standard methodology in 2019 – but it was otherwise to be deemed out of date because it is over five years old.
However, the Whitestake planning appeal ruling was itself quashed on appeal to the high court last summer, where a judge concluded that a review had in fact taken place.
In Central Lancashire’s increasingly interwoven and seemingly interminable planning story, yet another planning inspectorate hearing – this time in Chorley, last August, relating to proposals for 180 homes in Euxton – determined that the standard methodology should be used to calculate housing need, but in non-redistributed form.
On a solo basis, that actually pushed Preston’s requirement down to 250 homes – the figure to which the city has worked for the purpose of judging planning applications since late last year when it withdrew from the 2020 version of the memorandum of understanding (MOU2), in recognition of the ruling in the Euxton hearing.
However, at the Barton appeal, planning inspector Mark Dakeyne concluded that the only formal review to have taken place of Central Lancashire’s new housing needs in the last nine years was as part of MOU1 in 2017. He stated that MOU2 had not followed a sufficiently “robust” process to be considered as such – and that Preston should therefore revert back to its core strategy requirement to deliver 507 new homes per year.
He acknowledged that his finding resulted in “potential inconsistencies” across Central Lancashire, because of the ruling in Chorley that an non-redistributed standard methodology figure should be used – but he noted that, unlike in the Barton case, an argument for the higher core strategy total being maintained had not been put to the inspector in that case and that, if it had, “he may have come to a different decision”.
At the Barton inquiry, the city council’s planning policy team lead Chris Blackburn had noted that discrepancy between the approach of different developers at appeals in different parts of the Central Lancashire patch and likened it to housebuilders cherry-picking the development policies that they wanted to see upheld at any given point – depending on which of them suited their own needs best.
The authority conceded at the hearing that MOU1 in 2017 had constituted a review of its new housing needs, but argued against having to hold itself to the near decade-old core strategy target as a result - with Mr. Blackburn stating that it "would not take account of all of the other things that have transpired locally [since]".
A further six appeals relating to other refused proposals for developments north of Preston, around Goosnargh and Whittingham, are due to be heard at a conjoined appeal starting on 13th April.
In a statement, after the inspector’s report was published, Peter Moss, cabinet member for planning at Preston City Council said that the authority was “extremely disappointed” by the Barton decision.
“The council made a robust and professional defence of its case and I remain convinced that our position was sound.
“In particular, this decision highlights an inconsistent approach to appeal decisions by the planning inspectorate across Central Lancashire and unfortunately endorses a developer-led approach to planning. This is in spite of the fact they accept that housing delivery in Preston is ‘excellent’ and we are jointly positioned as eighth nationally in the government’s housing delivery test.
“Our position remains that the planning application submitted for the land at Cardwell Farm is not suitable, due its location in open countryside. As outlined in the officer’s report prior to the planning committee decision to refuse the application in February 2020, the application is contrary to the Central Lancashire Core Strategy and Local Plan. The scale of the proposed development is too large to be appropriate for the site and would clearly lead to unplanned expansion of Barton, a rural village.
He added: “We are committed to delivering real homes for real people in need, but these must be in the right places, ensuring they are in sustainable locations outlined by the development plan.
“Officers prepared a comprehensive suite of evidence and robustly defended the council’s position. However, as I have said so many times before, planning is a complex area which leaves much to the interpretation of individual planning inspectors and, to the detriment of the Council and residents, far too often favours developers.
“We know that the parish council and many residents share our disappointment with this outcome, and I would like to reassure everyone that we are carefully considering our options in moving forward,” Cllr Moss added.
Wainhomes was approached for comment.
‘NO COMMON SENSE’
Residents of Barton will be left trying to make the best of a bad situation now that they can expect another 151 homes to spring up on their doorstep.
That was the assessment of Barton Parish Council’s deputy chair John Parker, who said the authority was “deeply disappointed” by the planning inspectorate decision.
He had addressed last month’s planning inquiry to tell the inspector that the number of properties in the village will have grown by more than 50 percent by the time that the 450 properties approved since 2015 are all built.
Thanking Preston City Council for its “considerable efforts” in defending the case, Mr. Parker added:
“Unfortunately, we have a central government policy which doesn’t really support a common sense approach to planning applications.
“Now that the application has gone through, we have to try and put the village first in terms of what is the best outcome for us.
“That involves considering how the infrastructure needs to be upgraded and what the current residents would want in terms of the aesthetics of the new development and how it could sit sympathetically in relation to the existing houses.”
The so-called “reserved matters” relating to the details of the estate layout will now have to be considered by the city council.
Planning inspector Mark Dakeyne concluded that the land on which the homes will be built is “pleasant but unremarkable” – and while some countryside views from the A6 will be lost, these were already largely shielded from view by the farm complex.
Thirty-five percent of the properties on the development will have to fall into the affordable homes category, while the development will also include a community facility – although it was argued at the inquiry that it would be a largely unwanted addition locally because Barton already has a recently renovated village hall.