As development inquiries across Horsham District are underway, the council and residents express fears of the Planning Inspectorate’s ‘undemocratic’ presence in the planning process.
It has been the catalyst of endless debates in Horsham District Council’s (HDC) Development Control committees that have seen councillors split down the middle when considering many applications due to the pressure of the Government’s five year land supply targets, on which the council has fallen short.
At an appeal hearing to build 160 homes off Henfield’s West End Lane on Tuesday (March 25), Dr Roger Smith of the Campaign to Protect Rural England admitted that the Planning Inspectorate’s presence is a ‘worry’.
“Developers in the district seem to get what they want and where they want to build irrespective of residents,” he said.
These worries have escalated since the council incurred substantial costs in 2011 for rejecting a plan to build 102 homes in Henfield, and was overruled by the Planning Inspectorate at appeal.
Residents, parish councillors and district councillors have stressed concern that the power of the un-elected Inspectorate could override any decision made by the elected councils.
Horsham district councillor Roger Arthur (UKIP, Chanctonbury) asked the question: “Is there any point in a Local Planning Authority refusing any speculative planning applications?”
With Planning Minister Nick Boles promising a more local approach to developments - with residents being able to stipulate where housing should be developed via the Neighbourhood Plan - will this thwart unnecessary, unsustainable, badly located builds?
A spokesperson at The Planning Inspectorate HQ said that the department does not currently examine the Neighbourhood Plan and that its ‘weight is limited’ until it is adopted by the Statutory Development Plan.
The spokesperson told the County Times: “The Inspectorate does not have any role in producing or, at present, examining Neighbourhood Plans. Such plans are required to be consistent with the strategic objectives of the Local Planning Authority’s Statutory Development Plan and, once approved, become part of it. Their weight is necessarily limited, however, until they are adopted.”
However, the Planning Inspectorate only has an average of 34 percent of appeals ruled in favour of the developer a year.
The spokesperson continued: “For their decisions to be lawful, Inspectors must explain their judgments which must be based on a rational and reasonable approach to policies, evidence and other material planning considerations brought to their attention, including of course by the parties at a local level.
“That provides the long-standing open, impartial and democratic basis upon which Parliament has decided that appeals should be determined.”
In recent weeks, the Inspectorate has dismissed two appeals against HDC’s decisions to reject applications in Horsham.
The first was a scheme for 14 homes on the site of former day care centre Harwood House in Kings Road.
While HDC rejected plans back in June 2013 citing an inappropriate mix of housing and an inefficient use of land, the inspector rejected the appeal on the lack of infrastructure and community contributions.
The second was by supermarket giant Tesco for a cash machine outside their new store in Brighton Road on the site of the old Silver Wok restaurant.
In this case the inspector upheld HDC’s decision because of the proposal’s impact on neighbouring residential properties if the machine was used outside of the store’s opening hours.
Horsham district councillor Godfrey Newman (LDem, Forest) welcomed the decision and said: “I think it’s very good news for the local community because that’s the conclusion the inspector made.”
Mike Dancy, who lives in St Leonards Road near the Tesco Express store, was delighted by the inspector’s decision and described it as a victory for common sense.
The Planning Inspectorate spokesperson said: “Whilst, as in the courts, individual cases are considered on their own merits, history demonstrates that Planning Inspectors uphold the majority of local council decisions.
“Inspectors take the local plan as the starting point when they consider any appeal, and Planning Inspectors play a key role in ensuring that Local Planning Authorities produce sound Development Plan documents through the examination of draft plans.”
This week, more than 100 Henfield residents attended the first hearing at a development inquiry to build 102 homes in their village, which was rejected by the district council in August 2013 on the grounds of over-development in a rural area.
But in 2011, consent for a 102 home development in Henfield was successfully won on appeal by developer Welbeck Strategic Land LLP.
HDC incurred huge costs for not providing an adequate reason for causing delays in the process.
The Planning Inspectorate spokesperson said an award of costs will be made if it is proven that the party acted ‘unreasonably’. “Parties to appeal and other proceedings are normally expected to meet their own expenses. But if an application for costs is made, the Secretary of State or Planning Inspector may make an award of costs where one party has behaved ‘unreasonably’ and has caused another party to incur unnecessary expense as a result,” said the spokesperson.
Also waiting for a result is Wates Developments’ appeal to build 102 homes by Melton Drive, Storrington - a village that has been labelled a health risk by the EU for its high level of air traffic pollution.
The Planning Inspectorate said it was unable to comment whether it would take into consideration EU’s statistics.