GGG open letter to councillors 29 May 2014

Dear Councillor

You may have seen the summary of the agenda for the Executive Committee on 4th June. If you are not on the Executive Committee, you may not have seen this, or yet taken the time to read it. GGG feels that it merits serious criticism, and actually represents a serious failure of the democratic process.

We would therefore ask you to challenge it, as it requires reconsideration.

You will be aware that planning is a matter of major concern nationally, with many people terrified about an apparent assault on the countryside and apparent reluctance among house builders to consider the prioritisation of brownfield land. This has been a topic that has led to comment by a number of significant experts, including Sir Simon Jenkins, Dame Helen Ghosh, Shaun Spiers, Sir Andrew Motion, Sir Richard Rodgers and others. Civic Voice has expressed concern regarding a democratic deficit in the planning process. Greg Mulholland MP has a private member’s bill requesting a revision of the NPPF, with a second reading on 6 June 2014 (GGG has asked all 4 MPs to vote in favour). There is a parliamentary select committee currently reviewing the efficient operations of the NPPF. You may also be aware that there is much comment about a housing bubble in London and the South East, likely to be near the top of the market at present and that mortgage approvals are currently falling; house building is at a periodic high, where the current constraint on the number of homes being built is the national supply of bricks. Not all those homes will be lived in: 18% of homes built in London are sold to non-resident buyers and stay empty; this too calls into question the real need, national or local. Further there are, nationally, 1 million empty homes (not 2nd homes).

This situation is currently fluid and there is scope for political decision-making as part of this process, as the Scrutiny Committee noted. It is arguable that the impact of concern about this issue has already affected elections, both locally and the European elections. As you may be aware, both the Green Party and UKIP are staunch supporters of the countryside and, from different standpoints, oppose greenfield building; and the impact on the recent elections of this matter has perhaps not yet been fully considered by the main political parties. This is not a simple and straightforward procedural planning matter. It requires your judgement.

For your information, we are including a note on the use of brownfield land in Guildford prepared by GGG, which we consider indicates that there is substantial brownfield land within the borough that could be utilised for the purposes of development. It is an illustrative brief document, but we are in the process of preparing a more detailed work. We do not consider that there is a need to consider greenfield sites in preference. Conversely, there is precedent that Local Plans have been subjected to judicial review if there has not been a proper review of the alternatives to use of the Green Belt. We would also note, if you were not aware, that Mole Valley initially considered that it needed to plan to use 2% of its Green Belt for housing, but MVDC is now implementing its Local Plan well in excess of its housing target using only brownfield areas.

If you are not on the Scrutiny Committee, you may not have seen the results of that Scrutiny Committee, and so for your information we are attaching a GGG press announcement summarising the conclusions of that meeting.

The draft local plan report is here:—Draft-Local-Plan-Reportpdf/pdf/pdf46.pdf

Scrutiny Committee decision disregarded
We note that agenda item 8 reiterates the conclusion of the Scrutiny Committee:
“To express concern over the housing number as set out in the Draft Local Plan and to ask the Head of Planning and the Lead Councillor for Planning to review the housing number before going to Executive for consideration on 4 June and Council on 19 June 2014″.

The officer response does not indicate that such a review has been carried out, but states: ” A meeting is being arranged [ie has not yet taken place] between the Lead Councillor, the Head of Planning Services, the Executive Head of Development, the Head of Housing Advice, the Managing Director, members of the Policy Team and appointed advisers such as GL Hearn and Edge Analytics to review the housing number for inclusion in the draft Local Plan. A full and detailed explanation of how the housing number was arrived at is attached to this note as Sub Appendix A”.

The Scrutiny Committee required review of the planning number. That has not taken place and there has not even been a preliminary meeting. It is not clear how the Local Plan can be processed for approval by the Full Council without the revision of the housing number as required by the Scrutiny Committee. We would question what the function of the Scrutiny Committee is when its conclusions can be wholly disregarded by the Executive Committee. Far from being revised and reviewed, the number is unchanged, with an intention to hold a meeting at a future date and a series of apparently spurious justifications given for not revising the number as the Scrutiny Committee required.

No constraints applied, with no justification given
In Appendix A it is stated, as if a matter of fact, that
“If it can be demonstrated that we can meet our objectively assessed housing need over the plan period, using suitable and deliverable land, then a housing number lower than our objectively assessed housing need will not be found sound at examination.” This assertion is not demonstrable from the evidence of other areas and is not necessarily valid. No evidence is adduced for this statement. It would appear to contradict ministerial advice and the letters sent to our MPs by Nick Boles and the written advice from Nick Boles to the Planning Inspectorate in relation to the application of constraints arising from the Green Belt. It is a further demonstration that there has been no attempt made to apply any constraints whatsoever to the planning process. No such constraints have been applied relative to the number generated by the revised SHMA.

Conversely, there is precedent that Local Plans have been subject to judicial review if there has not been a proper review of the alternatives to use of the Green Belt.

It would appear from ministerial advice that there is not a requirement to meet objectively assessed housing need in full if Green Belt constraints apply (see letters from Nick Boles previously circulated). There is no suggestion in those letters that these requirements are just transferred into an adjacent area, but that Green Belt is a justification for actual reduction of objectively assessed housing need. This might arguably seem to be a grey area in terms of ministerial advice, but is certainly not merely a process of reallocation to adjacent authorities as the officer’s report would seem to suggest. This, like other remarks made on an advisory basis by the planning department, does not seem wholly accurate. Councillors should note that there is a precedent for judicial review of a Local Plan on the basis of poor advice by a planning department, if that advice is not demonstrably accurate and impartial. It is not clear that this advice is accurate.

Objectively assessed need was inflated, but has not been revised
In any event, it had been extensively argued at the Scrutiny Committee meeting, by councillors, that the objectively assessed housing need as arrived at in the SHMA is overstated. The numbers use an inflated trend – if necessary we can reiterate these arguments. This conclusion has been disregarded. The ONS data has been revised and the preliminary conclusions from The Guildford Society on their website indicate that this would give rise to an even lower estimate of housing need than should have been considered. However, this is not taken into account in the documents, which were published on the same day as the ONS data and therefore presumably have not yet taken these into account. Case law differentiates between housing need (the core data), housing requirement and housing targets. Constraints apply to the housing requirement (as generated by the SHMA) to arrive at the housing target (lower than the SHMA almost everywhere, but not here- the numbers are the same; the applicable constraints are not applied). The preliminary view that housing need can be justified at a SHMA number of around 470 should fall therefore, and with the application of constraints the combined residents’ view that the housing target numbers should be 300-345 remains constant.

5 year supply of housing land not in place
It has also been argued to the Council that there is in fact a 5 year supply of housing land and the arguments set out in relation to this matter have been ignored. Existing planning permissions are, by definition, available, suitable and achievable (with some small exceptions). When these are added to student housing permissions, there is already a very substantial supply of housing, before any new sites are considered. If the available brownfield sites within the town are included, even taking into account only those available within the initial 5 years, then there is a 5 year supply.

Existing planning permissions total 1480 (source: revised SHLAA). Student housing permissions total 2121 (source: UniS planning officer) (these specifically count towards the housing total, per Nick Boles’ letter to Sir Paul Beresford). The total is therefore 3601 (1480+2121=3601). Using the SHMA number (itself overstated) of 652, with a 5% uplift, gives a total of 3423 (652 x 5 x 105% =3423). It is therefore demonstrable that existing permissions exceed even the high objective assessment of need (3601>3423). Why, therefore, is it repeatedly stated that there no 5 year supply? Even if some of the existing planning permissions should be deferred (which must in itself imply that the developers are engaged in land banking which will distort the planning process) there is surely some land that is available so that a 5 year supply can be recognised? This is clearly the case.

The reiteration that this supply does not exist as if it is a given fact seems to imply a predetermined choice of course of action, and seems to suggest some desire to uplift the requirement by 20% to distort the decision making process, which is not acceptable.

In addition, there has been an elaborate game of double and negative circular counting to demonstrate that the current estimate of need should be backdated to 2011 to create a shortfall that could never have been anticipated. This is patently ridiculous, and throws the whole assessment and calculation into disrepute. Who are the numbers designed to persuade?

It is clear that using the previous local plan numbers and then the agreed interim measure of 322 – as agreed by the High Court – means that for the 10 year period to 2011 (or, if you prefer, the 10 year period to 2013) there was no historic shortfall. These numbers too can be supplied again if you wish.

Lack of revision as required by Scrutiny Committee
As we have seen previously, both in relation to the proposed involvement of the public in the scrutiny of the evidence base and the revision of the SHMA, the later drafts of parts of the Local Plan documentation seem to be revised remarkably little from the initial drafts, and the process of consultation and review, either with councillors or members of the public, does not appear to result in any modification.

This is unacceptable. It has been repeatedly stated by council officers that planning is not a referendum. Neither, however, is it the preserve of the planning department alone. The Localism Act enjoins a duty of consultation, and the right of communities to be heard. This does not mean that consultation with those communities should be an empty process.

Furthermore, and even more significantly, the choices of elected representatives should not be ignored. The decisions made by the Council should not just be set aside as if merely consultative.

It is not clear whether this failure to respond to the decision of the Scrutiny Committee is an abuse of Executive Committee power within the council, or whether the Planning Department are acting independently without the Executive Committee’s remit. In either event, we consider that the formal decisions made by councillors at the Scrutiny Committee should be followed and respected. As accepted by the Chief Planning Officer at that committee, political decisions are a matter for elected councillors, but, once made, they must be carried out and not ignored.

If there are areas within this document that you would like to discuss further, do please contact us.

With regards

Guildford Greenbelt Group