Council's housing land supply figures challenged

Claims by a local authority in Cheshire that it was able to demonstrate a five year supply of housing land was rejected after an inspector concluded that the rate of delivery of strategic site allocations had been over-estimated.

An adopted plan defined settlement zone lines (SZL) and set out a presumption in favour of development within the defined boundaries. The parties agreed that the purpose of SZLs was to define the limit of built-up areas and to exclude land requiring protection from development where it contributed to the character of a settlement or where it was important to retain views. They reflected the allocation of housing land to 2011. The appellant claimed, however, that they were not intended to identify land to meet the future need for residential development and breaching their boundaries was not objectionable in principle provided other landscape and policy objectives were met. The council stated that following a strategic housing land availability assessment it was able to demonstrate a five year supply of housing land.

The inspector agreed that the basic aim of the SZL was to protect open countryside and the green belt and to this extent it was in conformity with national planning policy. It was not intended to allocate new land after 2011 and the council’s suggestion that 4,000 new homes could be delivered on strategic sites appeared ambitious, particularly since some of the proposed allocations were subject to objections. Some of the sites were relatively concentrated and it seemed likely that some developers would hold back on their delivery if other developments had already started thereby avoiding market saturation and potentially lower values. The council had also assumed higher delivery rates on sites in excess of 200 dwellings and this seemed to be overly optimistic particularly since some were also dependent on enabling infrastructure such as a new link road.

In addition, the council’s calculations involved spreading the backlog in housing supply over the period to 2021 rather than over the next five years. This was at odds with the government’s desire to significantly boost the supply of housing land. A 20 per cent buffer was also appropriate, he held, since housing targets had not been met since 2008/09 and this had been "steadfast and obstinate" which required a bold approach to resolving the situation. On this basis he estimated that the council was able to demonstrate approximately four years’ supply of housing land.

In respect of the impact of the development the site lay just beyond the SZL in an area without special designation. There were two strong boundaries to the south and west and the northern boundary abutted a rugby club. The site was relatively flat and unobtrusive and the SZL was not intended to be inviolable. Nor were SZLs intended to be static after 2011 if circumstances such as the need for more housing land changed. Therefore, although 60 per cent of the site comprised high quality land the loss would be modest and reflected the fact that such sites would be needed to meet housing targets.

In terms of the impact on the highway network and sustainable travel patterns the inspector decided that congestion on local roads would not be unacceptable. It was well located relative to a town centre which was within walking distance and was accessible by bus. Increasing the population would add to the vitality and viability of the town and the social thread of sustainability would be served by the provision of 30 per cent affordable housing. Nor would it prejudice the development plan process or fetter the council’s ability to assess other schemes on their merits.

Inspector Philip Major; Inquiry

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