Northumberland County Council accused of 'shutting up shop' in some areas by housebuilder

County Hall, Morpeth
 Picture by Jane ColtmanCounty Hall, Morpeth
 Picture by Jane Coltman
County Hall, Morpeth Picture by Jane Coltman
Northumberland County Council has been accused by a developer of ‘shutting up shop’ in terms of where it will allow new homes to be built in its Local Plan.

These comments came during the second week of hearing sessions as part of the public examination of the framework, following its submission to the Government in May.

The plan includes the policies that will guide and determine future planning applications in Northumberland, details the scale and distribution of new development and includes land allocations and designations.

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It has been designed to grow and diversify the economy, with the local authority targeting the creation of 15,000 new jobs in the county by 2036.

The role of planning inspector Susan Heywood is to decide whether the plan is sound and complies with all the relevant legal requirements.

Part of the soundness of the plan is whether it is ‘positively prepared’ – that it will meet objectively assessed requirements, something which Samuel Kenny, of Persimmon Homes, questioned during a session on housing need.

“Where there isn’t green belt, you seem to be drawing the settlement boundaries really tight,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to me that it’s positively prepared.”

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The standard government formula for local housing need shows that Northumberland needs 717 new homes a year, but as part of its ‘ambitious growth scenario’ which includes the target of 15,000 new jobs, the council is proposing 885 a year over the 20-year plan period from 2016 to 2036 – a total of 17,700.

However, Chris Martin, of Pegasus Group, representing Gleeson, said: “You would need a higher housing requirement if this really is an ambitious growth scenario, about which we have our doubts.”

And the issues raised by Mr Kenny and Mr Martin were echoed by a number of the other participants, who shared a view that the council’s over-ambitious assumptions on headship rates (adults per household), economic activity rates and a decline in out-commuting from the county were being used to justify a lower housing number.

James Hall, of Barton Willmore, representing Bellway Homes, added: “We don’t think it’s an ambitious enough scenario, there could be an additional 19,000 jobs.”

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There was also concern among the housebuilders’ representatives about why the council had not set out its housing requirement figures based on the four distinct housing market areas – or indeed the seven sub-areas – that its own analysis had identified.

Mr Hall said: “We recognise the areas, but for such a large county, the idea that you wouldn’t break it down is what mystifies me.”

The inspector said: “Surely if there is a need in south-east Northumberland, having land in north Northumberland is not going to meet that need?”

As it stands, the plan contains housing delivery numbers split into specific towns, villages and parishes, although the council says it has assessed the distribution across the market areas.

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Planning officer Steve Robson said: “We have done that work, but it hasn’t informed the distribution, that has been based on those smaller areas.”

He added that the work indicated that the needs are being met in all of the seven sub-areas, apart from a slight shortfall in one area of the Tyne Valley, due to green-belt constraints, but which can be addressed through windfall and rural exception sites.

On October 24, the attention turned to the council’s assessment of how ‘abnormals’ – issues which cost the developer money to resolve – affect the viability of sites and their ability to be delivered for housing.

In Northumberland, sites can be subject to a number of abnormals related to the county’s mining history, for example.

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Stuart Grimes, land director designate at Persimmon Homes – whose previous CEO received a £75million bonus last year, said: “We have definitely seen pressures in viability in low-value areas. It makes developments risky in those areas because the greenfield areas have a lower allowance for abnormals.”

Mr Martin added: “We have consistently raised concerns about viability. If it’s wrong, it has the potential to lock out a lot of sites.”

But David Newham, of CP Viability, on behalf of the county council, said: “We have been quite cautious in our approach.”

He highlighted that the figures estimated to cover abnormals on both brownfield and greenfield sites were more generous than those agreed by the planning inspector in the North Tyneside Local Plan.

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The other viability issue raised related to land values, with Joanne Harding, of the Home Builders Federation, saying: “We are in an awkward position because we would like land values to be low for house-builders, but some of those premiums are so low that the landowners won’t sell and our main concern is that the homes are delivered.”

Housing supply, allocated housing sites and the green belt are on the agenda for next week’s hearings, which are being held in Morpeth Town Hall, while affordable housing and providing homes for different sections of the population, including older people, are to be discussed at additional sessions in December.

A second phase of hearings is currently slated to take place in January/February next year.