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County Council Effectively Bans Development, Setting Precedent With 'Seismic Effect'

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At a time when the UK is desperate for new housing, planning authorities in several small districts are fighting to keep new developments away. None have fought so hard as Wealden District Council.  

The Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells
The Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells

The East Sussex Council confirmed that, as a result of its continued assessment of nitrogen deposits in the Ashdown Forest Special Area of Conservation — a swath of heathland about 30 miles south of London, it will ban all new developments unless developers can prove a new scheme will not generate any additional vehicle traffic.

Batcheller Monkhouse planner Harriet Richardson said the decision presents a radical, problematic change.  

“Until now, agents at pre-application meetings with the planning committee were welcomed with open arms,” she said. “But now, the committee has told developers not even to bother submitting an application, because it will be refused.” 

The decision follows a High Court decision last month relating to Wealden District Council’s challenge of the Lewes District Council and South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA) Joint Core Strategy. 

The judge quashed the housing requirement policies of the SDNPA after the court found that traffic movements in the Ashdown Forest Special Area of Conservation had already cumulatively breached the 1,000 annual average daily traffic movements, quoted by Natural England as a threshold for acceptable levels of traffic.  

Rural Houses
Rural houses

In October 2015, the council deemed it required 832 new dwellings per year just to keep pace with immigration and demographic changes. Yet by the council’s own admission, it will allow only 369 new homes per year, maximum. 

“We are miles off our housing targets,” Richardson said.

Such strong resistance to new development is in on a collision course with the government’s push for housing on a national scale. The government’s recent white paper made it clear that it was looking for ways to deliver massive numbers of new homes both in London and elsewhere.

The report also made it clear that local authorities who downplay the number of homes needed could be rebuked and their planning powers curtailed. 

“If this continues, all that will be left to build on is brownsites,” land that is already developed, Richardson said. "Although some brownsite development is beneficial, the increased demand in that land means a loss of business use, which is a concern locally.”

She cited nearby Horsham, where enormous housing estates had been developed but there were no employers and no infrastructure in place to support so many homes.  

“They were in the wrong place,” Richardson said. “There was no demand for people to live there.” 

Ashdown Forest
Ashdown Forest

But Wealden and surrounding areas within similar distance from Ashdown Forest are in demand; they are vibrant commuter towns for London.  

Those other towns are also in the council’s sights. Because any person can challenge any development, the council is threatening to challenge any development that could increase traffic around Ashdown Forest. Places like Tunbridge Wells, East Grinstead, Lewes and perhaps even Brighton and Hove, may be affected.

Katie Lamb, director of planning at DMH Stallard, said the change will have a "seismic effect" on the delivery of housing and development during a time when the government is seeking to boost delivery. Lamb said the requirement to ensure there will be no additional traffic is a fig leaf; it is impossible to build a development without transportation.  

“We’re discussing this issue with clients at various stages of development, not just in the Wealden District, but within any area which could be said to generate traffic through Ashdown Forest,” Lamb said.

Lamb also notes that the council has not yet published the scientific evidence that nitrogen is a problem in the forest.

Brownfield Site
Brownfield site

Jim van den Bos, a spokesperson for the Wealden District Council, told Bisnow that the council must consider the threat to the Ashdown Forest ecology when making a decision about housing.

“The Ashdown Forest is a Special Area of Conservation, which we are legally bound to protect under Habitats Legislation,” van den Bos said. He added the scientific evidence will be published with the report goes to the next full council meeting.

The result of the ruling so far has been a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost application fees that were spent after pre-application meetings. Developers are foundering.  

Lamb and Richardson have formed working groups to help understand the issues and forge a way to protect the Ashdown Forest while allowing developers to build. Lamb’s partners include developers and big agencies like Savills. Richardson said she is partnering with transport consultants to get good data about traffic through the forest.   

Other places in the country are facing the same battle. Guildford Council recently proposed to scale down development plans, which runs the risk of isolating existing residents and businesses alike.  

Guildford-based planning specialist Steve Pozerskis said that while established residents in Guildford and the surrounding villages will be counting this as one in the eye for the developers, businesses have recognised the need for fresh enterprises, ideas and access to a trained workforce as crucial factors for success.

Guildford and Cathedral of Surrey

“The ‘Fortress Guildford’ stance will inevitably result in both businesses and homebuyers bypassing the town altogether, calling into question its role as a thriving commuter and business location,” Pozerskis said.

Guildford Borough Council slashed its housing target to deliver just 1,400 new homes by 2034 and has repeated its intention to concentrate on delivering homes on brownfield sites. The latest draft before councillors suggests building just 654 units per year. Pozerskis believes the idea of meeting government housing targets by building on brownfield land does not stack up.  

“While we are right behind the council in wishing to protect our Green Belt, brownfield sites are not the magic bullet capable of delivering all the homes the country needs,” he said.

Pozerskis said the basic problem is the fundamental misconception that every piece of abandoned or derelict industrial land could be turned over to new housing.

“Although brownfield land with planning permission for housing can generally be bought more cheaply than other land, it’s cheaper for a reason," he said.

The brownfields come with development costs, with the demolition of existing commercial buildings and expenses for possible site contamination. The price of negating those issues frequently outweighs the discount on the land.

Pozerskis said the council enjoyed the backing of those already living in the area, but there are thousands of people who need new homes, and delivery rates would have to rise to provide for them.

“The government has set out its intention to tackle the NIMBY element head on," he said. "And we believe the borough’s present course could invite further government intervention.”