You may be aware that in early February Sue Turner the government inspector in charge of the public inquiry on the Council’s Local Plan set a revised housing target of building 776 houses per annum which I’m told provides a new plan total of 13,192.
To put this into context the average number of houses built in the last 34 years is just 540, so this is a fairly substantial 44% increase, and only time will tell as to whether this results in more houses being built or simply a plan that allocates more land than it can deliver.
We are also aware, however unfairly you judge this, that the Council has got its way and the Faversham portion of the borough will be given special protection from housing development and whilst this does not eliminate housing development entirely, it does severely restrict it.
The downside of the above is that this does not lessen the overall burden for Swale and if housing cannot be built in Faversham and the surrounding countryside, the shortfall must be allocated to Sittingbourne and Sheppey.
What I find frustrating about the process is that it is in continual flux and whilst we have already endured 5 years of consultations where ample opportunity has been provided for land owners and their respective agents to put forward land they would like to be considered for housing development, the council has allowed yet a further opportunity during January and February for new sites to be put forward.
Gill Harris, Spatial Planning Manager at Swale Borough Council told us “The Council has carried out the new call for sites (Jan – Feb 2016), in response to the Inspector’s comment, for the sake of completeness and to ensure that all sites received are considered on the same basis. That call for sites is now closed.”
The one burning question in my mind was whether this facilitates those land owners and developers that had previously opted not to play ball and attempted to effectively bypass the Local Plan process altogether. Here I’m thinking about sites such as Swanstree Avenue in Sittingbourne and Perry Court Farm in Faversham, both highly controversial and both of which were not even on the agenda until last year.
On this matter Gill Harris explains “Both Swanstree Avenue and Perry Court Farm were already included in the SHLAA, Sustainability Appraisal of sites, and the ranking list of omitted sites presented as evidence to the Examination, so they have already been assessed. Any new sites received through the Jan – Feb 2016 call for sites will be tested through the same SHLAA criteria.”
We now know that as of last week, Perry Court Farm has been granted permission, so that does not bode well for other similar sites. Also as Perry Court Farm was not part of the plan, one assumes that this site will now be included as one of the new sites making up the shortfall.
Also and rather worryingly, it would appear, that if so inclined a land owner, agent or developer could still potentially sidestep all of this. There is already evidence of planning applications being made for sites which may or may not be those eventually selected by the Council.
Gill Harris commented that “It is theoretically possible for a developer to try a planning application, and if refused, see if he can win an appeal before the local plan is adopted. It might be an attractive course of action to someone with a site they feel has little chance of getting allocated in the Local Plan modifications and they feel they can take advantage of a window of opportunity before the modifications are published when the Council is not in a position to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply. However, the time to try this is running out.”
So what happens next.
The Council will subject these sites to a sustainability appraisal; and all sites will then be re-ranked, as a basis for selecting new allocations.
Once this has been completed the Council will embark on the last of the consultations for this Local Plan which we’re told is penned in for some point between June and August. We are reliably informed that everyone should learn which new sites have been allocated to meet the shortfall in May.
Gill Harris said “Just to set the context, the Examination is still technically live, just paused, to enable further allocations to be made and consulted on. The results of the consultation on the main modifications go back to the Inspector for consideration. We then anticipate that there will be a few more days of hearings in the autumn. That will enable those who have only become involved in the process at main modifications stage, an opportunity to participate in the Examination. We are in the Inspector’s hands as to how this will resolve however.”
Finally, at some point most likely in early 2017 the plan will become adopted and then at least for a while we will all know where we are.