We should stop panicking on planning problems in Shropshire

For those involved in planning, land supply often seems to be the only game in town. Where a council has not identified enough land for housing developments over the next five years, developers believe they can build almost anywhere.

This has led to a degree of panic in some councils, with planners and councillors approving pans which would otherwise have been rejected. The Shropshire Star reported Shropshire Council officers telling a meeting: “You can get speculative development on the edges of villages one after one after one. There is no way we can so no to these.”

A subsequent planning meeting was not only reported in the Star but also the Daily Mail. That’s because members of the Central Planning Committee described applications as “awful”, “horrendous” and “dangerous” before approving them.

The councillors reluctantly granted these applications because our county doesn’t have a five year land supply.

The problem is not confined to Shropshire. The Town and Country Planning Association said recently:

The impact of appeals on some local authorities has led to the growth of ‘planning by surrender’ whereby once plans are found out of date, local authorities approve applications they may otherwise have refused.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. National planning rules don’t say that anything goes if a council lacks land supply. The rules say that “sustainable” development must be approved. If a development is “dangerous” then surely it is not sustainable?

This takes me to my first planning meeting as a councillor. I’ve been to countless planning meetings before, but normally as an objector. Now it was my turn to help make decisions.

First up was a scheme for 14 houses at Halford, on the edge of Craven Arms. The site is on the edge of the Shropshire Hills area of outstanding natural beauty. I told the committee:

“There are open fields in front of you that haven’t changed in centuries, and you will lose those gateways. There are major objections about putting this on the edge of Craven Arms and in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.”

Such sites are only supposed to be built upon where there is exceptional need.

“This is not exceptional; it’s executive, speculative housing.”

The vote against the proposal was unanimous despite officers recommending approval because of shortage of land supply.

A plan for four houses in the heart of Caynham was also thrown out. We were unhappy with access to the site but sustainability was the key argument. A previous planning application had already been refused on sustainability grounds. The agent for the developer argued that sustainability was no longer an issue; but it is. The National Planning Policy Framework imposes a presumption in favour of sustainable development. Caynham, with no facilities except the village hall, is not a sustainable location for housing development. Only one councillor voted for the scheme.

A bid for 250 homes in Shifnal was approved, despite concerns about flooding from Silvermere. The most difficult application was for nine homes off the Kerry Road in Bishop’s Castle. A decision on this application has been deferred awaiting further information on access and drainage.

The Craven Arms, Bishop’s Castle and Caynham proposals were all outside areas allocated for housing Shropshire’s site allocation plan – SAMDev. All were recommended for approval by officers. The Caynham decision shows that councillors will stick closely to national planning rules and not approve unsustainable development. The rejection of housing on the edge of Craven Arms shows that protection of the AONB is paramount, again in line with national planning rules.

That’s why we shouldn’t panic over planning rules. There is scope to throw out unsustainable proposals and those that will wreck our beautiful countryside. Recent appeal decisions show that the planning inspectorate will not necessarily overturn local decisions where plans are unsustainable or special countryside will be affected (for example, at Ellesmere).

Notes: The planning rules

Any local authority in England that fails to demonstrate that it has identified enough land for five years’ worth of housebuilding has its local plan suspended under currently planning rules.

Shropshire does not have a five year land supply. That means that its local plan, the core strategy, is out-of-date according to the rules in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). It must approve housing schemes according to the presumption in favour of sustainable development, not the local plan. Sustainability has three dimensions according to the NPPF; economic, social and environmental.

Shropshire will have a five year land supply once the SAMDev is approved by the planning inspectorate. This is not expected to be until early 2015. But the “emerging” SAMDev will have growing influence over planning decisions after it is submitted to the inspectorate in July under what are known as prematurity rules.