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Incredible Housing Numbers

Incredible Housing NumbersSadly, we don't mean 'incredible' in the sense of amazing and wonderful - but rather we mean incredible in the literal sense of the word - not believable.

In the best Victor Meldrew tradition, this story is "I don't believe it!" incredible.

It's incredible because David Eaves and Trevor Fiddler have just come up with a new and vastly different version of the five year housing supply figure for Fylde.

It's just over half of the number they published only two months earlier in June.

If this new figure is right then we think the whole basis of the new draft Local Plan is wrong.

If their new figure is wrong, it's probably because there has been some very dodgy behaviour going on.

Either way, this is news of monumental importance to Fylde.

They have produced this new figure irrespective of what Fylde Council Planning Officers have produced, because they are convinced that it is the common sense way forward.

They also appear to believe that - because their letter and report is not phrased in planning speak - it will produce a more positive response when considered by Government.

Their new figure has been sent to our MP with a request that he presents it to the Department [of Communities and Local Government] for approval - with his support.

We'll return to this aspect a little later, but first we'll look at how we got here.

We've lost count how many times Fylde's failure to produce a 'five year supply' of planning permissions has been the cause of lost appeals and granted planning permissions in the last few years.

Ever since Queensway ("....local planning authorities should consider favourably applications for housing where they are unable to demonstrate an up-to-date five year supply of deliverable sites....") decision after decision has gone in favour of developers because Fylde couldn't demonstrate that it had a five year supply of land with the appropriate permissions being granted.

Examples from officers reports include

13 March 2013 - Land South Of Moss Side Lane, Ribby With Wrea "The Council continues to be unable to deliver a 5 year supply of housing land as is required by the NPPF, and no part of the development plan currently provides any realistic method of doing so without the development of out-of settlement sites that deliver ‘sustainable development’."

13 March 2013 - Land At Little Tarnbrick Farm, Blackpool Road, Kirkham: "The proposed development does not accord with Local Plan Policy SP2. Notwithstanding this the Council is not able to demonstrate a 5 year supply of housing." and ".... the council remains unable to demonstrate the 5 year housing requirement (including historic under-provision and NPPF buffer of 20% due to that under provision)."

22 May 2013 - Land (Adjacent 53), Bryning Lane, Ribby With Wrea: "....as the RSS figure remains the most recent figure that is supported by an evidence base it is appropriate to continue to use the figure of 306 dwellings per annum in the RSS, along with a buffer to reflect historic under-delivery as is required by NPPF."

26 June 2013 - Land South Of Chain Lane, Staining: "...This means that it is appropriate to continue to use the figure of 306 dwellings per annum in the RSS, along with a buffer to reflect historic under-delivery as is required by NPPF, in assessing residential planning applications.."

1 August 2013 - Wesham Planning Inspector's Report para 117. "....In the absence of a five year supply of deliverable sites for housing, existing development plan policies for the supply of housing land are out of date. The release of greenfield land is necessary in this instance, and indeed, unavoidable. No other matters, including the specific circumstances of the site, have been found to outweigh the identified need....."

Fylde's Local Plan Steering Group had previously spent months and months considering what the number should be.

We did a full report of those arguments in Housing Numbers back in June 2102. At that time the debate was around 255 to 280 dwellings a year.

The process that should be used to produce the numbers is set out in the a Government Briefing Note (follow this link to see 'Planning for Housing).

It says Councils should:

  • use their evidence base to ensure that their Local Plan meets the full, objectively assessed needs for market and affordable housing in the housing market area;
  • Identify key sites which are critical to the delivery of the housing strategy over the plan period;
  • identify and update annually a supply of specific deliverable sites sufficient to provide five years worth of housing against their housing requirements with an additional buffer of 5% (moved forward from later in the plan period) to ensure choice and competition in the market for land. (but where there has been a record of persistent under delivery of housing, local planning authorities should increase the buffer to 20% (moved forward from later in the plan period) to provide a realistic prospect of achieving the planned supply and to ensure choice and competition in the market for land;)
  • identify a supply of specific, developable sites or broad locations for growth, for years 6-10 and, where possible, for years 11-15;
  • for market and affordable housing, illustrate the expected rate of housing delivery through a housing trajectory for the plan period and set out a housing implementation strategy for the full range of housing describing how they will maintain delivery of a five-year supply of housing land to meet their housing target; and
  • set out their own approach to housing density to reflect local circumstances.

Fylde's 'evidence base' (referred to above) covers a vast range of documentation. It currently comprises 73 documents - many of which run to hundreds of pages and range from small plans produced by Parish Councils in Fylde to the 208 page 'North West Regional Spatial Strategy to 2012' and even more esoteric ones like Hyder Consulting's 142 page 'Sustainability Appraisal of the Local Development Framework Scoping Report' of 2010.

Readers can follow this link to see the full list

What we can draw from this list is that HUGE sums of money have been spent with consultants and in officer time and on new members of staff specifically to secure the evidence and to prepare the local plan.

There is no published cost figure (and won't be until it is completed), but we wouldn't be surprised to find it has cost £1million or so already if all the costs were added up. That figure may or may not be right, but whatever the real cost is, it's an enormous amount.

But now, all of that work is at risk of being thrown out of the window as Cllrs David Eaves and Trevor Fiddler apparently switch to 'a common sense' approach to define Fylde's five year supply.

So, if the Government has set out what had to be done, and Fylde's officers have now done probably three quarters of it - what does this new Eaves/Fiddler 'common sense approach' involve?

Readers who want the full SP and detail can follow this link to a copy of the letter and report that Cllr Eaves and Cllr Fiddler sent to our MP.

It's an interesting letter. It's referenced AO which are the same initials of Fylde's Chief Executive Allan Oldfield, and it is on Fylde Council headed paper, but it is from, and signed by, Cllr David Eaves and Cllr Trevor Fiddler.

This is quite unusual. It's normally the officers of the Council who correspond on it's behalf. So you begin to get the feeling there is something is slightly odd about the letter.

It begins "I am writing on behalf of the elected members at Fylde to outline a proposal for the five year housing supply figure at Fylde..."

This is also unusual. We'd expect such a letter to have been agreed by all the Councillors before it was sent, and we know that not to be the case here. We know at least one that knew nothing about it when it was sent on his behalf.

The arrogant and high handed treatment that has proliferated under this awful Leader and Cabinet System now seems to have reached a point where the Leader and Portfolio Holder feel they can send such crucial letters out in the name of the Council without holding a meeting to allow a full debate on the matter.

We think that's appalling.

So what does the letter say?

Well, in summary it quotes paragraphs from Mr Boles' letter following the meeting (brokered by our MP) between FBC and the Minister last January.

It uses quotes such as "local councils - working with their communities - should decide what development is right for their area". and "need to understand and take account of previous housing delivery, to establish what is required over the forthcoming plan period"

It then asks our MP to take the information in the attached report which is to be "presented to the department for approval with your support."

It goes on to say "I hope that you will support, and indeed champion, this figure that is right for Fylde, which is supported by previous housing delivery evidence and takes into account future need based on robust data."

In effect, the covering letter seeks to turn the Ministers previous words back on him - in a not very sophisticated way that, to us, seems more like bludgeoning than seeking to enlist his support.

So what of the arguments used in the report attached to the letter?

What is the basis of the changed figure?

The first argument employed is the number of dwellings delivered in Fylde over the last 10 years. This uses historic data over the last 10 years (claimed as 5 years of boom and 5 years of bust). It argues the average provision of new houses to the market over the 10 years has been 195 dwellings a year. It further argues that the 10 year average is robust and sound evidence of an annual figure to meet housing need.

The second argument is the current housing market in Fylde where there are a claimed 577 registered long term empty dwellings (as at August 6th 2013) and approximately 1300 properties for sale or rent.

It asserts these figures represent 5% of the housing stock and notes that several new developments are discounted or otherwise incentivised in order to sell properties in some areas (including Staining and Wesham). It concludes that the current supply is more than adequate to meet housing need, and argues that supply is outstripping demand in the current market.

The third argument is about future housing need, and notes that between April 2012 and March 2013 approvals were granted for 1,630 dwellings of which, the majority will start to progress in the next 12 months and this means there will be significant numbers of new properties being delivered over the next few years to meet future housing need.

It notes that another (unspecified) major development for approximately 1,500 dwellings is due to be determined before next April. It argues this is robust evidence that Fylde Council is clearly supporting the national growth agenda.

The fourth argument concerns population projections. It notes the Office for National Statistics data shows that the population of Fylde has remained relatively static over a seven year period since 2007, and in fact, the total population has decreased by 380.

It claims that during the same period 1,287 new dwellings have been completed - an average of 184 per annum for the same seven year period. It concludes that this clearly represents an oversupply of housing provision in the market.

It adds that Fylde does not have the incoming population to create a need for significant housing numbers, and that Fylde borough has experienced several years of fewer people and more properties easily meeting the housing need.

It concludes that there is no indication that the local population is likely to increase in the foreseeable future and that the natural population has decreased year on year for many years with inward migration sustaining or slightly increasing the population.

The fifth argument is about public opinion and argues that growth is supported in Fylde, but public opinion has been unanimously against unnecessarily high housing supply figures that the RSS and other calculation methods have proposed.

They note that both the council and the MP have a large volume of correspondence to support a housing supply figure that is consistent with actual previous delivery and the actual need (demand) in Fylde.

From these five arguments, the report concludes that the five year housing supply figure for Fylde should be 1,170. This is based on the average actually delivered for the last 10 years of 195 new dwellings that has more than met the need in the market evidenced by the current availably of new and existing dwellings.

This is quite shocking.

The newly proposed number is a little over half the 341 dwellings a year specified in the draft of the Local Plan published for public consultation only last month.

It's less than half the total number of 2,506 dwellings that the Local Plan says is needed.

It's a lower number than anyone else (apart from us and one other chap we know) has *ever* suggested is the right number.

It also chiefly uses a retrospective approach for the calculation.

This contrasts with the approach set out in Fylde's own Local Plan (para 6.20) - ("....it is considered a sound approach to progress assessment of Fylde’s own objectively assessed requirements for housing before the next stage of consultation on the Local Plan Part 1. This assessment will be based on the latest ONS household projection figures and will update the figure of 278 dwellings per annum, which was based on the ONS 2008 based projections. Initial assessment of the ONS 2011 based household projections gives a figure which is not too dissimilar to the figure of 341 (including RSS deficit), used for the purposes of this Preferred Options consultation.).

The Local Plan approach is all about looking forward and updating the ONS and Strategic Housing Market Assessment evidence, then recalculating the numbers - so the Eaves/Fiddler approach is different.

Furthermore, as the draft Plan says, Fylde's officers have already had a provisional look at the ONS 2011 data and they say the figure will be about 341 dwellings per annum, not 195.

If the Eaves/Fiddler number is right, it means we need half the number of houses that the hugely expensive local plan says we need.

It also means that communities throughout Fylde are going to be very angry - because they have lost out to planning permissions and appeals that have granted developments which local people did not want because - if these numbers are right - Fylde could have refused permission or defended its case much better than it did.

The upshot of all of this is that if 'common sense' is to be used as a basis for preparing the five year supply, Fylde didn't need to do all the work that has been done on the evidence, and on drafting the local plan and spending all the money and additional council employees to prepare it.

The Steering Group didn't need to review all the evidence and come up with policies, and the Policies that have just been approved for consulting the public on are, in effect, now redundant, (and probably were before the consultation took place) because the basis on which they were prepared was erroneous.

The point to note here is that the Eaves/Fiddler letter has come completely out of the blue and it does not use the accepted methods to establish the five year supply.

We therefore don't think it is right.

Looking at each of the arguments.....

Historic Delivery Rates

The Eaves/Fiddler Report says the historic rate of delivery is 195 a year over the last 10 years.

  • The Local Plan draft (6.22) says "The historic rate of delivery of new homes in Fylde, before the recession, has averaged around 250 units each year."
  • The Comprehensive report to the Local Plan Steering Group in September 2011 gave comparative historic delivery rates for Blackpool Fylde and Wyre.  Fylde's was (2006/7 = 168, 2007/08 = 394, 2008/09 = 305, 2009/10 = 145) Total = 1012  Average = 253 per year.
  • The notes of that meeting record "Councillor Fiddler observed that the figure of 280 corresponded broadly to completions in Fylde in recent years" and "Councillor Armit said that housing delivery was 255 historically. He asked why Mr Evans was recommending 280 rather than 260. Mr Evans responded that the figure looked at need on the future, not development in the past."
  • At the next Steering Group Meeting the notes record "Councillor Fiddler went on to say that a 255 figure was a median which was more in line with the historic rate of delivery of new homes in Fylde over the last decade" and
  • "Councillor Aitken presented a graph to the group which depicted the number of dwellings completed between 1990 and 2010. It suggested that the 20 year average worked out at around 252 dwelling per year."

Given these figures, we find it difficult to see where the Eaves/Fiddler 195 a year comes from.

Current Housing Market Conditions
These might well be as per the Eaves/Fiddler Report. We have no data on this, but as any half decent barrister (let alone Mr Lancaster) would immediately say, the current conditions are a mere snapshot of this point in history and the economic cycle. They take no account of the future - which is exactly what the plan is about, and they represent the tail end of what has been a huge downturn in the housing market. Current housing market conditions are irrelevant to a future plan.

Future Need
The situation here is mixed. The Eaves/Fiddler report claims permissions granted in the year to March 2013 were for 1,630 dwellings. It notes that another (unspecified) major development for approximately 1,500 dwellings is due to be determined before next April. It argues this is robust evidence that Fylde Council is clearly supporting the national growth agenda.

Fylde's own official 'Five Year Housing Supply Statement at 31st March 2013' shows a five year requirement of 2,506 dwellings which would be 501 per year, less an allowance for known and potential supply, giving an overall shortfall of 1,543 dwellings - which is about 308 a year.

What the Eaves/Fiddler Report also doesn't say is whether the 1,630 permissions that were granted last year comply with the definitions that make them eligible to be counted within the 5 year supply (we suspect they don't but we've have not had time to check this out). We also have no details of the unnamed new site to deliver another 1,500 dwellings.

Fylde is also in the middle of a huge new study on housing on the fylde coast, the results of which won't be available until next year, so quite how the Eaves/Fiddler Report can be accurate on this matter when the new 'Blackpool Fylde and Wyre Strategic Housing Market Assessment' hasn't yet been concluded is anyone's guess.

Fylde may well be supporting a growth agenda (few would argue otherwise given it's recent performance - perhaps driven by the need to avoid being put into Special Measures) but it's the degree that's at issue here.

Population Projections
It's not clear whether the ONS data used in the Eaves/Fiddler Report is 2008 or the more recent 2011 version. But either way, we have significant reservations about the claims made (which contradict claims we have seen made elsewhere).

Public Opinion
Whilst it may be the popular view, this will carry no weight with planning professionals - public opinion is not a valid planning matter except to the extent that it feeds into Fylde's 'Vision' of the future. As Cllr Fiddler himself said. - it's not the volume of comments, it's the quality of the arguments they make.

So for all the above reasons, we simply cannot believe that the Eaves/Fiddler Report is a serious planning document.

Less than two months ago, after literally years of preparation, Cllr Fiddler (seconded by Cllr Eaves) produced the crucially important draft of the Local Plan which says 341 dwellings are needed. (It also says they will use updated ONS data, and a new Strategic Housing Market Assessment to complete the number just before the plan is sent to the Secretary of State for approval).

In the face of dissent by 41% of the Council, they refused to make any changes.

We therefore regard it as completely incredible that Cllrs Eaves and Fiddler should now come up with a number that is half the number they said they would not change - and which uses a different methodology.

It's even more incredible when you see what this pair is asking of our MP.

Mr Menzies is being asked to present the new number to the Department [of Communities and Local Government] for approval - with his support. Further, he is asked to 'champion, this figure that is right for Fylde, which is supported by previous housing delivery evidence and takes into account future need based on robust data.'

Do Cllr Eaves and Cllr Fiddler seriously believe that the Government's Planning Minister - Nick Boles - is going to write to the Planning Inspectorate and say 'It's OK chaps, don't worry about Fylde, I've just agreed a new number of 195 dwellings a year with them'?

Most certainly he is not.

We think Hell would freeze over before he did that with ANY number a council provided to him.

What's more, we're pretty sure that both Cllr Eaves and Cllr Fiddler know full well that he would not do such a thing

(We think his most likely answer will be to the effect of 'Well done you chaps at Fylde. If, as you say, you have robust evidence to back up that number, then use it as your figure and you will be able to defend it at all the public inquiries and any Judicial Reviews won't you?')

So we have to ask - what's really going on?

Well, it's possible that Cllr Eaves and Cllr Fiddler are so naive and incompetent that they simply don't understand what they are doing. That is a possibility, but we think it's pretty unlikely.

It's also possible that it could be plain arrogance on their part and they are trying to bluff their way to a new, lower number.

Certainly we think they displayed pure unadulterated arrogance when they refused to alter the local plan draft knowing it was factually incorrect, and they have thus conducted what was supposed to be a serious public consultation on something they knew to be wrong. There is no other word for such blatant disrespect of the public than 'arrogance'.

But again, bluffing their way to a new lower number is probably not likely to be the reason for the letter to our MP.

It is just vaguely possible that, all along, it was their plan to create a BIG problem with the housing numbers - so they could then be seen to be galloping in as shining White Knights on Chargers to save the day with a much lower number - and ensure electoral success next time around. We have harboured such a possibility for a while, but again we don't think it was the reason for their letter and report.

No. If it was a serious letter about a new housing number, the Council's OFFICERS would have produced it, and they would have sent it to Whitehall's civil servants to deal with, NOT to our MP.

If you look at recent comments made to the traditional media by Cllr Fiddler and Mr Menzies and you see something of a battle has been developing.

Cllr Fiddler has been speaking about "Alice in Wonderland Planning", and saying that the Government is telling us what we can and can't do, and saying "We're in a virtual straight jacket". The implication being it's all the Government's fault, because Fylde has to do what it is told.

Mr Menzies on the other hand, has been saying that's not the case. As we reported in 'Incompetent Planning?', he told the Express "Each Council must come up with its own figure when deciding its housing needs and must be able to defend that number if it is challenged."

And it was Mr Menzies who arranged a meeting with Cllr Fiddler and the Minister where this matter was agreed.

After that meeting Fylde issued a positive news release saying

"Jan 15th 2013


Help may be on the way to help Fylde beat off a rash of planning applications after a Fylde Council delegation met Planning Minister Nick Boles.

Monday’s Whitehall meeting was called after national changes to planning rules meant that Fylde Council planners must grant planning permission for 489 houses per year in order to demonstrate a five-year supply of land for housing. Until last year the nationally set target was for 306 approvals. Failure to have a five-year supply leaves the borough open to expensive appeals by developers.

Councillor Trevor Fiddler, Fylde Council cabinet member for Planning and Development, said: “We made a strong case against what is a draconian policy and Mr Boles appeared sympathetic to our plight. We now have to wait for his written response and his written proposals which he has agreed to send.

“Residents in Fylde need reassurance that their countryside has a future. It’s harder for councillors to give that reassurance if we can’t demonstrate that we have a five-year supply of land.

“We told him that one of the reasons we now had to approve more houses per year was because of advice from his department which shows how we had to take into account an accumulated deficit going back to the start of the Regional Spatial Strategy in 2003. We feel that such an extensive backlog does not need to be taken and this would cut the house-number target by 1,000 and make it easier for us to resist development.

“He said he would instruct the Planning Inspectorate to make contact with Fylde to help us in the interpretation of government advice.

“He also said the Planning Inspectorate would try to work out ways for councils to produce District Plans faster – making it harder for developers to win appeals against planning refusals on the grounds that District Plans are not complete.

“Mr Boles also commented on the previous annual house target of 306. He said he wanted us to have the confidence to come up with our own figure – and said he would look on that sympathetically.

“We also told him of the major planning application for 2,000 houses near the end of the M55. It is on the boundary with Blackpool which means there are complex boundary issues of transport and wastewater infrastructure. The minister said his staff would help unblock these technical issues which would help us to consider this application quicker.

“The meeting was very positive. There was willingness on the Minister’s behalf to be helpful, although we need to wait and see what he puts in writing as firm commitments.”

Monday’s meeting was attended by Councillor Fiddler, Nick Boles MP, Mark Menzies MP, Paul Walker, Fylde Council’s Director of Development Services and Mark Evans, Fylde Council’s Head of Planning and Regeneration."

That was the press statement at the time, but things have gone downhill since January.

Regular readers will know we've no time at all for the Anti-Planning Minister Nick Boles who is taking a hatchet to planning controls to let bulldozers have free rein over our countryside. But what we see as a result of Fylde's meeting with him is equally depressing.

We see Fylde's Leader still stinging from the Council Meeting where he walked right into the trap - so beautifully set by Cllr Duffy who proposed renaming Fylde's planning committee to "The Large Planning Application Rubber Stamping Committee" (Follow this link for more details), and where Cllr Eaves and his colleagues were forced into appearing to support existing Government Policy on planning which clearly they did not do in reality.

We see that Fylde has cocked up its new local plan to the extent that 41% of councillors would not endorse it, and now virtually all the community planning groups in Fylde have signed a statement of no confidence in it, and are calling for the process to be halted until better and more up to date information informs its policies. (We'll cover this in more depth in our next article).

At the Development Management Committee meeting last Wednesday, Cllr Fiddler said "... My next meeting with the MP is on Friday, so we're attacking this from a political point of view as well as to inform members of this Committee through the Steering Group we'll be meeting in four or five weeks time to try and establish a more acceptable housing numbers figure."

So it looks to us increasingly as though Fylde is now trying to dodge the blame for its Local Plan cock-up, and the MP is the nearest cat that can be kicked.

That's why we think the letter was sent to him.

The war of words was getting increasingly heated, and we wonder whether the Eaves/Fiddler letter has little to do with the planning numbers, and a lot to do with an attempt to drop our MP in the smelly substance - or at least to intimidate him into shutting up about it being Fylde's fault that Cllr Eaves and Cllr Fiddler haven't come up with the proper sensible housing numbers that they should have produced already.

We honestly can't see how any credibility whatsoever can attach to Cllr Eaves and Cllr Fiddler who one month say the number is 341 dwellings a year, who then consult the public about development policies based on that number, who incense residents in Staining, Kirkham, Wrea Green, Wesham, and Warton and elsewhere with planning permissions and failure to defend appeals, who close the consultation period, and then, a few days later, write a letter to the MP which disregards years of work on the local plan, and say it should have been 195 dwellings a year all the time.

Whether its incompetence, arrogance, a con trick, deceptive, deceitful or something else - we leave it to readers to decide.

Our own view is that 'kicking the cat' is the more likely logic behind the initiative, but either way, Fylde simply can't afford the sort of cock-ups we're getting from this Leader and his hand-picked Cabinet.

It's time they went.

Dated:  8 September 2013


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