That was the message from the district’s deputy council leader, Peter Wilson, during the opening of stages of a public inquiry into controversial proposals to create 330 properties across two villages in the borough.
A planning inspector is hearing an appeal by Redrow Homes into Chorley Council’s failure to decide whether to approve applications for 250 dwellings off Town Lane in Whittle-le-Woods and 80 homes on Tincklers Lane in Eccleston within the required 13-week time limit for doing so.
The authority’s planning committee - which would ordinarily have made the decision on the developments - has since indicated that it would have been “minded” to reject them anyway.
Both of the proposals would see homes being built on so-called “safeguarded land” - plots that are not currently earmarked for housing, but which may be released in future to meet an area’s property needs.
However, the inquiry heard that Chorley is set to deliver, by 2026, around 1,000 more homes than the 6,800 it was deemed to require over the 16 years from 2010 - the period covered by its current local plan. In the first 11 years of that timeframe, the borough has already seen more than 6,300 new properties built - with another 1,500 expected within the next five years.
Under an agreement dating back to 2012 with neighbouring authorities in Preston and South Ribble, Chorley has been required to build at least 417 dwellings per year. Prior to the pandemic, it had exceeded that figure in every year since 2010 - cumulatively overshooting its minimum requirement in that period by 1,567 homes.
Much of that excess was fuelled by the huge Buckshaw Village development, the delivery of which peaked in the early part of the last decade.
Cllr Wilson told the inquiry that the borough’s past performance justified it stopping short of delivering both the 417 figure - and an even higher suggested tally of 537, over which there is now dispute between developers and the authority - because it would still “exceed” its identified housing need over the broader 16-year plan period.
’If we [do that], then we will have [met] the exact requirements of central government - we will have significantly boosted housing,” Cllr Wilson said.
However, David Manley QC, representing Redrow, said that for a young family in need of a home today, “it's no comfort to say, ‘Well, we provided more than we should in 2014’."
The inquiry also heard from Chorley MP Sir Lindsay Hoyle who said that the borough had “done our bit” when it came to housebuilding, because of the contribution made by the Buckshaw development.
Asked by Mr. Manley whether he accepted that Chorley should meet its housing needs over the next five years, Sir Lindsay said that it should and could - but that it did require the type of developments being proposed in order to do so.
He added that Preston and South Ribble should be “acknowledging the good job Chorley has done for them” in boosting housing supply across Central Lancashire.
That was a reference to the fact that the three neighbouring districts have co-operated over housebuilding for the past decade - pooling and redistributing between them their individual housing requirements for much of that time.
However, a series of controversial - and often contrasting - planning appeal decisions over the past year has pulled the rug from under that arrangement. The trio are currently in the process of drawing up the first joint local plan for the whole of Central Lancashire, but that document - designed to put their collaboration back on a sound footing - will not be adopted until the end of 2023 at the earliest.
In the meantime, the councils have been pitched into what seems like an interminable wrangle with developers over how many homes each of them is obliged to build - something which Mr. Manley acknowledged in his opening remarks had become a “particularly tortured issue”.
At the current inquiry, Chorley is arguing that it should be held to an initial 2017 “memorandum of understanding” (MOU1) in which the three authorities decided to continue an agreement dating back to 2012, which saw Chorley and South Ribble required to build 417 homes per year each and Preston 507.
Crucially, however, Chorley claims that its over-delivery on that target in previous years means that its minimum housing requirement for the next five years should be slashed to just 109 properties.
The inquiry heard that both the council and Redrow agree that the question of whether it is permissible to offset future housebuilding against past performance is one which is a matter of “planning judgement” for the inspector hearing the appeals to decide - as it is not laid down in government guidance.
Representing Chorley Council, barrister Ian Ponter noted in an exchange with Cllr Wilson that if the authority had instead failed to meet its housebuilding target over the last decade, it would not simply be able to judge itself on that same figure in future years, but would have to increase it to cover the shortfall - in just the same way as it was now proposing to lower the tally for the opposite reason.
However, Mr. Manley warned that the council's suggested 109 minimum “cannot realistically begin to meet Chorley’s housing need going forward” - stating that it fell short even just of the borough’s annual requirement for affordable housing.
The inquiry also heard that the redistributive nature of MOU1 reflects the development needs and constraints in each of the three council areas - including the fact that Preston and South Ribble are committed to boosting housing supply via their involvement in the City Deal, of which Chorley is not a part, and that 72 percent of Chorley’s surface area is designated greenbelt, more than either of its Central Lancashire neighbours.
Under a revised memorandum entered into in 2020 (MOU2), Chorley would provide 27.5 percent of annual housing development across the sub-region - with Preston taking 40 percent and South Ribble 32.5 percent. However, a non-redistributed split of the housing targets under the latest government formula for calculating them - known as the “standard method” - would see Chorley’s share rocket to 57 percent, with South Ribble and Preston allocated 20 and 23 percent respectively.
Cllr Wilson said such a prospect was “utter nonsense and surely can't be right”, adding that the redistribution previously agreed between the councils was based on the balance of the population and workforce and the “availability of land”.
A study undertaken on behalf of the three Central Lancashire authorities last year found that the lion's share of jobs in the sub-region are located in Preston - 48 percent - with South Ribble and Chorley accounting for 30 percent and 22 percent respectively. However, there is less of a difference in the spread of the workforce - or the "economically active population" - with 38 percent located in Preston, 32 percent in Chorley and 30 percent in South Ribble.
Cllr Wilson also told the inquiry that “the floodgates” had opened on applications for development on safeguarded land in the borough since the inspector at a separate inquiry last year overturned the council's refusal of permission for an estate on such a plot at Pear Tree Lane in Eccleston. Cllr Wilson warned of the resultant threat to greenbelt.
“If safeguarded land is used, that then leaves us little room for manoeuvre when we’re [developing] our next local plan. You’re then looking at potential greenbelt release.
“Ironically there is more land to be developed [in Preston and South Ribble] before they get to the situation we face.”
Ian Ponter said in his opening comments that national policy made it clear that “strict controls” should be exercised over the development of safeguarded land in order to protect the greenbelt.
Unsuccessful bids have been made to build 579 properties on Chorley’s safeguarded land - including the 330 now under consideration at the inquiry - since the Pear Tree Lane decision.
In the process, the inspector at that inquiry concluded that Chorley’s minimum housing requirement should be based on the standard method - and not MOU2 - because the decision to use the latter had not been through a sufficiently robust process, which he said could only be achieved as part of the formulation of the joint local plan.
That matters, because it determines whether Chorley can be shown to have five years’ worth of land allocated for housing to meet its needs, as required under government rules. If it cannot, it opens up the borough to having to permit development on safeguarded land unless there are strong reasons to refuse it, other than its safeguarded status.
The current inquiry heard that Chorley’s housing requirement as calculated under the standard method would mean it had only a two-and-a-half-year supply of available housing land - or three-and-a-half years under MOU1 if the figure was not reduced to reflect past performance. However, if such a reduction were applied, the borough’s supply of housing land would rise to a healthy 14 years - giving the council a solid foundation on which to refuse applications for housing on safeguarded plots.
Under MOU2, Chorley’s minimum annual requirement was set at 282 properties per year, with Preston’s being 410 and South Ribble required to build at least 334 homes.
Preston and South Ribble withdrew from MOU2 following the Pear Tree Lane decision and began holding themselves to the standard method - under which the latest calculations require them to build 261 and 182 dwellings annually, with Chorley in line for 537 properties.
However, Chorley has instead reverted to the MOU1 requirement of 417 homes - but heavily discounted in view of past over-delivery to the now contested 109 figure.
But David Manley told the inquiry that that decision was flawed because MOU1 was “time-limited” and was required to be reviewed every three years. He said that it could not simply be “resurrected, Lazarus-like” once MOU2 was given limited weight by the Pear Tree Lane inspector.
Mr. Manley added that it was an “uncomfortable” fact for Chorley that it had argued at that inquiry that MOU1 was out-of-date - but was now inviting the inspector at the current hearing to conclude the opposite.
However, Cllr Wilson said that the council’s position in the Pear Tree Lane case had now been overtaken by its outcome - as well as a decision at a planning inquiry involving Preston City Council earlier this year that concluded MOU1 remained sound as it constituted a formal review which concluded that the local agreement from 2012 did not need updating.
He added that while the standard method would be the “starting point” for the formulation of the new local plan, there was “no way” that the councils would agree to the resultant housing figures not being redistributed.
“Chorley obviously would not do that and I don't think Preston and South Ribble have a desire to do that either - [the standard method] distribution is not appropriate and it will be changed,” Cllr Wilson said.
The question for planning inspector Louise Gibbons - like so many of her counterparts who have heard similar appeals across Central Lancashire - is what should happen in the meantime.
Only if she concludes that MOU1 is the basis on which Chorley should calculate its housing needs will she also rule on whether the borough can take account of its past performance. If her finding is that the standard method should be used, then any previous over-delivery will automatically be wiped out.
The inquiry will continue until Friday, after which Ms. Gibbons will visit the two proposed sites before considering her decision, which will be published at a later date.
COUNCILLORS AND THE COMMUNITY CONDEMN PLANS
Redrow has been accused of seeking to “gain an advantage” by taking its proposed developments at Whittle-le-Woods and Eccleston to appeal before they had been considered by Chorley Council’s planning committee.
According to documents presented to that committee in April, the housebuilder did not provide a formal response to a request from the authority to extend the 13-week timeframe during which applications should be decided.
Whittle resident Trevor Howarth told the inquiry into the proposals that the move to go straight to appeal had led to Redrow “bypassing the democratic process that any other developer would have been expected to [have] gone through”.
However, responding to that claim, Redrow Lancashire's planning director Robin Buckley told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “Chorley Council made clear that it believed the planning application was premature back in January, so we were left with little alternative than to lodge a planning appeal - which we did in April following the expiry of the 13-week determination period.”
The inquiry also heard concerns from locals over issues including road safety and flooding.
Ian Facer, from the Town Lane residents’ association said that a speed survey in a 20mph zone close to the development had shown average speeds of 36mph - and up to 65mph also being recorded.
He added: “[The developer] has focused upon Town Lane to the west of the development, but there are also significant dangers and a lack of footways to the east, No solutions have been offered, even though significant traffic flow from the site will also head in this direction.”
Whittle-le-Woods parish councillor Tina Newall said a car “narrowly missed” the head of a pedestrian who fell near a blind bend on Town Lane earlier this summer.
She also claimed that the village had already provided “rich pickings” for developers.
“We have witnessed seemingly relentless erosion of green space. The rural - and, I would say, now more semi-rural - nature of the village is no doubt attractive to house-buyers, but is severely threatened by this application,” Cllr Newall added.
Eccleston parish councillor Alan Whittaker said that the area had “grown like topsy” in recent years - and that residents did not believe the Tincklers Lane proposal was either “justified or needed” at this stage.
Aidy Riggott, Buckshaw and Whittle ward member on Chorley Council, said that any bus stops were “well beyond the desired distance of 400 metres [away from the site] and the footway network along Town Lane is not suitable for accessing these - therefore ruling out sustainable access to the wider public transport and rail networks”.
Meanwhile, Mark Clifford, Clayton with Whittle representative on Lancashire County Council, declared that Whittle had “borne the brunt of development over recent years”.
“All of the sensible and sustainable sites have already been built on,” he said.
The inquiry heard that the housing need projections on which the standard method is based were informed by the number of homes being delivered in different council areas in the five years up to 2014.
It was during that period that Chorley was exceeding its targets, largely because of the Buckshaw Village development - seeing 2,299 properties completed between 2010 and 2014. In contrast, Preston and South Ribble built 741 and 1,076 homes respectively from 2009 to 2014 - hence their having lower targets than Chorley for future years under the standard method.
Cllr Wilson said it had always been intended that Chorley's contribution to Central Lancashire's housing requirements between 2010 and 2026 would be frontloaded to take into account of Buckshaw - and the fact that Preston's largest developments under the City Deal would be delivered "towards the back end" of period becasue of the need to build the necessary roads infrastructure to unlock the sites.