Decision Time in the Thames Valley

Planning matters

Our award winning blog gives a fresh perspective on the latest trends in planning and development.

Decision Time in the Thames Valley

Decision Time in the Thames Valley

Grant Swan 27 Jan 2016
Whilst much of the industry looks on as the Housing and Planning Bill makes its way through Parliament (NLP's breakdown of what you need to know), eyes in the Thames Valley are firmly fixed on the many local authorities who have either commenced, or are about to commence, consultations on their Local Plans.
Housing Need
In 2014, the Oxford Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) was published and concluded that over 100,000 new homes are needed in Oxfordshire between 2011 and 2031. This was followed in 2015 by the publication of the Central Bucks Housing and Economic Development Needs Assessment (HEDNA) which identifies a need for 43,000 homes in the central Buckinghamshire area between 2013 and 2033. Finally, a presentation on the Berkshire SHMA (as it still has not been published in final form) showed a need of 112,010 homes between 2013 and 2036. The result is a ‘policy off’ local authority identified housing need over a 25 year period in the central Thames Valley area of 261,570 homes. Following scrutiny of the evidence base and application of any policy drivers (e.g. more growth associated with employment) this figure could increase further.

With the requirement for local authorities to have ‘produced’ a Local Plan by early 2017, the Thames Valley authorities are all in the midst of Local Plan preparation, with a myriad of approaches. In the case of West Oxfordshire the Council chose to produce a new Plan which did not meet the need identified in the SHMA, without consultation with its neighbours and so it has been sent back to the drawing board.

Aylesbury Vale District Council (DC) consulted on its emerging Local Plan at the end of 2015, and included not less than 9 different options for meeting housing need in the (relatively unconstrained) District. More recently, Chiltern DC and South Bucks DC are consulting on a Joint Local Plan with 12 different options for meeting their need, including strategic Green Belt releases. As it stands there are now 9 local authorities in the wider Thames Valley area having recently (since October 2015) undertaken, who are undertaking, or are about to undertake consultations on emerging Local Plans. Those of note are as follows:

Many of these authorities have a number of National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) footnote 9 constraints, most notably the Green Belt and AONB. Whilst some local authorities such as Aylesbury Vale and Wokingham are mostly outside the Green Belt, others- such as RBWM and Chiltern - are heavily constrained by it. Whilst the ‘constrained’ authorities may look to the adjoining councils to assist in meeting this need, the significant level of housing need may mean that the few ‘unconstrained’ authorities simply cannot take all of the unmet need of the others. Furthermore, it may be less sustainable (as considered in the Cambridge Inspector’s report) and potentially more environmentally harmful to meet the need in this fashion, as opposed to strategic Green Belt releases in the ‘constrained’ authorities.

What the West Oxfordshire example shows is that for those local authorities that seek to identify housing need unilaterally, or that hope that requirements will lessen over time, they are unlikely to find success with their new Plans. Instead, local authorities should be looking to this challenge as an opportunity to positively plan for their area’s needs over the next 20 years, by tackling the problem head on. Strategic Green Belt release could result in a net benefit by delivering properly planned settlements. Moreover, in these times of local authority austerity, more housing equals more revenue for councils, through both New Homes Bonus and Council tax, coupled with more local workers and shoppers to boost local economies.

A ‘head in the sand’ approach will not make the problem go away; those brave enough to meet the challenge could instead be creating tomorrow’s communities today.