Councils failing to protect countryside

9th May 2017

CPRE research finds Green Belt and AONB at risk from local authority growth ambitions as councils are failing to apply planning guidance that is designed to protect precious countryside.

Councils are expected by Government to establish and have a plan to meet an 'Objectively Assessed Need' (OAN) for housing in their area, which takes into account issues such as projected population growth and future employment opportunities. Yet planning rules also state that this number should take into account constraints such as protected countryside.

CPRE research today shows that, since 2012, 24 councils out of the 62 local authorities for which there is clear data have heeded national policy and established housing targets in approved local plans lower than their OAN, with the majority reducing their targets due to environmental or countryside constraints. These include Chichester, Lewes and Wealden. Chichester reduced its target by 23% and Lewes by 30%. Other local authorities, such as Brighton, Watford, Hastings and Crawley, have reduced their targets by 50% or more.

Other councils, however, have pursued the full OAN despite a high proportion of their land being protected countryside. In East Devon, the planning inspector accepted the local authority’s contention that OAN of 17,100 houses should be met in full because of high expected levels of job creation in the district. In Christchurch and East Dorset, where the local plan meets the objectively assessed need for 8,490 houses over 15 years in full, 84% of the area of the plan is covered by Green Belt, AONB and nature conservation land.

CPRE finds that this approach is continuing elsewhere. For example, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, part of which is covered by the Prime Minister's constituency, is pursuing their full OAN target of 14,000 houses over 20 years despite 84% of the land being Green Belt. In Mid Sussex, the planning inspector has been reported as forcing the council to accept a number even higher than their OAN of 876 houses per year  to help Crawley meet their 'unmet need'. Mid Sussex has significant areas of precious countryside, particularly the High Weald AONB. Neighbouring authorities, particularly Wealden which has a similar proportion of protected land, have been able to reduce their housing targets. Campaigners and local MPs have long fought a consortium of developers who have argued for a still higher housing target.

CPRE's planning campaign manager Paul Miner comments: "Government planning rules state that councils should reduce their numbers if faced with significant constraints. A number of councils around the country have done just this. One has to ask, therefore, why the Government is allowing councils to ignore national guidance in places such as Maidenhead.

"We need to build more genuinely affordable homes. But current rules promote urban sprawl and cause the unnecessary loss of countryside. A more transparent and less damaging method of planning for housing is urgently needed."

Government ministers recently pledged to create a new method for councils to calculate their Objectively Assessed Need. The proposals were expected in early summer, but the General Election is believed to have delayed their release. CPRE is calling for a method that better reflects local need, protected countryside and current building rates.

CPRE's new research follows previous work by consultants Lichfields, who in 2016 found a further seven councils that reduced OAN due to constraints or adverse impacts. Added to CPRE's work, this would total more than 30 councils that have reduced their housing targets, most often on environmental grounds.