Cheshire plan failure reveals mismatch danger

The derailment of the Cheshire East local plan after an inspector warned that it could lead to 'economic failure' by failing to provide enough homes shows the danger of councils not aligning job forecasts and housing strategies, experts claim.

Cheshire East: argues that plan was submitted ahead of planning policy guidance
Cheshire East: argues that plan was submitted ahead of planning policy guidance

A planning inspector ruled last week that examination of Cheshire East Council's plan cannot proceed, due to "fundamental shortcomings" in its housing and economic goals.

Days later, it emerged that the examination of two other local plans, by East Staffordshire and Chiltern councils, have been put on hold in part over their housing need figures.

The Cheshire East plan proposes a minimum of 27,000 homes and 13,900 jobs by 2030. But inspector Stephen Pratt, in his interim findings report, suggests that the economic strategy is "unduly pessimistic".

The "main reason" for the low employment figure "seems to be to depress the overall need for new housing, and thus the level of likely inward migration", Pratt wrote.

"The preferred level of new housing has constrained assumptions about economic and jobs growth, resulting in a mismatch," he found. He added that the plan may not provide enough houses for new workers.

The council said it would ask for a six-month suspension of the document, which has taken £2 million and two years to prepare. It pledged to reconcile its housing need and economic strategies in that time.

Meanwhile, an inspector examining the East Staffordshire Borough Council plan, which proposes 613 new homes per year up to 2031, also raised concerns over the relationship between employment and housing figures. Brian Sims said the plan's housing number should have been based on employment forecasts envisaging a higher scale of growth.

Experts said mismatches between housing and economic strategies are common when local plans come unstuck at examination.

Gary Halman, managing partner at planning consultancy HOW Planning, said: "Most authorities are very keen to talk up the number of jobs they will create in their boroughs. The trouble is this brings a need for new housing and is less easy to sell to your communities."

Stephen Bell, director of planning consultancy Turley's Manchester office, said: "Some authorities plan to be job-focused, but politically it is too sensitive to recognise the impact this has on housing development and the possible release of green belt."

Councils are finding it challenging, he said, partly as it is a "very complicated process" and also because it is a new responsibility for them after the abolition of regional planning. It is also "politically challenging" for members to win voters' acceptance for high levels of new housing, he added.

Halman said inspectors are more and more alert to the issue as the government's Planning Practice Guidance (PPG), published in March, "heightened the importance of robust economic modelling and relating this to housing growth". It states that plan-makers should assess employment trends and economic forecasts in calculating housing need.

But Nicola Rigby, director at property firm GVA, which advised East Staffordshire Council on its plan examination, said there is "no reason to simply assume that the largest econometric forecasts must be applied" in calculating housing need. Councils must opt for "the most realistic scale of economic growth" backed up by evidence, she said.

Halman and Bell think that it would be hard for Cheshire East to do the necessary work in six months, given the scale of what is required.

Talking about the plan's economic strategy, Caroline Simpson, Cheshire East's director of economic growth, said the authority is "pro-growth".

She said: "We want to develop new high-value jobs. It's something we need to evidence better to the inspector after six months."

Simpson said the PPG was published after the council submitted its plan, but it intended to use its methodology when re-calculating its housing requirements.

DCLG Clarifies guidance

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has said reports that planning minister Brandon Lewis suggested that councils need not produce local plans are "misleading".

Trade magazine Inside Housing last week reported that Lewis said there would be no problem if councils relied on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to guide decisions.

Lewis reportedly stated that, while this would not be "necessarily ideal" there would be "no role for the government" if a council took that line.

But a DCLG spokesman said Lewis' comments had been taken "out of context", as he was discussing cases where a council has no local plan. He said the NPPF "provides very strong encouragement" to "slow coaches".

An Inside Housing spokesman said the magazine stood by the article.


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