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…

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