Ruling leaves fate of Yeovil's green spaces hanging in the balance
An assault on Yeovil’s green spaces could be unleashed after a ruling declared “open season” for housing developers.
The warning has come from Ric Pallister, leader of South Somerset District Council which is responsible for planning, and has been echoed by a south Somerset planning expert.
It comes after a ruling by government planning inspector Janice Trask cast doubt over the district council’s long-term housing projections.
The council’s Local Plan allows for 16,000 new homes across south Somerset before 2028.
But Mrs Trask said the council’s evidence for this figure was untested and “carried little weight.”
A previous figure of around 20,000 homes being allowed across the district was more robust, the inspector said.
The shock findings emerged as Mrs Trask rejected an appeal for 55 homes to be built in Wincanton.
The district council has appointed a specialist lawyer to challenge the inspector’s conclusions over the housing supply figures.
It hopes to avert a potential planning crisis emerging as developers target areas previously thought unsuitable for development.
Research by the Western Gazette has found that landowners and developers have already proposed thousands of new homes for green field sites in objections to the council’s Local Plan.
Mr Pallister said: “We are extremely disappointed.
“For a planning inspector to suggest we should revert to old housing projections is staggering.
“To do that we are looking at 21,600 new homes against our evidence which is suggesting 15,590.
“The impact is that the inspector has declared open season for developers to make sporadic and opportunistic planning applications and create serious concerns for us.
“If these findings are upheld by other inspectors it takes us back to the drawing board of the Local Plan and leaves it in disarray.
“The implications from the inspector’s ruling could be seismic.
“It could be used as a precedent and we would see planning applications in areas the council did not think was appropriate.
“While they would still be subject to the same planning process, it would be difficult for us to refuse them because of the likelihood it would be overturned on appeal.
“The risk is that future development would not be in our control.”
In her decision, Mrs Trask also struck a blow at council attempts to protect the countryside between towns and villages with so called “buffer zones” by declaring them a “policy of housing restraint.”
She wrote: “I have found that the housing requirement for the area is 5,171 over the next five years.
“The council confirmed...that, taking account of recent adjustments, their current revised assessment of housing land supply for the next five years is 4,634.
“I am not in a position to determine the position precisely but it is clear the supply is substantially less than this figure and is probably of the order of a three-year supply.
“I therefore conclude the council cannot demonstrate a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites and that the shortfall is substantial.”
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced plans over the weekend to overhaul the planning system to cut red tape and speed up decision-making.
Environmental and rural protection groups have slammed the plans as an attack on the nation’s countryside.
In south Somerset there has been a high-profile campaign against the council’s Local Plan, formerly known as the Core Strategy, which allows up to 2,500 new homes in the East Coker and Barwick area to the south of Yeovil.
Originally 3,700 were planned for the area, known as the Urban Extension, but that has since been downgraded to 1,500 by 2028 with room for expansion to 2,500 after that.
The council has proposed a “buffer zone” to protect East Coker village from the development.
But Mr Pallister warned that the inspector’s ruling meant in theory that builders could propose to build many more homes in the area.
Mr Pallister added: “We have always feared not having a plan in place based on robust evidence.
“We believe we have the robust evidence.
“There was a debate where the Opposition in the council was calling for fewer houses.
“This (inspector’s) findings go in the complete opposite direction to that and says we need a lot more.
“What is disappointing is that it looks like the inspector apportions blame for houses not being built on the council.
“The council doesn’t influence developers on building homes. The council doesn’t influence the economy or the state of the housing market.
“The fact that the rate of house building is slower than predicted is not down to us.
“We are taking the advice of a Queen’s Counsel (QC) barrister and he is looking at this in close detail so we can determine how to proceed.
“That means writing a formal objection to the inspectorate and taking it up via our MP at ministerial level, it is that serious.
“We cannot take this lying down and have to take a proactive approach.
“This has implications on a national level for councils without a Local Plan or who find themselves in a similar position to ourselves.
“The situation is that we could find our position and policies are diminished by this.”
The council’s Local Plan and public comments have now been passed on to the planning inspectorate for scrutiny.
A planning inspector is likely to give a response to the plan in the spring.