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 http://www.derbyshiredales.gov.uk/images/documents/H/Housing_options_leaflet_-_ashbourne.pdf 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:
- Why should the latest Central Government forecast override the previous EMRP forecast? They are both just forecasts after all?
- 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.
- 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.