Wokingham Borough Council’s leader has called for a shake-up of the national planning system so that new housing is shared out more fairly.
This includes ensuring that authorities which plan enough new housing ahead of time, which the council has done, aren’t penalised by excessive development later.
In a letter to Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, John Halsall says Government policies ignore common sense and invite damaging speculation.
As he also explains in a special video message to residents, he wants policy to recognise the “big picture” of housing supply, allowing the council’s successes at providing more than required in the short term to be offset by lower numbers in future.
Keeping the figure at a reasonable level
The current system sets housing requirements based on a simple mathematical formula to meet the Government’s target of building 300,000 homes annually by the middle of the decade.
It says nothing about taking above that figure, instead resetting the bar each year. This means the number of homes required is constantly increasing and, as in Wokingham borough’s case, by a figure far higher than the official quota.
The council is now updating its Local Plan, which decides where housing and other types of development will go until 2038. It is required to prepare for 768 new homes a year or the document won’t be valid, laying almost every part of the borough open to speculative development.
However, in the past five years alone, the borough has already seen 6,500 new homes completed - almost 1,300 per year on average and nearing double the current quota.
Fighting off wasteful legal challenges
On top of that, by proactively securing new homes above the level needed right now, it goes without saying that the council has reduced the amount of available housing land in the borough.
But if the system won’t consider this, developers seeking to profit from the borough’s high desirability and quality of life are more likely to get planning permission for unsuitable sites by appealing the council’s refusal.
This is because, when an independent inspector assesses their case, they may conclude the council failed to identify enough land to meet the next five years’ housing requirements. If planning inspectors had to consider past successes, they would see it is more than achieving this.
Another problem is developers failing to build after getting consent, meaning councils fall behind and even more permissions are given in the hope that someone finally starts building.
A vision for fighting inappropriate development
John Halsall is therefore calling for:
- Moving away from a simple mathematical formula to recognise councils’ records of providing new homes and creating national bodies to review where they’re truly needed
- Abolishing the land supply test in deciding planning applications and appeals, which invites speculation and forces the council to keep defending its position, wasting time and money
- Helping developers meet their obligations to provide services like new roads and schools, which takes the financial risk from starting to build
- Creating more incentives to build, which could be financial or the threat of revoking permission
He told Michael Gove: “Some aspects of national planning policy undermine residents’ confidence in the planning system, the council, and both local and national politicians.
“This should not be allowed to continue. Residents overwhelmingly feel that our housing delivery has been sufficient, which it has, but should decelerate and pause.
“The planning system must work for everyone. It must be one of common sense and must be trusted by communities to be fair and consistent.”
Right homes, right places: a proven track record
John Halsall has also invited Michael Gove to visit the borough and see its exemplary results for himself.
Under its existing Local Plan, it has allocated four major developments at Shinfield Parish, the former Arborfield Garrison and North and South Wokingham, where more 13,000 high-quality new homes are set to be built with almost £1 billion in community infrastructure funded by developers.
These include the Bohunt School at Arborfield, the borough’s first new secondary in more than 50 years, as well as seven new primary schools with a total of £100 million invested in education.
The council is also investing £250 million in major new roads including the completed Shinfield Eastern and Arborfield Cross Relief Roads, as well as the North and South Wokingham Distributor Roads which are under construction.
It now wants to repeat this approach by proposing 4,500 homes in a new garden village south of the M4, at Hall Farm / Loddon Valley, plus smaller developments elsewhere including 800 extra homes within South Wokingham.
The council maintains that the current requirement is too high but believes it can make the best of the situation and continue building balanced, well-equipped communities.
'System must reflect common sense'
John Halsall said: “We’ve proposed a strategy to meet current requirements, which is the right and sensible thing to do. Top planning barristers have advised that we have no valid grounds for challenging the figures under the existing system.
“We don’t agree with the amount of housing that’s currently imposed, and regret losing every square inch of green land to development but failing to find these sites could leave us with no plan at all - the worst possible outcome.
“Without a valid Local Plan, the Government could step in and take our planning powers over, meaning far more applications are likely to be approved and in far more locations. We could end up with the nightmare scenario of the wrong homes, in the wrong places, and without suitable infrastructure.
“However, we’re also doing all we can to change the system itself so it is fairer, reflects common sense and requires more realistic numbers.
“I hope that Mr Gove and his colleagues will take our concerns seriously and eagerly await a response – and I hope to welcome him to our green, beautiful and very special borough soon.”
All residents are urged to respond to the consultation before it closes at 5pm on January 24. For more information, including a wealth of information about the proposal and answers to common concerns, visit the Engage Wokingham Borough platform at engage.wokingham.gov.uk.
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