Chris Hayward, director of development at Preston City Council said:
“Planning is an incredibly complicated matter that is easy to criticise, but heavily regulated by Central Government. We have consistently argued that the Government’s formula for house building supply numbers could be revised to focus on a plan-led system where there is certainty for the local community.
“Our planning officers are incredibly experienced and are qualified members of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI). In my view, the department is the strongest it has ever been. Officers are obliged to give the best professional advice to the Council, taking into account national policy, the local development plan and other material planning considerations, and that is what they do. These are not individual judgements taken by officers, they are overseen by planning managers and myself, as a Full Member of the RTPI with over 30 years of experience.
“If it is clear that, in the current circumstances, a planning application should be approved, officers will make that recommendation and the committee reports will set out in detail why that is the case. If major planning applications are refused and appealed against, and the Council loses an appeal, then there is a significant financial cost in defending that appeal and a risk of costs being awarded against the Council, which can run into tens or hundreds of thousand pounds. It would be reckless to squander council tax payers’ money in this way. Where officers feel there is a case for refusal which can be evidenced on appeal, it will put all its efforts into defending that decision.
“We should look at why Preston is in this position of having to approve more housing than is allocated in the local plan. Government planning policy says that if a council cannot demonstrate that it has a five-year supply of housing, then it should approve developments. The formula for calculating this is complex and based on the number of houses built over the plan period compared to the figure in the local plan which says how many should be built per year. The Council has resisted challenges to this calculation from developers on appeal for many years, and has been able to successfully defend them, but the system is heavily weighted towards developers with expensive legal representation. The most recent appeal has resulted in a planning inspector concluding that Preston does not have a five year supply of housing. This situation has arisen because, for several years the number of houses being built was less than that required, so there is a backlog which counts against the Council, even though hundreds of houses are now being built and thousands have permission. In my view, this is wrong and unfair. Our legal advice confirms that officers are taking the correct approach on planning decisions. National policy says that there needs to be adverse impacts which significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits of development and in most cases things like the loss of low value agricultural land and additional traffic are not significant enough to refuse an application and defend an appeal.
“I appreciate the frustration some residents feel watching the city change and grow around them, including on what has previously been green space. Saying that, there is still a national housing crisis in the UK and we are proud to be building more homes in Preston than anywhere else in Lancashire. However, officers and Members of the Council would prefer to have more local control over where the houses are being built.
“Where a neighbourhood plan is in place and the Council has a three year supply of housing land, the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework does not preclude all development contrary to policy. That would be in complete conflict with the Government’s aspirations to boost significantly the supply of housing across the country. The Government’s National Planning Policy Framework requires a planning balance to be made which weighs the adverse impacts against the benefits of all development.”