Coronavirus: Inspector says virus may justify downgrading council housing land supply

A planning inspector has said that local authority housing land supply positions may need to be reduced to take into account the likely impact of the coronavirus pandemic on housing delivery.

An artist's impression of plans for 188 homes in Wokingham. Image: Welbeck Strategic Land
An artist's impression of plans for 188 homes in Wokingham. Image: Welbeck Strategic Land

Inspector Christina Downes dismissed an appeal by land promoter Welbeck Strategic Land against Wokingham Borough Council’s refusal of its plans for 118 homes in the countryside at Finchampstead.

However, in calculating the council’s land supply to reach her decision, the inspector said it did “not seem unreasonable” that the appellant had argued the effects of the pandemic on local housing construction rates would be felt for a three to six month period and, because of this, 168 homes should be removed from the authority’s housing trajectory which supports its five year land supply position.

The inspector added that, even if all the impacts of the pandemic suggested by the appellant were accepted, the council would still be able to demonstrate about 5.2 years supply of deliverable sites.

The inspector's letter does not spell out how the 168-home figure was reached, or give further detail on how a slowdown in construction reduces a council's supply of housing land.

Commenting in a blog post, Matthew Spry, a senior director at consultancy Lichfields, said that lapsing of unimplemented permissions will be a factor in reducing land supplies, but he also highlighted the wider economic impacts of the coronavirus and suggested this may lead to some sites becoming unviable.

Outlining her decision to dismiss the appeal by Welbeck Strategic Land, the inspector said the proposed scheme would cause harm to the character and landscape of the local area and would likely result in an increased number of car journeys being undertaken.

“These harmful impacts are matters of very substantial weight,” she said.

The inspector said the proposed scheme would be in conflict with the local development plan and that, given the council could demonstrate a five-year housing land supply, the presumption in favour of sustainable development did not apply.

“In my overall judgement the positive factors are insufficient to outweigh the negative ones, and do not indicate that the decision should be made otherwise than in accordance with the development plan,” she said.

Spry said the inspector's findings in reation to the council's five year housing land supply illustrated the need for local authorities to assess how the coronavirus pandemic may affect their own housing land supply positions.

He wrote: “At minimum, local planning authorities will need a comprehensive due diligence of their most recent five-year housing land supply assessments to ensure their judgements on site deliverability remain up-to-date. 

“A failure to keep evidence robust and up-to-date could mean many local planning authorities will fail to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply.”

In January, Wokingham Council published a draft local plan proposing a homes target lower than that required by the government's standard housing need methodology. The authority said it believed it could demonstrate “exceptional circumstances” to justify deviating from national policy.

Correction: The original version of this article stated that Wokingham Borough Council’s housing land supply had been reduced due to the coronavirus outbreak. The article was amended on 16 April 2020 to state that the inspector in fact said the appellant’s argument to reduce the council’s housing trajectory did “not seem unreasonable”.

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