Tony Johnson: A house, a house! My borough for a house!

Last week’s Wokingham Paper reported about losing those two planning appeals marks a setback for Wokingham Borough Council (WBC).

In one, the Planning Inspectorate gave permission for a Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANG) south of Wokingham. In the other they gave outline permission for 20 houses in Swallowfield.

This commentary helps you understand why these decisions are problematic for all of us, not just WBC.

The SANG Decision

Having lost an appeal to WBC previously on another case in the High Court, the development company made separate planning applications for the houses and the SANG. The land proposed for the development lies to the east of Finchampstead Road in an area close to the Wokingham Family Golf Course.

There was public protest about the proposals. WBC’s planning committee rejected both applications. The development company took their appeal for the SANG to the Planning Inspectorate. The planning inspector granted the application for a change of use from a green space to a green space, so there couldn’t possibly be a problem with that could there?

The inspector decided that the housing development was separate from the SANG. Having done that, the inspector judged that WBC’s argument was wrong and that approving the SANG wouldn’t be the premature decision that had been the basis of our planning committee’s decision.

If we’re to accept the planning inspector’s logic, it’d seem that development companies are now in the business of developing SANGs which they don’t sell, rather than houses which they do.

But the inspector’s decision gets even more curious when compared with another recent High Court decision. In this, the High Court judges said that you couldn’t make a decision on part of a project, only on the whole thing.

So one might believe that the Planning Inspectorate had reversed a High Court decision, and that’s tantamount to planning inspectors being above the law.

But the Planning Inspectorate is an executive agency of DCLG, i.e. they’re civil servants acting on behalf of a government minister.

Those of a legislative mind will have spotted the problem … who’s in charge?

For everyone else, ringside seats will be on sale soon. ‘In this style, 10/6d’.

The Swallowfield Decision

Swallowfield is a small village lying just to the east of the old Basingstoke Road between Spencers Wood and Wellington Country Park. The development site is a field just off a narrow lane and accessed via a grassy track between two existing houses.

The planning company made an outline planning application for permission to develop the site, which WBC Planning Committee refused on the basis that it was the wrong houses in the wrong place and didn’t fit the Local Plan.

In notifying the developer of the refusal, WBC confirmed that it was able to demonstrate the five year land supply that national policy requires.

At the appeal, the inspector said that WBC’s Local Plan was out of date, but despite agreeing that the development ‘would undermine the Council’s spatial development strategy and would harm the character of the local area’, felt that this didn’t outweigh the benefits, so gave outline planning permission.

However, during the appeal process the inspector noted that WBC didn’t have a five year land supply, it only had ‘supply estimates of 4.63 years and 4.93 years’ [theirs and ours] but it ‘has taken steps to close the shortfall in deliverable sites within the borough’.

Wot – No Land Supply?

When there’s no five year land supply, the developers can bypass the Local Plan and build where they like. What this means is that we’re left with the wrong houses in the wrong places without sufficient infrastructure, which in turn leads to traffic jams getting worse and a lack of places at schools, doctors, dentists and so on.

A couple of years ago in the case of Gladman Developments vs WBC in the High Court, the developers used the five year land supply argument but their case was dismissed.

Guess which development company made the Finchampstead Road appeal and what they’re going to do next?

You now understand how a gazelle feels when it’s surrounded by hyenas and vultures.

The Last Word

The five year land supply currently measures the input of land to the development process, it doesn’t measure throughput and gets nowhere near measuring output.

The lack of any local measures on developers’ output means that DCLG and Government haven’t a clue as to who (or where) the non-performing developers are when there aren’t enough houses to go round.

Currently Wokingham has issued around 9,000 planning permissions. That’s equivalent to a land bank which would accommodate the borough’s own population growth for around 15 to 20 years.

And as has been shown nationally, adding to the land banks hasn’t meant more houses being delivered, so there’s no point in making things worse by allowing more appeals or by adding a 20% penalty for non-delivery by ‘da Bildaaz’.

Wokingham alone won’t fix the nation’s problems, especially the wrong ones.


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Phil Creighton

Editor of The Wokingham Paper, and has worked in local journalism for more than 20 years including the Wokingham Times, Bracknell Standard and Reading Evening Post. He's also written for computer magazines, The Baptist Times and, to his delight and probably not yours, interviewed several Doctor Whos.

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