Last week, Arun District Council in West Sussex made the unusual move of passing a motion of no-confidence in its own local plan. Councillors said the document, adopted under the previous Conservative administration in July last year, "does not adequately protect new and existing communities from increasing flood risk". More ambitiously, the motion also called on the government to introduce a moratorium on large-scale development in the district "whilst climate change and its potential impact on coastal plain development is properly assessed at governmental level".
The Liberal Democrats are the largest group on a council under no overall control following this year’s local elections, which saw the former Tory leadership ousted. Council leader, Liberal Democrat Dr James Walsh, said: "We don’t think the planning inspector examining the plan put sufficient weight on the floodability of land allocated for development. We are questioning the point of building houses that could be flooded due to a rise in sea levels."
Despite finding the plan sound last year, the examining inspector highlighted some of these environmental concerns. "Areas of the district are at risk from flooding and affected by European nature conservation sites," he said, adding that the plan's sustainability appraisal found that "significant negative effects will occur as a result of the allocation policies".
Walsh said around 1,600 homes allocated in the local plan for sites in Littlehampton and Pagham are on land that would be liable to flooding. However, the administration has made no decision yet on whether to review the plan and its policies. And it is wary of the consequences of changing the adopted housing allocations. Walsh said: "We are asking the government to take action because if we attempted to remove these sites from the plan unilaterally then we could be open to compensation claims from developers. It needs action at the national level."
A council spokesman made clear that the motion itself does not change anything in planning terms. He said it was "not an adopted planning policy" and as a material consideration in decisions "it has virtually no weight". Walsh denied the move was political, saying: "It isn’t just a question of nimbyism – it stems from a genuine concern about the likely effect of sea levels."
Planning asked the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government for a comment on Arun's decisions but it had not responded at the time of publication.
Adam Nicholls, head of planning and growth at Great Yarmouth Borough Council and planning lead at umbrella group the District Councils' Network, said Arun had a "fair argument" but that it could be made "for virtually every part of the country". He said: "[Climate change] is an international problem that will affect virtually all local authorities. And for all coastal authorities, sea level rises could have a significant impact."
Nicholls said it was unlikely that Arun’s request for a moratorium on major development would be granted by the Ministry for Housing, Communities, and Local Government. "Decisions like this are made through the local plan process. The government quite clearly isn’t going to allow one authority to depart from its local plan. Otherwise, local authorities the length and breadth of the country will make similar requests, and not just on flood risk grounds."
Lisa Foster, a partner at environmental law firm Richard Buxton Solicitors said the case demonstrates that councils and planning inspectors are "piggy in the middle" between two conflicting government policy strands. She said: "Councils are struggling to meet government housing targets and are being forced into decisions contrary to meeting the same government’s climate change goals." The issue goes much wider than flood risk, she added. "Planning authorities are being forced to look to greenfield sites to build large-scale developments with no transport connectivity," said Foster. "They then have to build new roads which cause more pollution. "
Sarah Platts, president of the Planning Officers Society, and strategic planning and infrastructure manager at Kent County Council, said the tension between building more houses and protecting the environment is "only going to intensify". However, she said this does not mean councils should take a "no growth" stance and recommended they work with the Environment Agency to achieve a "joined-up approach" between the two objectives.