A confused picture emerging, slowly
Over the course of this week I have been attending the Examination in Public of the Swale Local Plan. The plan sets out the policy framework for housing, employment, transport and the environment up to the year 2031.
The purpose of the Examination is so that a Government Planning Inspector can determine whether the plan is “sound” in relation to the policies set out by the National Planning Policy Framework.
In detailed and sometimes turgid discussion, it essentially pits the Council, who wish to control development, against developers, who want to argue for greater housing allocations, both in numbers and sites. A number of house builders are present, represented by informed and combative, even when smoothly polite, agents. Prominent are people from Gladmans and Persimmon, whilst the most querulous is a spokesman for the Home Builders Federation, both verbose and repetitive.
The fixation for all is with numbers. Swale has drafted a local plan that provides for 540 new homes a year. This in itself is a controversial figure, causing alarm in places like Minster, North Sittingbourne and Teynham. However, there is an assumption that this falls short of need, and whilst Swale is defending its 540 figure, they appear to acknowledge that 540 is well below the objective needs assessment. The House Builders argue, repeatedly and at every opportunity, that too many of that 540 will supply migration from London and local youngsters will be squeezed further out of the housing market.
Swale’s position is that the historic evidence of the housing market, the reduced viability of selling properties in Sheppey and Sittingbourne, plus future doubts about infrastructure investment, mean that 540 a year is a realistic policy target. However, they have made it pretty clear that the Inspector is probably going to raise the expected provision and they have made preparations for including sites not in the plan and to expand the numbers at sites that are in.
A number of developers have already argued that the examination in public should be curtailed until the Inspector has indicated the kind of numbers she thinks would make the plan sound. They say that it is impossible to evaluate sites in the plan and sites that they themselves would like to add( Omission sites) without knowing the target figure. It is clear that the process will be drawn out. Swale is almost certain to have to produce a revised plan, consult on it, and go back to the examination in public. Developers don’t mind this, as without a plan a number of sites will come forward very quickly from the more aggressive developers.
The other prominent area of discussion has been about Faversham. Objectors to the draft plan say that too much of the housing allocation has been concentrated in the Thames Gateway part of Swale( Sittingbourne and Sheppey) and not enough in Faversham. Developers are very interested in pursuing this because viability studies show that Faversham is likely to be a better market for selling houses, than Sittingbourne and Sheppey. The Council’s defence of the comparative protection of Faversham is the need to maintain the historic heritage of the town, the high value farming land and the protection of the area south of the A2. Defenders of Faversham argue that the area cannot expand without improvements to Brenley Corner, whilst house builders point to HS1 as a reason for town expansion. What is certain, is that Swale may increase the numbers in line with any overall increase in allocations set by the Inspector, but will not expect Faversham to meet a disproportionate share of the shortfall between the 540 houses per annum and whatever broad figure is set out by the Inspector.
Next Tuesday the examination resumes with consideration of the existing housing allocations and the omission sites. No doubt developers will push for even more sites to be considered, with one representative continually calling for more growth in the villages.