Local Plan – comments on Inspector’s Feedback to GBC

As I understand it, GBC has had a QC and a Planning Inspector on its team to try to navigate its course through the Local Plan process.

The report by HM Planning Inspector (Jonathan Bore) dated 23rd March seems to suggest some basic flaws in the draft plan “many of which will require the council to produce Main Modifications to the plan’s policies and text”.

Let’s take a look at the report and Mr Bore’s comments along with some context from the Guildford Society’s comments in respect of the most recent consultation.

Mr Bore begins by challenging the SHMA (Strategic Housing Market Assessment). He questions why there is no analysis of the deterioration of affordability ratios between 2014 and 2016. He highlights the approach taken by GLHearn to adjust the OAN (Objective Assessment of Need) to reflect household formation rates amongst the 25-34 age group and pointed to his (Mr Bore’s) rejection of a similar approach (by GL Hearn) in Waverley.

Mr Bore notes that “the level of identified affordable housing need is exceptionally high“ and requests a paper be produced by the Council to identify the required uplift to the OAN that would be “expected to improve market housing affordability and deliver as many as possible affordable homes”. Mr Bore states that this should be a “policy off” analysis.

It should be noted that one of the criticisms the Guildford Society has consistently made throughout the Local Plan process has been that the Evidence Base has followed the plan rather than the policies being based on the evidence (the latter being a “policy off” approach).

There is a duty to co-operate baked into the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) and this should have meant including in the OAN the unmet needs of surrounding boroughs (the majority of whose local plans are more recent and settled). Mr Bore requests a paper from Guildford Borough Council to demonstrate how unmet housing need in the Housing Market Area will be accommodated.

Mr Bore expresses his concern about the Council’s proposed stepped housing trajectory (however sensible that may be under the circumstances) and says “this appears to be an unacceptable aspect of the plan and the Council needs to consider the steps that should be taken to improve housing delivery in the earlier years of the plan.” He requests a paper from the Council with an amended trajectory and in particular the relationship between improvements to the A3 and other infrastructure projects and that trajectory.

The Guildford Society expressed concern about the stepped trajectory because, in each of the first five years of the Local Plan period, Guildford would not be able to demonstrate it can meet its 5-year housing land supply target and all and any development proposal (in line with the plan or not) would be fair game – the very antithesis of positive plan-making.

Another consistent Guildford Society criticism of the Evidence Base has been the woeful, flawed, and to-date-unamended Settlement Profiles Report. Mr Bore highlights that the Spatial Development Strategy shows no indication of “the numerical balance of housing development between different settlements”. The Council has been hamstrung by its poor Evidence Base in this regard which neither indicates what development might be required in each settlement nor establishes the basis on which the provision might be achieved – and neither does it establish any quantum that might be taken on by any neighbourhood plan. Again he requests a paper to show how this might look in practice.

Mr Bore’s fifth point is straight out of the Guildford Society list of criticisms. Mr Bore identifies that, with so much identified unmet housing need, the Council persists in favouring alternative uses to protect other uses. This approach was demonstrated by the choice to build a Waitrose supermarket on an unsuitable site in the town centre over and above using the site for housing (a broadly similar land value) which could have accommodated 250 homes at a similar density to the nearby Printing House Square.

The Guildford Society questions the need for the quantity of retail space on the North Street development and also supports the principles of the Guildford Vision Group in seeking to regenerate the riverside in such a way that many of the inefficient land uses can be replaced by residential units.

The Guildford Vision Group has highlighted that the Council’s failings in planning the town centre has led to additional pressures on the Green Belt. Mr Bore agrees.

It is interesting to note that Guildford Borough Council has a Town Centre Regeneration Strategy (TCRS) that is in several respects non-compliant with the Local Plan because of its repurposing of designated employment land for residential development. The Council did not adopt the TCRS because it would undermine its Local Plan process, and yet, the Inspector is saying that this was precisely what was needed to help deliver unmet housing need.

The Guildford Vision Group approach looks highly coherent in this regard against the Council’s “same old” approach to spatial planning.

Mr Bore questions the strategy for student housing – and the Local Plan draft for simply setting a campus-based rule without applying a land allocation and quantum to the plan to deliver it.

The Guildford Society has been critical since 2013 of the Green Belt Evidence Base which failed to make the case for (a) any development in the Green Belt; and (b) for the exceptional or very special circumstances in each case for incursions into the Green Belt or the redrawing of the Green Belt boundaries. The Society has not taken the one-size-fits-all approach of arguing that no adjustment of the Green Belt need be made. Rather we have argued that any adjustment needs to be well argued, permanent and sustainable. The Society has also argued that, as part of redrawing the Green Belt boundaries, the Council needs to have identified how it will provide land for future Plan periods so that its policies are sustainable in the long term.

The Inspector has agreed that the Green Belt policies lack clear explanation of exceptional circumstances (strategic and local – back to the settlement profiles again).

The Guildford Society and the Guildford Vision Group have both consistently criticised the draft plan for its failure to require good urban design. Mr Bore has agreed. He says “there is nothing about the masterplanning of large sites” and goes on to note another bugbear of both groups as to “how the public can engage in the overall masterplanning process or how overall masterplans and the different components of the larger schemes are to be subject to design review – essential parts of the urban design process”. Mr Bore goes on to say that “the Council should take advice on the techniques available for reviewing both the quality of existing places (such as Place Check) and on the quality of the design of emerging schemes (for example through public comment on 3D modelling)”. This could have been written to express the issues with Solum and similar schemes, but equally the stand-offish behaviour of the Council with regard to the Guildford Vision Group’s excellent strategic views (whether one agrees with them or not).

Mr Bore makes various other points which I will not cover here, but he is very clear in his condemnation of the proposed indicators (most of the negative) scattered through the plan.

The comments on Employment demonstrate that Guildford Borough Council is failing businesses. We already know that three major corporations with their headquarters located in Guildford in about 200,000 square feet are planning to move away from Guildford with the principal reasons being traffic congestion and poor transport connectivity, and the lack of homes in the borough that employees can afford.

The Inspector’s comments also seem to suggest that he finds the draft Local Plan to be incoherent in its land use allocations, and that is exactly what this Local Plan is meant to be for, and it does not plan positively (particularly in its monitoring indicators). In many of the places Guildford Borough Council has sought to include behavioural or sustainability controls, Mr Bore has found them to be unduly onerous and requires them to reflect the NPPF.

Mr Bore comments relatively little on infrastructure but does hold out an olive branch to the Council’s attempts to restrict development before infrastructure is in place. He suggests that there should be allowance for a so-called ‘Grampian’ condition which could achieve this. It is not clear how this would sit with the requirement to retain a 5-year housing land supply at all times as it would almost certainly lead to uncontrollable development or a meaningless housing target. This seems to be inconsistent with Mr Bore’s earlier dismissal of Guildford Borough Council’s proposed stepped housing target. It does, however, echo what many respondents to every consultation since 2013 have said about housing and infrastructure.

The Council’s approach to the town centre – singularly lacking in the Local Plan – is predicated on modal shift. The inspector dismisses as “unlawful” one of the main planks for reducing town centre traffic, namely, the denial of access by residents, through planning restrictions, to parking permits.

This response by Mr Bore may be the beginning of the unravelling of the Council’s unrealistic approach to town centre land-use planning, infrastructure and masterplanning. It certainly makes the Guildford Vision Group look to be a much more coherent force in planning the town than the Local Planning Authority.

It is not ‘back to the drawing board’ for the Council but it does seem an awful lot of time and money has been wasted – perhaps a lot of this could have been prevented had the Local Plan Forum not been quietly dispensed with in the post-Mansbridge era.

It does now seem unlikely that the Council can meet its own proposed timetable for the Local Plan and it seems inevitable that it will need to undergo further consultation. This would give plenty of opportunity for inserting a positive plan for the Town Centre, and it would seem appropriate to incorporate the well-considered Vision Group plan, in large part of not in full, within the body of the Local Plan – as had been argued back in 2014 when the leaders of the Council (at the time) were arguing that to include the town centre masterplan would delay the urgently needed Local Plan.

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About GuildfordPlan

GuildfordPlan is a 'whiteboard' set up by Julian Lyon to think out loud as part of the process of preparing the Guildford Society representations to the various Local Plan Consultations