The race is on for Preston, South Ribble and Chorley councils to complete years of work that will determine where and how many new houses are built in each area – or else face having to start the lengthy process all over again.Advertisement
The trio of neighbouring districts also run the risk of a housebuilding free-for-all if the job is not done by a government-imposed deadline.
The authorities have been working together to develop the first ever joint local plan for Central Lancashire since 2018.
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The policy had initially been due to come into force by the end of this year, but issues including the pandemic, changes to the way housebuilding targets are calculated and staffing capacity have seen the date pushed back until June 2025. That is the same month that the government has now set as the cut-off point by which all local plans being prepared under existing rules must have been adopted.
Forthcoming reforms to the planning system will see an overhaul to the way in which the documents are drawn up – and any areas that are yet to introduce their new plans by the deadline will have to go back to the drawing board to ensure that the policies they produce meet the revised criteria.
The coinciding of that national deadline with the intended completion date for Central Lancashire’s local plan means that there is no slack that would allow for any further slippage in concluding the work that is continuing across Preston, South Ribble and Chorley.
If the summer 2025 date were missed, almost seven years worth of effort would, at least in part, go to waste – an outcome that Preston City Council’s cabinet member for planning and regulation David Borrow warned would be costly for each of the authorities concerned.
“We [have] made a decision to ensure that we [will] get the local plan [completed] this side of the 2025 deadline. If we fail, the costs…would be quite expensive, because we’d have to start all over again – [and] a huge amount of work has [already] been done,” Cllr Borrow told a recent meeting of the full council. He added that next year would be “crucial” in ensuring that the timescale was met.
Local plans are used to guide long-term residential and employment development across an area. Central Lancashire’s local plan will run until 2038.
The finalised document will allocate sites that are considered suitable for new housing or commercial premises – making it more likely that permission would be granted to build on those plots of land if and when planning applications were submitted for them.
If the three councils had to go back to square one over their new joint plan, they could also, in the interim, end up being obliged to approve development on land not earmarked for that purpose in their existing, individual local plans – because those policies expire in 2026.
In the absence of an up-to-date local plan, councils are usually expected to give the green light to all forms of sustainable development provided that any disadvantages of doing so would not “significantly outweigh the benefits”.
That is already the situation faced by Chorley Council, because, although its own standalone local plan remains current, the authority has been deemed by independent planning inspectors not to be able to demonstrate that it has a five-year supply of land set aside to enable it to meet its minimum new housing targets. In that scenario, national planning rules mean that the same so-called “presumption in favour of sustainable development” applies.
The Central Lancashire Local Plan will resolve that problem by resetting a longstanding arrangement between Preston, Chorley and South Ribble over the volume of new housing that should be built in each part of the overall patch. Back in 2012, the three agreed to pool and redistribute their minimum annual housebuilding targets, based upon the needs and circumstances of each district – an arrangement that was subsequently renewed on two occasions.
However, over the past five years, the agreement has repeatedly become bound up in wrangles with developers over whether it is still in date – and so whether it should continue to be taken into consideration when individual planning applications for proposed new estates are being determined.
The disputes have often resulted in public inquiries – involving all three Central Lancashire districts – at which planning inspectors sometimes came to different conclusions about how the local arrangements should be interpreted, leading to wild fluctuations in how many homes each borough is expected to build at any given point.
The new joint plan provides the opportunity to re-introduce a redistribution of the sub-region’s housing targets, which was ultimately abandoned three years ago in the wake of the merry-go-round of Planning Inspectorate decisions.
Cllr Borrow said that all three authorities have now “recognised the need to speed up” the plan-making process, adding that he was more confident now than he had been earlier this year that the June 2025 deadline would be hit.
Under the government’s proposed planning reforms, which were unveiled late last year, previously strict housing targets for different council areas will become simply “a starting point, with new flexibilities to reflect local circumstances”.
An initial public consultation into a draft version of the new Central Lancashire Local Plan was carried out at the turn of the year. The survey of residents’ opinions also included the full list of sites proposed as possible locations for housebuilding.
A follow-up consultation had been due to take place during the latter part of the summer, but a recent meeting of the Central Lancashire Joint Advisory Committee was told that that will now happen in the spring or summer of next year.
A revised timetable for the remaining stages of the local plan process is due to be published before the end of 2023, with a third and final chance for the public to have their say on the overall plan also needing to be factored in.
The document will then be submitted to the Planning Inspectorate for consideration. A likely three-month long public examination of the policy will follow before the plan can finally be adopted – if it has been approved by an inspector before the June 2025 deadline is reached.
The previous delays to the work mean that the first two years of the period covered by the new plan – 2023-24 – would apply retrospectively.
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