Saturday, 13 August 2022

So are our neighbourhood plans worth even the paper they're printed on (at huge expense)?

EFFORTS by communities in South Oxfordshire to protect themselves from unwanted development are now worthless because the district council is building one house a year too few.

That is the verdict of planning inspector John Braithwaite, who says developers should be allowed to build on land that hasn’t been earmarked for that purpose.

Neighbourhood plans, which were introduced under the 2011 Localism Act, have been completed — at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds — by Henley and Harpsden, Sonning Common and Woodcote while Goring, Watlington, Whitchurch, Benson and Shiplake are currently producing theirs.

The documents name sites for housing developments and, if they are approved in a referendum, they become a legally binding element of South Oxfordshire District Council’s planning policy. The council should then be able to reject planning applications for development of sites that aren’t included in a plan.

However, neighbourhood plans become automatically invalid if the council, as the planning authority, cannot prove it has secured enough immediately available housing land to meet the next three years’ demand.

Last week, Mr Braithwaite said South Oxfordshire had only enough land for the next 2.998 years and this undermined the joint Henley and Harpsden neighbourhood plan, which passed a referendum last year and names 11 sites where about 500 homes should go by 2027.

His comments came as he overturned the council’s refusal of plans for 95 homes at Thames Farm, off the A4155 Reading Road near Shiplake, which was not included in the neighbourhood plan.

This has sparked fears that developers will use his decision as a precedent to override other neighbourhood plans.

In evidence to Mr Braithwaite’s inquiry into the appeal by landowner Claire Engbers, the district council insisted it had enough land to meet housing demand for the next 3.9 years.

It reached this figure by assuming that each year 775 new houses were needed — the midpoint between 725 and 825 proposed in a strategic housing market assessment ordered by the Government.

The council then added a shortfall of 1,245 homes which should have been built since 2011. Assuming this total had to be redressed within five years, this meant an extra 249 annually.

But because there is also a risk that developers may not build after gaining planning permission — instead sitting on the land and waiting for its value to increase — the council added a “buffer” of 20 per cent, yielding a final five-year total of 6,144 homes.

The council believes it can deliver 4,830 new homes by 2021, which is only 78 per cent of the way towards its target and enough for the next 3.9 years.

However, Mr Braithwaite said the council should have started with 825 homes a year, the highest figure in the housing assessment.

He said it had also overestimated how many new homes could be completed and should have had a five-year total of 6,814 dwellings, or 1,363 a year.

This means the council is 2,728 units short of its five-year target and can only get 59.9 per cent of the way there, yielding the land supply figure of less than three years by just one house a year.

If the target was 1,362 dwellings per year, or 6,810 in total, the council would hit the three-year benchmark and neighbourhood plans would still hold sway.

Mr Braithwaite concluded: “The council’s assessment of lead-in times from final approval to housing completions is too optimistic. A recent comprehensive study conducted by a major planning consultancy concludes that the lead-in time for sites of up to 100 dwellings is 1.9 years and for larger sites is 1.8 years whereas the council generally assumes a lead-in of a year for all sites.

“In addition, many of the sites allocated in the council’s annual monitoring report do not have any form of planning permission, while others with outline permission have stalled at the [full permission] stage.

“On the basis of these figures, the council cannot demonstrate three years of housing land supply, though it would if the annual requirement were found to be 1,362 rather than 1,363.”

Agents for Mrs Engbers had argued the council’s land supply was even lower and said the starting point should be 995 houses a year because of overspill from Oxford, which claims to have a housing land shortage, and a major shortfall in affordable housing.

Mr Braithwaite ruled this out but agreed the situation was “a matter of serious concern”.

He said the council had delivered only 29 “affordable” dwellings in the past six years when 50 should have been built every year.

Mr Braithwaite said: “The affordable housing position is serious, or even dire… but there is no policy support for redressing it in an appeal decision.”

John Cotton, leader of the district council, said the authority could challenge the inspector’s ruling by seeking a judicial review at the High Court.

He said: “Regardless of what we do, I’m certain that neighbourhood plans continue to be a great way for communities to direct development in their town or village. For those who engage in the process positively and with a thorough understanding of what they are taking on, one appeal decision doesn’t change that.

“However, as things stand, the law sets a three-year threshold for weight of the plans and the inspector has found we don’t have that. That’s as much a surprise to us as everyone else. It also demonstrates how complex planning can be and why people must not rush to judgement on the appeal notice or what effect it might have.

“There are a number of apparent inconsistencies in the notice — for example, hundreds more than 29 affordable units have been built in South Oxfordshire in the last six years. We need to consider whether those are material to the conclusion to such an extent as to merit a challenge. We have six weeks to decide whether to make that challenge. It won’t take that long for us to make up our minds.”

In an email to Shiplake and Harpsden’s county councillor David Bartholomew, Cllr Cotton said that there was “one silver lining” of the Thames Farm decision — that the 95 units would give the council back its three-year land supply. Henley MP John Howell, who played a key role in the introduction of neighbourhood plans, said that he had been assured by the district council that it did have an adequate housing land supply.

He said: “The inspector has taken some additional information into account and has decided that the council does not have a three-year supply by one house per year.

“On this basis, he is prepared to overturn an established and approved neighbourhood plan and the safeguards introduced by the previous planning minister.”

Mr Howell felt a legal challenge by the district council would be “worthwhile” and the grounds were “strong”. He said: “Should it be necessary, I am prepared to lead an initiative to crowdfund a contribution to the costs and to make sure that parish councils are represented.

“I have also written to the planning minister to raise the issue, which flies in the face of the Government’s expressed intentions.

“I recommend that all groups who are making neighbourhood plans continue with these as even the inspector would have to agree that the district does have a three-year housing land supply when the Thames Farm development is taken into account.”

Neighbourhood planning in South Oxfordshire was first successfully challenged by Mrs Engbers in 2014, when she appealed against the council’s refusal of her earlier scheme for 110 homes at Thames Farm.

Her agents argued that the authority had failed to secure a five-year land supply, which was then the accepted threshold to ensure its local plan remained valid.

The council accepted it was falling behind this objective at Didcot, where work had failed to start on several large housing schemes it had approved, but argued it was on track throughout the rest of the district.

Planning inspector Ian Jenkins disagreed, saying the council was off-course overall so the neighbourhood plan was out of date.

The district council initially disputed Mr Jenkins’s conclusion but following two defeats on land supply grounds at Wallingford and Chinnor, it admitted that its local plan was invalid so would have “significantly less weight” in its decision-making.

But it said it would still “strongly resist” applications not in accordance with neighbourhood plans. Last year, the council’s officers recommended approving Mrs Engbers’ “greener” proposal for 95 homes at Thames Farm because of the land shortage but councillors refused on the grounds that the site was not in the joint Henley and Harpsden neighbourhood plan.

In December last year, neighbourhood plans appeared to be back on track when then housing minister Gavin Barwell announced they would still hold weight as long as planning authorities could prove a three-year housing land supply.

Dieter Hinke, who was chairman of Henley’s neighbourhood planning governance committee, claimed the district council had caused its own problems.

He said: “We were advised by Nexus, our consultant, that it wouldn’t be worth pursuing without a five-year land supply and now it looks as though we don’t even have three.

“For goodness’ sake, they’ve had five years to get their act together, which should be long enough, but they’re still being successfully challenged on the issue. How on earth do we go forward when we’ve got a district council that can’t even get its figures straight?

“They’re talking about a legal challenge but how much money are they going to spend on that with no guarantee of success?

“I do not believe neighbourhood plans are worthwhile — not in South Oxfordshire, at least. If I were writing one, I would not be inclined to pursue it any further without a clear and provable statement from the district council on its position.

“Anyone can be optimistic with their figures but an inspector won’t scrutinise them with an optimistic eye but will look at them realistically.

“We should not be blaming Mrs Engbers, nor any developer, for this situation. The district council has been letting us down for many years and now it’s coming home to roost.”

Town councillor Ken Arlett, who now chairs Henley Town Council’s neighbourhood plan steering group, said: “This is going to start a lot of debate and now that this appeal has been granted, no piece of land in the area is sacred.”

Harpsden Parish Council chairman Kester George said: “Neighbourhood planning as a concept is faulty because there is a lack of integration with national planning policy. It is utterly monstrous that a community can obey the rules to the fullest possible extent yet still be penalised for someone else’s failure.

“Until this ludicrous loophole is plugged, it is very difficult to see why anyone would go to the hard work of producing one — and, my goodness, there is a lot of hard work involved.”

Shiplake Parish Council chairman Tudor Taylor said: “The appeal verdict was such a close call with regard to the land supply that I imagine a challenge is likely. It feels more like a political decision than a planning one as it’s an incredibly tiny margin and one imagines the inspector could have used discretion.

“These things are peer-reviewed and checked so I think it all comes back to the pressure to build more houses. To let it through on the basis of one house per annum is crazy.

“Unfortunately, I think we have little choice but to proceed with a neighbourhood plan. We could save time and money by choosing not to, which at first glance seems attractive, but it does still slightly reduce our dependence on the district council to allocate housing sites.

“It is very dispiriting because you try to follow all the procedures and policies but then find yourself stymied by other elements that are beyond your control.”

Councillor Julian Brookes, leader of the Conservative group on Henley Town Council, called on new housing minister Alok Sharma, MP for Reading West, to change the law.

He said: “Henley and Harpsden joined together to produce a neighbourhood plan and provide the housing which national planning policy and the district council’s local plan called for. That number was increased by 25 per cent by the time the plan was made.

“We now find that the national policy framework has so many significant loopholes that major development is taking place beyond areas defined in the neighbourhood plan.

“We must lobby every level of Government to remove the loopholes so that neighbourhood plans achieve the intended twin objectives of empowering the local community and providing the dwellings and affordable homes in the timeframe and quantity required.”

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