Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Cheshire East Local Plan - A Perfect Storm

As one storm abates another continues to brew. The perfect storm that is the Cheshire East Local Plan will develop further this week as a Portfolio Meeting is set to review a final Draft Pre-Submission Local Plan document and approve a 6 week consultation that would start on 5 November.
In most circumstances progress by a LPA towards the adoption of a development plan would be heralded as a positive step, but circumstances at Cheshire East are, whilst not far from typical, certainly unique and the review of the final Draft Pre-Submission Local Plan will come only two weeks after the Secretary of State revealed in that he is “not persuaded that the updated SHLAA provides a robust assessment of 5 year land supply."
The Cheshire East storm has been brewing for some time, but the clouds really began to darken when a SHLAA update was produced in February in advance of the expiration of the NPPF transitional arrangements. It is fair to say that eyebrows were raised when land supply across the Borough was increased overnight to 7.15 years, and the significance of the recent appeal decisions are that they were the first to test the robustness of this figure.
Paragraph 49 of the NPPF states that “housing applications should be considered in the context of the presumption in favour of sustainable development” and that “relevant policies for the supply of housing should not be considered up-to-date if the LPA cannot demonstrate a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites.”
Under the transitional arrangements set out when the NPPF was published in March 2012, LPAs with local plans adopted since 2004 were able to give "full weight" to relevant policies "even if there is a limited degree of conflict" for twelve months. Having accepted during appeal inquiries like that at Loachbrook Farm, Congleton that supply was only 3.94 years, one can imagine senior figures at the Council being keen to put a 5 year supply in place so that applications could be refused by continuing to attach some weight to the old Local Plan policies.
In the Congleton Road, Sandbach decision the Secretary of State confirms that:
  • There is a housing requirement, including backlog and buffer of some 9000 dwellings over 5 years or 1800 per annum;
  • There is currently a demonstrable supply, taking a generous approach to Council estimates, which is likely to be in the region of 7000 to 7500 dwellings at most; and
  • The demonstrable supply therefore equates to a figure in the region of 3.9 to 4.1 years.
This has long term implications in that the SHLAA is critical to the demonstration of a sound development plan, but short term implications too in that all of the old housing policies, both policies promoting and restricting development, are out of date and that all applications have to be assessed against the NPPF, which includes the need to boost housing supply.
So what next? A swift review of the implications of the recent decisions? Acceptance of fundamental flaws in the calculation and provision of a five year housing supply?

Well the report being presented to the Portfolio Meeting suggests that, like a holidaymaker at a British seaside resort, the Council is hammering in it’s windbreak as the clouds roll in. It does not accept the Secretary of State’s conclusions that historic undersupply should be addressed in the short term and that a 20% buffer should be applied. It also states that 9,771 dwellings that are expected to be deliverable within the first 5-year period of the plan, contradicting too the Secretary of State’s view that too large a proportion of identified supply is on strategic sites that are unlikely to come forward as quickly as the Council contends.
The Portfolio Meeting report also considers whether the current ‘Green Gap’ around Crewe is "sufficient to stem the slow erosion of openness between the town and Nantwich". As a result, the report states that  the Pre-Submission Core Strategy will include an extension to the North Staffordshire Green Belt to include the area between the two. 
However, the reports being presented to the Strategic Planning Board next Wednesday (6 November) state that "unless or until these (appeal) decisions are challenged or a new SHLAA prepared, the Council is unable to conclusively demonstrate a five year supply of deliverable housing land". This is an accompanied by an acknowledgement that current policies  NE.2 (Open Countryside) and NE.4 (Green Gap) are out of date, which is used as justification to recommend approval for new homes at Willaston in the same area that the Pre-Submission Core Strategy is to identify as new Green Belt . Has the holidaymaker recognised the need to retreat to a beachside cafĂ© to make alternative plans?
In these circumstances, and given the inconsistency between these two positions, does then consultation on a final Draft Pre-Submission Local Plan represent progress towards the adoption of a development plan? Whilst it could and will no doubt be portrayed as such by senior figures at the Council, the current version of the SHLAA, part of the foundation for a sound development plan, has been acknowledged not to be robust enough for use for development control purposes and a revised SHLAA, and one would imagine a fundamentally different approach to short and long term housing supply, is to be prepared.
In order to address effectively the issues raised by the Secretary of State the final Draft Pre-Submission Local Plan should differ considerably from the Submission Local Plan and so consultation on a final Draft Pre-Submission Local Plan document might ultimately been seen as a step backwards rather than a step forwards.

Cheshire East may have escaped unscathed from St. Jude, but the perfect planning storm continues to brew…

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Cheshire East set to approve final draft Pre-Submission Local Plan

Cheshire East Council has confirmed that a Portfolio Meeting on the 1 November will review the final Draft Pre-Submission Local Plan document and approve a 6 week consultation that would start on 5 November.
The agenda and papers will be available via this link in due course.
The meeting will come only two weeks after the Secretary of State revealed that he is not persuaded that the updated SHLAA, upon which housing supply policies in the Plan will be based, provides a robust assessment of 5 year land supply...

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Cheshire East's statement on recent appeal decisions

Cheshire East Council released the following statement yesterday in response to the recent appeal decisions. 
STATEMENT: Abbey Road, Congleton Road and Sandbach Road North Planning Appeals
Council Leader Councillor Michael Jones said: “We are content to win the planning appeal in respect of Sandbach Road North and are determined to protect the Cheshire’s countryside and this decision goes to prove the value of the ‘countryside argument‘.
“However, we are disappointed that the Secretary of State and the Planning Inspector have seen fit to turn down two other appeals (Abbey Road and Congleton Road). We put up a strong defence of our decision to refuse these planning applications.
“The Planning Inspector agreed that we had met the housing requirement of 5,750 homes. But because of the recession and the stall on house building this figure has now inflated to 9,000 homes over five years. This is a relatively new target.
“The pressure of this target means it could encourages more speculative planning applications, affecting our countryside compared with more sustainable development.
“Friday’s decisions by the Secretary of State do not help Cheshire East in its fight against unplanned, speculative developments. Cheshire East Council believes in sustainable development for the beautiful borough of Cheshire East.
“We believe these decisions to allow hundreds of homes in Sandbach and Congleton to be built is the wrong decision for Cheshire East and we will now be exploring all our possible options in order to reconsider our position and carefully choose our next steps.
“Cheshire East Council is committed to defending the rights of our residents, especially where we believe developments impact negatively upon people’s lives.”
It is interesting to note the reference to 9,000 homes being a relatively new target. The 5,750 figure derives from the former North West Regional Spatial Strategy (published in September 2008) and is the composite annual requirement for the three former boroughs that now comprise Cheshire East. The additional requirement is principally derived from:
  • An undersupply against that target since 2003 (the start of the RSS period), which was identified at the Congleton Road Inquiry in July as being 1,266 for the period 2003-2012; and
  • A requirement in the NPPF (published in March 2012) for a 20% buffer to reflect persistent undersupply.
The most recent SHLAA was published in February 2013 and so it is reasonable to suggest that the Council itself should have recognised the need to address the historic undersupply rather than wait to have it pointed out by an Inspector. The one element of the requirement that could be said to be relatively new is the 500 figure identified at the Congleton Road Inquiry in July as being the undersupply for the period 2012-13.
It is stated that the Council is exploring all possible options, but, as I suggested yesterday, the only realistic option that I can see is the swift preparation of development plan that includes deliverable strategic sites.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Housing Land Supply & The Cheshire East Plan

Three appeal decisions have been published, which are the first to interrogate land supply in Cheshire East since the publication in February of the updated SHLAA. The three are:
Middlewich Road & Abbey Road, Sandbach;
Sandbach Road North, Alsager; and
Congleton Road, Sandbach
The fact that two Inspectors have confirmed that the Council does not have a five year land supply will come as little surprise to those who expressed a degree of sceptism about the 7.1 year figure included in the SHLAA. The decisions come though at a critical point in the local plan process and so the implications are of major significance to planning and development in the Borough.

The housing requirement is currently 5750 for five years, based upon the old Regional Spatial Strategy figures (although it should be noted that the Council’s emerging housing requirement is higher than that of the former RSS). There is a backlog since 2003 of around 1750 dwellings, so a total requirement of 7500.

The two crucial questions are whether to apply a 5% or 20% buffer (as per paragraph 47 of the NPPF), and how long it should take to address the backlog. The Sedgefield approach is to backlogs is to deal with in the short term, i.e. over five years. The Liverpool approach is to deal with over the longer term, which is usually interpreted as over the plan period.
The Council tried to argue that a 5% buffer would be appropriate and that the backlog should be dealt with over a nine year period. This gives a requirement of around 7000.
The Inspector upheld the appellants’ arguments that a 20% buffer is appropriate and that the backlog should be dealt with over the five year period.

It was agreed at the Congleton Road Inquiry that the housing requirement has not been met for a number of years and, given the NPPF requirement to "boost significantly the supply of housing” (paragraph 47), the Congleton Road decision notes that that aim "would not be best served by being too relaxed about the need to recover the backlog". This gives the requirement of 9000.

On the supply front, the Council’s position is that it is 9367, with a 4000 contribution from proposed strategic sites. In HIMOR's Gresty Oaks submission an allowance of 1000 from strategic sites was proposed within a supply of 5500. The Congleton Road decision provides for an allowance of 3000 within a supply of 7000-7500..
So is there grounds, as the Leader of the Council has indicated, to continue to claim a 7000 requirement? The NPPF does not express a preference for either the Sedgefield or Liverpool methods, but a 20% buffer and the Sedgefield approach to backlogs is now pretty typical in cases like Cheshire East where there has been historic undersupply. Even if this point could be argued, the second question is whether the 7000 supply calculation is legitimate. The Congleton Road decision deliberately affords the Council ‘leeway’ here and does not subject each strategic site to the kind of ‘forensic’ analysis that HIMOR undertook as part of the Gresty Oaks submission.

In my humble opinion, if the current plan, based upon a SHLAA that two Inspectors have interrogated, is submitted for examination I can see no conclusion on five year supply different from those reached in these decisions. I am not a lawyer, but if I were a Cheshire East Council Tax-payer I would see little merit in Cllr Jones’ suggested legal challenge because, as is stated in the Congleton Road decision, 'the assessment of land supply is not an exact science' and it is hard to see how these decisions are illegal, irrational or procedurally improper, which are the accepted grounds for challenge. Even in the event though that the requirement was judged to be 7000 the current supply is unlikely to stand up to detailed scrutiny.
Importantly, either the submission of an unsound plan or a judicial review of these decisions would extend the current policy vacuum and so the only realistic option that I can see for the Council is the swift preparation of development plan that includes deliverable strategic sites.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Planning for the future

David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, featured in an Inside Housing article recently in which he suggested that councillors are "deeply conflicted when balancing planning responsibilities and re-election strategy."
This is the piece:
In a blog post today Mr Orr continues the theme, stating that "where we need creative local leadership, we get cautious self-interest."
This is the blog:
I wholeheartedly agree that problems with planning are not, at root, systemic and welcome the light that he is trying to shine on the operation of the current system.
The suggestion, noting the conflict between planning responsibilities and re-election strategy, is for elected representatives to define a plan to be implemented by senior officials through the determination of major applications.
I might respectfully suggest here that Mr Orr underestimates the political nature of land allocation, which is no less contentious than the determination of planning applications themselves. The failure of so many LPAs to get development plans is down in no small part, I would contend, to the ability of councillors to kick controversial policy documents down the road. 
I disagree with Mr Orr though that planning is not a first order issue when discussing the housing crisis. I would add the availability of land for housing to issues associated with the economy, affordable housing funding and local attitudes to development. Through the absence of development plans, and the time taken to determine applications, the planning system does not deliver sufficient land for development. As stated though, the system itself does not need fundamental change. It needs better councillors and better officers taking better decisions. 
How to attract better councillors? A question for a different blog, but councillors might be encouraged to take better decisions if all councils operated on an 'all in, all out' basis. Local elections in three of every four years are not conducive to political stability.
How to attract better planners? Also a question for a different blog, but Mr Orr asks where planners have the opportunity to set out a great vision? The answer to that question is, for the very most part, unfortunately not within a LPA.
In my humble opinion (and I will perhaps attempt to answer the questions I have posed myself if I get another spare half an hour...)  the current planning system affords the opportunity for planners to do great things. It is the system of local government within which planning operates that doesn't. Until next time...

Monday, 7 October 2013

Nick Boles to be shuffled?

Nick Boles told a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference last week that being planning minister was a 'wonderful job' (http://www.planningresource.co.uk/news/login/1214541/), but reports in the Telegraph suggest that he is tiring of battles with campaigners (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/conservative/10356601/Tory-women-set-for-promotion-in-David-Camerons-second-reshuffle-next-week.html?utm_content=buffer880e4&utm_source=buffer&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Buffer).

With a reshuffle expected today I for one hope that Mr Boles does not move to another brief because he is in my humble opinion the best planning minister in recent memory.


Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Matthew McConaughey on Planning

Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past is a terrible, terrible film, but one that, following the 'my turn, your turn' principle, I have had to sit through with Mrs Stafford (a little tip: it gets less terrible with every additional glass of wine...).
What relevance though does this have to a blog on town planning?
Well my recent frustrations bring to mind the only memorable line in the film, which is from the principal protagonist played by Matthew McConaughey.
The power in all relationships lies with whoever cares less.
The character wasn't speaking about the UK planning system, but unfortunately he could have been.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

A target by any other name is still a target.

“This government is committed to localism and greater local decision-making in planning. The flawed top-down targets of regional planning, centrally imposing development upon communities, built nothing but resentment. They will hang over communities no more."
Planners would not need three guesses to attribute that quote to Eric Pickles, speaking earlier this year as the last of the Regional Spatial Strategies was abolished.
What though is the practical difference to a local community of a Borough-wide housing target 'imposed' by a former regional assembly, and the Planning Inspectorate raising concerns about the soundness of a local plan because of a failure to address full and objectively assessed housing need?   
The difference to the layperson is negligible because in both scenarios their Council's housing requirement is ultimately set by an 'unelected and unaccountable quangocrat' telling a LPA what it's annual requirement should be.
There was welcome clarity from Nick Boles yesterday, who told the Conservative Party Conference that it is the role of national government to insist that local authorities are meeting their housing needs. This, in practice, is what is already happening and will continue to happen through the local plan examination process, and so it is this message that needs communicating to communities by politicians at all levels and of all hues, not the continued promise of control at local level.
The real control at local level is over where development occurs, not at what level development occurs, and if the expectation of local communities could be better managed, in tandem with better opportunities to engage in neighbourhood planning, then the easier it would be for all concerned to get local plans adopted.