COMMENT: ‘A defining and shameful legacy’

JPCT-04-01-12 S12010471a north horsham development area. new hospital site from north looking south, langhurstwood road  -photo by steve cobb ENGSNL00120120401121454
JPCT-04-01-12 S12010471a north horsham development area. new hospital site from north looking south, langhurstwood road -photo by steve cobb ENGSNL00120120401121454

A week before its pre-election hustings event on Countryside issues at the Drill Hall, Horsham, on Saturday March 21, trusee of CPRE Sussex Roger Smith looks at the current planning situation in Horsham:

In Horsham District, the Coalition Government’s defining legacy for communities and countryside will be its National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), with its presumption in favour of developers enforced at Appeal by Planning Inspectors, and the imposition of 15000/16000 houses on the District by a Planning Inspector.

As for the ‘golden thread’ supposedly “through both plan-making and decision taking”- it has proved to be tarnished and base.

Contrary to misleading statements made variously by the Prime Minister David Cameron, and Ministers Eric Pickles , Nick Boles and the latter’s successor Brendan Lewis, it is developers, not communities, who have been empowered by the Government’s policies.

According to Mr Lewis (Minister for Housing and Planning), “local people have a bigger say over where new housing goes” and “are much happier to support building in their area”.

This is certainly not true in Horsham District where, under the Coalition’s planning regime, the opinions of local people have counted for very little.

Moreover, serial-approval at Appeal by Planning Inspectors of applications refused by the Council, on the grounds that the Council cannot demonstrate a five-year housing land supply, has undermined the Council as a planning authority.

Never mind that the five year requirement for new houses has been grossly inflated and made impossible to achieve by the addition to it of the substantial shortfall in houses built, accrued in large part because of the financial crisis and consequent credit crunch, which caused house sales to fall and developers to reduce build rates.

And councils cannot compel developers to build.

Notwithstanding these realities, Planning Inspectors make no allowance for the impact of the financial crisis on housing delivery when considering applications at Appeal, an aberration which developers have ruthlessly and successfully exploited. In consequence, communities have been ridden-over rough-shod by Inspectors and developers.

As for “Communities and their elected councillors – not Whitehall bureaucrats – should be able to decide how many new homes they need and how many they can reasonably accommodate and support with local infrastructure” (Horsham MP Francis Maude, WSCT July 2009), it is Planning Inspectors not communities and their elected councillors who decide house-building targets, and developers are permitted to seek and obtain reductions in their payments for the provision of affordable homes and infrastructure.

Moreover, the Inspector’s Horsham District Planning Framework (HDPF) ‘Initial Findings’ reveals that he arrived at his target of 750 pa minimum largely by means of questionable presumptions and assumptions, not by the application of any proven mathematical model. He acknowledges the resulting uncertainty in his ‘Findings’.

Furthermore, at the examination of the HDPF last year, he advised that Government policy did not allow Inspectors to take into account the possibility of further economic downturns when setting targets.

His arbitrary target is therefore predicated on the doubtful presumption that mortgage loans will be readily available and economic growth unabated in all years to 2031.

Should his presumption prove wrong and house-sales fall and developers reduce build rates to below that of his arbitrary target, and a considerable shortfall accrue, developers would again be in a position to build where they choose and go to Appeal should the council refuse them – because of the NPPF.

Disturbingly, too, the Inspector considers that the environmental dimension of sustainable development carries less weight than economic growth and that it is permissible for the council to be selective about which of the NPPF’s requirements for the protection of the natural environment to include in its HDPF policies – to avoid being ‘overly protective’ and ‘too restrictive’.

Inequitable and destructive; politicians should be ashamed of their defining legacy.

To book a free ticket for the hustings event, which starts at 10am, where the parliamentary candidates for Horsham will be attending, email info@cpresussex.org.uk or visit www.cpresussex.org.uk/events/item/2517-hustings