How we did it: Dealing with policy shift on home targets

A Sussex council's core strategy has been found sound after a rethink of its key housing policies. Susie Sell explains.

Rother Council core strategy team: principal planning officers Nichola Watters and Roger Comerford, service manager for strategy and planning Tim Hickling, planning policy manager David Marlow, and principal planning officer Norman Kwan
Rother Council core strategy team: principal planning officers Nichola Watters and Roger Comerford, service manager for strategy and planning Tim Hickling, planning policy manager David Marlow, and principal planning officer Norman Kwan

Project: Rother District Council Core Strategy

Organisations involved: Rother District Council, Hastings Borough Council, Wessex Economics

In July, Rother District Council’s core strategy was declared sound, despite recognition that the authority is unlikely to meet its housing need in full. Inspector Laura Graham’s sign-off marks a milestone in the council’s journey towards developing an up-to-date local plan against a backdrop of policy change.

David Marlow, the council’s planning policy manager, says the "fundamental switch" from a regional-based approach to the localism agenda had the most substantial impact on development of its core strategy. "Not least, the former South East Plan recognised that Rother was not an obvious place for growth," he says.

While the East Sussex district has relatively high net inward migration, more than 80 per cent of its territory falls within the High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), constraining development locally. "The shift in policy meant changing from a fairly structured regional perspective to arguing from scratch why this area could not accommodate the full demand for housing based on migration trends," says Marlow.

The draft strategy, published in 2011, set a target for 3,700 to 4,100 homes up to 2028. In response to representations, council planners developed a series of "focused amendments", which were subject to further consultation in summer 2012 before the final draft was submitted.

To support the core strategy, the council reviewed its strategic housing land availability assessment, during which it undertook a detailed survey of more than 600 sites. It also worked with consultants Wessex Economics and neighbouring Hastings Borough Council to update their strategic housing market assessment. Wessex Economics was commissioned to assess the potential for housing growth in Rother’s largest town, Bexhill-on-Sea.

To show compliance with the Localism Act 2011’s duty to cooperate, council planners contacted the ten authorities with which it has the strongest migration links to understand their ability to meet their own needs and whether any had potential to accommodate more.

The revised core strategy raised the housing target to deliver at least 5,700 new homes by 2028. About 1,000 of the extra homes are to be built in Bexhill, with the remainder spread across the towns of Battle and Rye and outlying villages.

The council was still shy of meeting its assessed need for 6,180 homes. But the inspector concluded that, if modified as agreed, the strategy provides an appropriate basis for planning in the district. "She accepted that we were doing as much as we could in terms of the AONB and that we were growing Bexhill as much as was reasonably practicable," Marlow says.

Marlow says the authority’s extensive preparation helped ensure the plan was passed. Instead of adopting a policy of no development in the AONB, he explains, the council looked at potential harm from developing individual sites. "You can’t be broad brush when you’re arguing against a presumption that there will be a certain amount of development," he says.

Tim Hickling, the council’s service manager for strategy and planning, says managing resources is key. "In the past two or three years we’ve had to reduce resources, so we’ve used the planning policy team in a smart way."

Hickling says the council prioritised the team’s workload to focus resources on delivering the core strategy. Responses to policy consultations from other authorities, contributions to corporate projects and other ongoing policy work had to be streamlined or delayed. "Some policy areas are being more effectively addressed through joint working with neighbouring authorities," he adds.

The core strategy is to be considered by full council on 29 September for adoption. Hickling says the council has built a solid foundation for the future. "We’ve managed to get there in the end, and we have a stronger core strategy as a result."


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