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Residents and council defend village from unsuitable development

Villagers and council see off 'inappropriate' homes plan

15 March 2023
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stock image of a hand throwing a bunch of wooden toy houses in the air

A proposal for about 200 new homes in Hurst, which many residents opposed, will not be going ahead after Wokingham Borough Council's decision to refuse the scheme was upheld by a planning inspector.

Following an eight-day public inquiry, David Wildsmith has concluded that the council was right to turn down the outline planning application by Mactaggart and Mickel Homes England Ltd.

The council welcomes this decision as it shows that its planning policies, which guide where development should and should not take place, can withstand independent scrutiny.

Protecting a largely rural location

The applicant wanted to develop a 10.68-hectare plot east of Lodge Road, currently used for grazing. The site lies outside Hurst village, beside its boundary, and the council argued strongly that this “huge bolt-on extension” would have harmed its rural character.

Council policies recognise Hurst is an appropriate place for limited development, but oppose larger developments and generally building outside the village boundaries to preserve its character and identity.

However, the applicant argued the scheme’s benefits outweighed the harms, and that it should be allowed because the council couldn't show it had enabled enough housing sites to meet its needs for the next five years.

Under national planning policy, this can weaken a council's position by rendering its local planning policies “out of date” - so they hold less weight when deciding planning applications.

A victory for common sense

The inspector considered several matters including the impact on the landscape and local character, trees and biodiversity, plus future residents’ ability to reach nearby facilities like schools or walking and cycling routes.

He concluded the scheme would conflict with the council’s overarching vision for future growth and the site wasn’t sustainable for the size of the proposal.

On the housing land issue, the inspector accepted the council’s argument that the shortfall was a result of developers building faster than originally planned for, reducing the available “bank” of agreed planning permissions ahead of time.

He accepted there was no failure to deliver enough housing and expressed no doubt that Wokingham Borough would meet, or even exceed, its requirements for the 2006-2026 period.

‘A council which is performing well’

The inspector said: “Even though the council is currently unable to demonstrate a deliverable five-year housing land supply, I don’t consider it reasonable to ignore the bigger picture, which is a very strong likelihood that the council will achieve a significant oversupply.

“To my mind, this does not signify a council that is failing in terms of housing provision, but rather one which is performing well and managing to boost the supply of housing over that which it planned for.

“While the [shortfall] is clearly a matter of concern, no persuasive evidence has been placed that the most sensible or appropriate way to address this is to grant planning permission for a significantly-sized development which would run counter to [the council's long-term] vision.”

He added: “The appeal proposal would give rise to some benefits [but] my clear conclusion is that the adverse impacts would significantly and demonstrably outweigh these.”

Helping us fight similar cases in future

The scheme was opposed by Hurst Parish Council which instructed its own legal counsel and appeared at the inquiry as a main party, which included giving formal evidence. Many residents and the Hurst Village Society also took part, and the council thanks everyone who commented or gave evidence to the inquiry.

Cllr Lindsay Ferris, executive member for planning and local plan, said: “We're delighted at this confirmation that we can defend ourselves from unsuitable, speculative development, even when we can't technically show a five-year housing land supply, and pleased to have stopped irreversible change to the character of this rural community.

“Despite what some have wrongly concluded, we still have a valid local plan that runs until 2026 - and this decision supports our case, which we will cite if we're challenged in this way again.”

Keeping up pressure for positive change

Cllr Clive Jones, the council leader, said: “This is a vindication of our long-running campaign for changes to the national planning system, which lacks common sense in several important respects.

“As we stated during the Government’s recent consultation on changes to the planning rules, it's crucial that the system takes in the bigger picture and allows past overprovision of housing to be considered when looking ahead.

“We question the value of the housing land supply test, which has spawned an industry of speculation and takes up inordinate resources to fight back against.  

“We're glad the inspector decided this appeal sensibly and pragmatically, and we'll continue to campaign for a fairer approach on how new homes are allocated.”

Planning ahead to meet local need

The council continues arguing for a fundamental shift in national planning policy - one that looks at the national and regional picture, deciding where housing and related development is most fairly allocated to benefit everyone.

Cllr Ferris and Cllr Clive Jones, the council leader, are campaigning along these lines and are backed by borough MPs Sir John Redwood (Wokingham), James Sunderland (Bracknell) and former Prime Minister Theresa May (Maidenhead).

Once the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities confirms any changes to national planning policy, the council will consider the best way to move forward, including where and how development sites should be allocated.

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