Ashbourne Housing…who’s to blame?

Excerpt from Derbyshire Dales leaflet

Excerpt from Derbyshire Dales leaflet

We all missed it! The crucial part of the Consultation on Housing for the Derbyshire Dales local Plan 2014-2028 was in the initial leaflet available to those attending the briefings around the District. It was available on-line here but, as we all rushed to see the sites being suggested, we all missed the underlying assumptions for the plan and it has cost us dearly in the last couple of weeks.

The responsibility to determine the levels of housing provision and economic development used to be the remit of the East Midlands Regional Plan. The Localism Act 2011 changed all of that and it became the responsibility of DDDC to ensure plans were in place to have enough housing provision. This triggered the need to revisit the Local Plan and make it fit for purpose for the period 2014-2028. This may sound all too technical but please bear with me.

The first part of this was to think about what the requirement would be. The Council had to choose the right data to reflect demand. The original EMRP had assumed an average of 250 new households in the area each year but the latest Government statistics suggested 300 new households per year. Crucially, over the next five years it forecast a growth of 400 households per year. In deciding the right strategy (and in the absence of any precedent to be fair to them) the Council opted for the lower EMRP figure and extrapolated from this the 400 new homes in the Ashbourne area. They acknowledged at the time that this was a “restrained” approach but nevertheless they fatally ignored the most current population forecast.

This led to the appeal over Willow Meadow Farm and the forced admission at the Appeal from the Chief Planning Officer for Derbyshire Dales District Council that they had a shortfall in housing over the next five years. In turn this led the Inspector to overturn the rejection of the planning application because it would address the shortfall, there were no feasible alternatives within the timescales, and there were no fundamental reasons for the outline planning permission to be rejected on other grounds. The views of the Ashbourne Consultation were irrelevant because the shortfall exists right now and there are no alternative, compliant planning applications on the table. If there was a viable planning application for the airfield (and JCB offered to help this get underway in the next five years) the decision may have been different.

This begs a number of questions:

  1. Why should the latest Central Government forecast override the previous EMRP forecast? They are both just forecasts after all?
  2. Why didn’t DDDC realise the problem earlier? All they would have had to do was change the Ashbourne number from 400 to 650 new homes. The typeface in the Ashbourne News Telegraph may have been a little larger to reflect the even greater outrage but at least it would have been accurate.
  3. Why has it taken until Summer 2013 to respond to a change in legislation from 2011?

I have no doubt that everyone at Derbyshire Dales acted in good faith and in ordinary circumstances the misjudgement wouldn’t matter. The only people screaming about the need for new housing development in the Ashbourne area prior to this were those with a financial interest – landowners and builders. The only reason this has had an impact on us is that a developer has spotted a loophole and wants to exploit it for personal gain. This is not what I believe the legislation was intended to achieve originally and it leaves a conundrum for Eric Pickles which is having a negative impact across the country. In the explanation of the 2011 Localism Act there is an introduction:

For too long, central government has hoarded and concentrated power. Trying to improve people’s lives by imposing decisions, setting targets and demanding inspections from Whitehall simply doesn’t work. It creates bureaucracy. It leaves no room for adaptation to reflect local circumstances or innovation to deliver services more effectively and at lower cost. And it
leaves people feeling ‘done to’ and imposed upon – the very opposite of the sense of participation and involvement on which a healthy democracy thrives

This decision clearly runs in the face of that statement. The legislation can’t be changed but the right answer to the problem is to provide Inspectors with the right guidelines for judging these cases. At the moment the shortfall in housing to cover the forecast (not all forecasts are accurate) is overriding all other considerations. If local views were given a greater weighting than the five year shortfall (because they are not mutually exclusive) then they could uphold the rejection of the planning permission with conditions. The judgement carried similar conditions in upholding the appeal. For example the judgement could be that the DDDC must demonstrate how it will make up the deficit within the five year timeframe and it has six months to do so. Instead the benefit of the doubt is with the developer and they are given approval subject to conditions.

Any other course of action will fail. The Draft Local Plan which should address all of this is still 12 months away and was deemed at too early a stage to be relevant in this debate. Ashbourne’s own Neighbourhood Plan which will inform the plan as far Ashbourne is concerned will evolve in parallel to it.

At the current pace all 650 houses will be allocated in places we don’t want, whether they are needed or not, and the Local Plan and Neighbourhood Plan will be white elephants with nothing to guide.

And what can we do? The danger is that we just lie down and let this happen – as it has happened so many times before. If Government aren’t told (and I’ve started with our MP) they will believe that everything is fine. If we assume that the Appeal puts this to bed; it will have done. If we don’t challenge DDDC’s Planners for putting us in this position they will do the same again. We need to get the Neighbourhood Plan in place because, even if we don’t make a difference for the next ten years, we are in a position to do something after that.

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7 Responses to Ashbourne Housing…who’s to blame?

  1. Town Planner says:

    Unfortunately time is limited and so I’ can’t address your post article in full.

    However with regards to the housing need, the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework (early 2012) has placed a great emphasis on house-building. In turn central Government has placed a requirement on all Local Authorities to identify what their HOUSING NEED is. This is dependent upon local housing registers; shortfall or backlog in previous housing delivery; homelessness; young professionals living at home who can’t afford to step onto the property ladder (‘hidden households’); the private rental market also has a large influence as it can effectively ‘trap’ people into renting properties with little to no prospect of saving for a deposit; affordability of houses and the ability to obtain a mortgage. These are just a handful of factors, there are many, many more.

    DDDC published a joint document in 2008 (or possibly 2009) which highlighted the housing need, but at the time this document counted for little, and like in dozens of other authorities it was simply left on the shelf to gather dust. The introduction of the NPPF last year requires all authorities to identify their ‘objectively assessed housing need’. This is based on the factors mentioned above, and should be based purely on evidence and robust data, not merely an arbitrary figure conjured by local councillors or the local community.

    In the absence of an up-to-date housing need figure (2008/09 is to be considered out of date) Inspectors are left to make their decisions based on the most recent evidence base. In this case the 2011 population forecasts trumps the data from the East Mids Regional Plan which was based on population figures from the early-mid naughties.

    As to why DDDC haven’t produced an updated ROBUST housing needs assessment, I can only imagine it’s down to resources or the burgeoning pressure that Local Authority Officers experience from committee members to keep housing figures low (I have no connection to DDDC or public sector development just to add!). I must also highlight that the last 6-7 years has seen the lowest level of housebuilding since the 1940’s/50’s. Evidence suggests that housebuilding and construction is the primary catalyst for economic growth and job creation (I’m not referring to jut manual jobs). New development is also now the main source of funding for infrastructure improvements within communities.

    The last few years has seen the country build a pitifully small number of new homes, and this looks set to continue in the short-term, even in spite of recent planning applications across the country…. What authorities such as DDDC are proposing is nothing different to what was experienced in the 70’s/80’s/90’s, the only difference now is the recent inclusion of social media into the fray. The likes of twitter/facebook/blogs such as your own has helped to highlight the role of town planning in people’s lives. There are many worse authorities in the country than DDDC, residents of Ashbourne in particular should not feel put out by the prospect of 4-600 homes. I’m sure local businesses in particular won’t mind the additional footfall, and we must all remember that the house we live in was once built on a greenfield itself!

    Anyway, I’ll poke my nose back out now 🙂

    • Town Planner. Thanks for the informed insight…much appreciated. I really do agree with your sentiments. I personally welcome the new housing, the high street footfall and the potential it creates. A previous blog supported far more houses in the town.

      The point we are all struggling with – and towns across the country are struggling with- is that the errors by DDDC, or the poor direction by Central Government, means we can’t choose where they go. Having been through the consultation process we deserve better.

      Your nose is always welcome

  2. Town Planner says:

    Believe me, DDDC is not alone in these ‘errors’. I have exposure to most of the country’s planning departments (just to reiterate, I have no interests in DDDC so hopefully my views/comments are impartial) the majority are struggling to pull their fingers out and get an adopted plan in place.

    I wouldn’t necessarily say errors have been committed either by LPA’s or Central Government, but more-so from my perspective there appears to be a state of confusion and lack of organisation. LPA’s resources and personnel were affected significantly during the recession with most departments now operating with the bare minimum at best. It’s fair to say things were pretty cushty in the previous decade and when the downturn hit, it hit hard. As a result, Central Government has placed this overwhelming emphasis to boost the economy and ensure that the impacts and effects of future property bubbles can be mitigated. Banks have (hopefully) learnt their lessons, but the profession of town planning must do so as well. It’s a case of supply/demand, the less houses we’re building, the more homeowners can charge for their properties (a basic explanation I know, but the point is clear). In comparison to larger European countries and even the US, we’re only a small island and therefore land can be charged at a premium.
    So just at the point that planning is hitting the front page again and being given the upmost importance, the majority of planning professionals from the public sector have been made redundant! Not great timing. Also remember that previously there was a ‘top down’ planning system, housing requirements were handed out by Central Government to the regional bodies which in turn passed them onto the Local Planning Authorities. This wasn’t popular either; it was also a substantial drain on finances having an additional regional tier of planning. So ‘Localism’ was introduced to combat this, this didn’t mean that local residents could veto all housing development (though this is often what is believed!) it instead ‘passes the buck’ to local authorities to come up with their own housing target and do all the work that the regional and national bodies undertook previously. The additional workload and responsibility no doubt came as a shock to the system, and there are statutory periods of consultation to consider. The procession of site allocations and adopting a new plan takes years; there isn’t really a way to get around this. Those authorities who may be were taking things a little relaxed pre and mid recession are now playing catch up and starting from scratch. As I harped on earlier, there are many authorities who are much further behind than DDDC. It also needs to be noted that any changes to housing requirements must go before the locally elected members. This poses a problem in itself, the majority of these individuals have little to no training in planning yet have the final say on such issues. To stereotype (fairly may I add), many of these councillors are more concerned about being re-elected, those who pass through controversial estates or who are seen to be increasing the housing requirement (even if it’s the ‘right’ thing to do) tend not to be too popular with their local residents. This leads to delays, abstentions and appeals (as experienced at Willow Meadow Farm) which are an additional expense and a drain on resource (those officers working on the Local Plan now have their attention diverted for 3-5months to this appeal, further delays ensue and a vicious circle appears).

    With regards to where development is allowed, yes local residents should have their say. But often responses are formed by vested interests, concerns about property prices and the views from a spare bedroom window are normally the most common. However there are cases of individuals which have connections to certain parcels of land or some even reject specific proposals because they don’t like the landowners for personal reasons. You’re now at a stage where there are disagreements amongst local residents who often base their opinions on hearsay rather than technical assessments. As mentioned previously, the process involved takes a considerable amount of time, however there is a substantial need for housing now. This need must be met as soon as possible and not in 5-10 years’ time once the local plan is adopted and the allocations are starting to be built out. To put it in perspective, we’re currently building c.110,000 new homes a year. The calculated need is 240,000 which doesn’t even include any previous shortfall or backlog. This is the reason behind why such appeals are allowed to essentially ‘plug’ the housing shortage that currently exists. The allocations that have been consulted on in Ashbourne will currently hold no weight in a planning argument. From an Inspectors view, a site must have a valid planning application in order to be deemed deliverable and able to contribute towards a five year supply. A Greenfield site with few constraints will still require 6-9months minimum to formulate and submit an outline planning application. It would be another 3-4months minimum before a decision is reach followed by up to 2 years before the reserved matters details are submitted and agreed. Preparatory works then need to be undertaken to the ground which can take another few months and at a build rate of 30 dwellings per year, your return over a five year period may only be approx. 50 units that contributes to the five year housing land supply. Should the application go to appeal the process can be extended anything from 4-12months + (6 on average) and this is a Greenfield site, a site such as the airfield will need a considerable amount of remediation works and lengthen the process further.

    Hopefully my waffling helps to illustrate some of the timescales and issues involved. If you’ve suggested DDDC shouldn’t permit anything until the Local Plan and allocations are agreed and adopted, you’ve essentially got a moratorium on your hands which stifles all development in the area for years to come (referring back to the timescales above). Property prices would increase once more and young professionals priced out of the town, resulting in an aging population and ultimately a reduction in public services. Slight scaremongering but it can, and does happen. Which is why many villages that haven’t experienced any growth for 30-40 years are seeing these new housing developments being allowed. Shops, GP’s, bus services, schools, independent businesses all require a wide demographic in order to function. In a nutshell, halting development for a number of years can have serious economic impacts.

    I’ll bow out once more, as you can see it’s a highly complex issue with no stand out solution. I’m still trying to get my head around the system after many years of trying!

    • Yet again a fantastic contribution and insight into the minds of Local Government and planners in the 2010s. It’s easy to forget that the landscape changes over time for everyone.

      I am completely against freezing development while the Local Plan is sorted out. I know this is impractical and the wrong thing to do for our local economy. This is not mutually exclusive with what happened in our Planning Consultation though. Two sites were identified which could be brought forward for development within the next 5 years and, for me, that is where the emphasis needs to be focused. I know we are behind the demand curve but the right answer is to catch up within the democratic process not to throw the right decisions away. I am passionate about local democracy. I think the path we are following currently goes 180 degrees against the purpose of the Localism Act. That is wrong and that is why it is worth fighting for.

      I accept that there are vested interests in this as in anything else. But that is democracy…most elections are won or lost by the people who can be bothered to turn out. We also may not like their views but at least they put them up for criticism and the judgement of their peers at the appropriate time as part of a formal process. What I can’t accept is the outcome of the planning process ignores the democratic view and goes against the principle the Law was put in place to protect purely through accident or negligence.

      It can’t be right and it can’t be fixed anywhere but at Central Government level. Thankfully I don’t think we need new legislation but some guidance for Inspectors along the lines of the advice judges are given on sentencing from time to time.

  3. Town Planner says:

    I agree that in an ideal world, democracy should prevail. The reality is however that in it’s current form, it just doesn’t work.

    The NPPF states that development should be plan led. With the introduction of the Localism Act, development plans are now in the hands of local planning authorities who subsequently seek the opinion of the community. This is the best case scenario and is all very democratic.

    However, the problem lies with what happens when there is no plan in place? Given the timescales involved in my previous post and some of the pitfalls experienced, it’s certainly not unusual for the process to drag out. Likewise this can be delayed further by legal challenges as in many cases theses plans (and housing targets) are dictated by committee members with no sound evidence base or personal experience of the wider implications of planning.

    Under these circumstances where a sound, up-to-date plan doesn’t exist (based on the above paragraph, essentially Localism and therefore democracy cannot hold any weight in a planning argument!) the planning position refers back to the guidance of the NPPF. The NPPF states that where there is no plan or five year housing land supply, there will be a presumption in favour of sustainable development. This means that it is up to objectors to explain, utilising VALID planning reasons, why the development isn’t suitable.

    To summarise, no 5YHLS, no plan and a greenfield site which is close to facilities and not in the AONB/Greenbelt/Conservation area, is highly likely to win at appeal.

    The only caveat of this is where the negative impacts will considerably and demonstrably outweigh the benefits of the development (social and economic benefits in particular). This is a pretty tough task because, as I mentioned previously, housebuilding is just such an effective catalyst for economic growth.

    An Inspector typically can only judge the planning application before him/her. Whether there are alternative ‘potential’ sites which don’t yet have a planning application submitted is immaterial. Again, it’s all down to time frames, even a democratically allocated residential site has no guaranteed chance of coming forward in the short-term if there’s no planning application submitted. The theme of the NPPF is immediate housing delivery and economic growth, this is the most up-to-date planning policy position there is.Perhaps this guidance can be compared to that which judges receive?!?

    Therefore in the absence of a plan and 5YHLS, the Inspector can only determine an appeal in line with the NPPF. This is why it may appear that democracy in planning doesn’t exist, however in reality the opportunity for it is there, it just doesn’t happen.

    I’d also like to highlight that the NPPF wasn’t produced overnight, the presumption in favour of sustainable development and the requirements of having an up to date plan have underpinned the document since the consultations in 2010 and drafts in 2011. These are nothing new.
    It should also be noted when when the NPPF came into effect in March 2012, LPA’s were afforded a 12 month grace period whereby they could use the time to update their plans to ensure they were compliant with the NPPF whilst not being steamrollered at appeals. So they knew what was coming, but no doubt hoped it would go away or not be enforced as strictly as it has been.

    19 months on and they’re still in a mess. Who’s fault is it? Everyone seems to be pointing the finger at each other without anyone taking responsibility. However I hope I’ve managed to convey what a complex issue it currently is, take everything you read in The Mail/Telegraph/Times with a handful of salt!

    With regards to the two sites you mentioned which have been overlooked, I’m assuming one is the airfield? I’ve not really kept myself updated unfortunately, but vaguely remember seeing the results of the housing options document from the last consultation.

  4. I really appreciate you taking the time to respond. One of the objectives of my blog is to demystify some of the issues which affect our lives in Ashbourne. You have certainly helped with that and I hope you are blogging yourself somewhere?

    There was a specific provision in the Consultation outcome that although the Airfield was number one choice, and JCB had made assurances that their land could be available quickly for building, some land at Hillside Farm was to be used for short term housing requirements if this didn’t come to fruition.

  5. Town Planner says:

    No blogging for myself fortunately! I just keep an eye on this one on occasions as I still have friends & family in the area.

    With regards to the allocations process, without investigating in too much detail, it would seem that local politics is playing it’s part! The airfield does seem like the most logical site, even when I was at QEGS all those years ago it seemed like such a waste. I can only imagine that there were concerns about the deliverability in the short-term. Greenfields are a hell of alot easier to build houses on than re-mediating previously developed land!

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