What Barwell's Bradford green belt intervention means for plan-makers

Planning experts have warned that the government's decision to intervene in a West Yorkshire authority's local plan sets a worrying trend in efforts to resolve housing shortages.

Housing and planning minister Gavin Barwell
Housing and planning minister Gavin Barwell

Earlier this month, on the day before its executive was due to recommend adoption of its new core strategy following a favourable examiner's report, City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council was ordered by planning minister Gavin Barwell to take no further steps on the document until his officials have scrutinised it.

Bradford is the second English authority to have its local plan put on hold under section 145(5) of the Housing and Planning Act 2016. In May, Barwell's predecessor, Brandon Lewis, issued a similar direction - which remains in place - blocking Birmingham City Council from adopting its new development plan. In both cases, ministerial intervention was prompted by local Tory MPs' concerns over proposals for major green belt releases (see below).

Bradford Council's core strategy proposed a selective review of the city's green belt to meet its housing needs. In a report published last month, inspector Stephen Pratt concluded that its proposal to allocate land for at least 42,100 homes "fully meets the objectively assessed need for market and affordable housing over the plan period" from 2013 to 2030. He also accepted that about 11,000 of these homes are likely to have to go on green belt land.

Andrew Marshall, planning and transport strategy manager at Bradford City Council, said the council is now working with Department for Communities and Local Government officials to help them draw up a recommendation to the minister on whether further intervention is justified. Marshall warned that protracted intervention could hold up two area action plans currently undergoing examination that identify sites for 6,500 homes in existing urban areas, "which would have major implications for boosting housing delivery".

Dave Rolinson, chairman of Leeds-based consultancy Spawforths, said he was "really disappointed" with Barwell's move. "If the government decides to intervene regularly at this stage of the plan process, it creates uncertainty for local authorities and the development industry that will lead to further procrastination and delay," he said. "It's clear that the scale of the objectively assessed need in Bradford necessitates green belt releases, and this has been fully tested and supported by the inspector."

Richard Sagar, a partner at Leeds-based law firm Walker Morris, said the direction "may indicate a more interventionist desire to affect the outcome" on Bradford's plan. He added: "The city has limited deliverable development options, and the core strategy has consistently established the need for green belt release. In these circumstances there is ample material to allow the minister to back the plan. Not to do so would send a deeply confusing message when the clear policy of government is to support local authorities in timely plan-making."

The Bradford direction came just days after communities secretary Sajid Javid said local and national politicians "must be prepared to make difficult calls, even if they're unpopular" to ensure sufficient homes. "He should be making sure Conservative MPs are toeing that line as well, otherwise they are putting their local authorities in a very difficult position," said Planning Officers Society strategic planning specialist Catriona Riddell. Sagar agreed: "Local political pressure is not a proper basis for objectively led intervention."

Local plans: putting on the pressure

Bradford Core Strategy Development Plan: Planning minister Gavin Barwell's direction to Bradford council to take no further steps towards adopting the plan followed a request from Shipley MP Philip Davies. He had raised concerns over proposed release of green belt, particularly in the Wharfedale area of the constituency.

Birmingham Development Plan: Former planning minister Brandon Lewis's similar direction, issued in May, referred to a request to call in the plan from Sutton Coldfield MP Andrew Mitchell, who had expressed concerns over plans for a 6,000-home urban extension on green-belt land near the town.

North Somerset Core Strategy: In March 2015, then communities secretary Eric Pickles ordered the council to submit the housing requirement policy in its emerging core strategy for his approval. Six months later, Lewis signed off the policy without modification.

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