Government inspectors have issued a damning judgement of Uttlesford district council’s draft local plan, challenging its tenets and lack of details. Devised by the Conservatives and put to examination by the new Residents for Uttlesford administration, the plan hangs by a thread. We are left with at least two years of policy vacuum, during which Stansted risks being besieged by multi-billion dollar, multi-national development companies as well as smaller piecemeal developments. Such plans could be bounced back while a draft was in play and going through stages towards completion and approval. With the previous Tory administration’s plan in tatters, communities have fewer buffers.

Inspectors doubted the credibility of plans for three new garden communities

Lack of Five-Year Land Supply will be Exploited

Without the local plan, Uttlesford’s land supply for housing will cover little more than half the target. The National Planning Policy Framework 2019 requires local authorities to 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% to ensure choice and competition in the market for land.

In the 2016/17-2018/19 period, the council exceeded its draft local plan target of 568 houses per annum, yielding a total surplus of 977 over the three years. However, planning permissions and commitments have since fallen fell short of this target.

Source: Uttlesford District Council, Housing Trajectory and five-year land supply statement, 1 April 2019

For 2019/20-2023/24, without the local plan in place, the council has projected land supply for 2,015 houses. This amounts to a total deficit of 1,740 houses compared to the five-year target of 3,754 houses. In short, the district has just 2.7 years of housing land supply instead of the five-year supply it needs to prove.

Why is this target-chasing important? If the council cannot prove it has a five-year land supply and if it has no local plan, its hand is considerably weakened when it comes to rejecting potential sites councillors know are unsustainable and that communities have been fending off for years due to concerns about over-development and lack of infrastructure. In short, it opens the door for planning chaos and development on the terms set by developers.

Consequences for Stansted

In Stansted, this lack of policy could bring into play a number of sites outlined in the district council’s Strategic Land Availability Assessment (SLAA). Proposals that could benefit from the lack of a local plan could include SLAA site 07Sta15. The site was subject to an application (UTT/13/1203/OP) for 140 dwellings, primary school and recreational space in 2013 which was refused following a local residents campaign and dismissed on appeal the following year.

The proposed site for 199 new homes off Pennington Lane in Stansted

UDC says a smaller settlement of 70 houses abutting the new 160-home Walpole Meadows estate would be suitable for development as it would move it away from the conservation area and the traffic would use Rainsford Road. However, the SLAA is about to be tested with Bloor Homes looking to build 199 houses at the site, which would ruin Pennington Lane and exacerbate traffic problems in the village.

Will the SLAA be sufficient to save the character of his historic lane? Given the land supply deficit, will Stansted be able to resist development of Pennington Lane, with the SLAA effectively giving a green light to 70 houses and Bloor Homes pushing for nearly three times that number? I am a layman and not an expert and it is difficult to read the tea-leaves, but I have major fears for the lane and the prospect of potentially hundreds of new journeys every day up and down Rainsford Road, a residential road that hosts Bentfield Primary.

Stansted needs to move quickly to pass its neighbourhood plan in order to control a likely onslaught of planning applications, so that any development accords with the community’s needs – this is the only prospect of defending places like Pennington Lane from over-development.

Outside Stansted, the Fairfield Partnership continues to press for development between Elsenham and Henham, building on the ruins of the previous failed local plan of 2014, which envisaged a new town campaigners dubbed “Hellsenham”. It has scaled back the 800-home plan outlined in the previous local plan and is bidding for outline planning permission for 350 homes. With hundreds of homes built in Elsenham in recent years and scores more given approval, the village is turning into a new town by developer stealth.

Elsenham’s development is placing a huge strain on roads that the inspector who rejected the 2014 local plan said were inadequate for a new town. Stansted bears the brunt with the high traffic volume going through the Lower Street/Grove Hill bottleneck that makes the centre of the village a pollution danger spot – it is perilously close to being declared a Air Quality Management Area (AQMA). Official annual average nitrogen dioxide levels are approaching the World Health Organisation safety limits, but at many points pollution well exceeds safe limits – often 25% or more above safe levels.

Consequences for Social Housing

The “garden city” model of development – the focus of the 2019 local plan with three garden communities – is supposed to yield considerable affordable housing. The plan targeted affordable housing at 40% of the total. In the May 2019 election, Uttlesford Labour had been pressing for a sizeable number of these to be acquired by the council to eliminate the housing waiting list, which currently stands at more than 1,000 and would rise as the district’s population grew. Housing costs are around 12 times the average wage paid in the district, leading to aggressive gentrification and preventing generations of families staying in the area.

The inspectors stated that “The proposed stepped trajectory which arises from the strategy’s reliance on the Garden Communities, would result in a worsening affordability problem as it would delay the provision of housing to meet the identified need in the district for a number of years.”

Yet, with no large-scale planning, a lot of new development will focus on sites under 15 houses, where the 40% affordable target does not apply. As a result of the plethora of piecemeal developments around the district, less than 15% of new homes are affordable. Without a local plan delivering sizeable planned communities – based on its policies – there is a likelihood of accelerated gentrification.

What is the Future for Uttlesford?

Although the plan was devised under the previous Tory administration and signed off with the support for the Lib Dems, the incumbent Residents for Uttlesford administration should not be so quick to celebrate a Pyrrhic victory.

Now they face the choice of either spending two years reviewing the current draft local plan or spending at least four years formulating a new plan, hoping for third time lucky. With the inspectors picking apart the evidence base, assumptions and viability of the local plan, it is difficult to see what can be resurrected from the wreck.

What sort of plan would R4U devise? Now, this is a tricky question, given that R4U has ideologically positioned itself as a champion of residents – particularly those who object to planning applications. There is a chance that the political party could be broken by the local plan process, amid competitive Nimbyism and a war of ward against ward. With the Conservatives, there were councillors who knew that voting for the local plan would see them lose their seats, but felt that it was necessary – they are probably kicking themselves now. R4U councillors are less likely to be self-sacrificing.

Past statements by individuals involved in the group suggest, however, they want a single new town settlement – a policy I would welcome on the basis that we could yield more infrastructure investment and social housing benefits through a single, well-planned town.

R4U Cllr Richard Freeman – currently chair of Uttlesford District Council – wrote in 2013 while he as a Liberal Democrat that farmland next to Great Chesterford would be “by far the most attractive, sustainable and suitable option for Uttlesford” for 6,000 dwellings – “more than enough for our foreseeable needs”.

Richard Freeman, Letter to the Editor, Saffron Walden Reporter, 12 December 2013

R4U’s vice-chair and propaganda chief Dan Starr also supported the concept of brand new garden settlements due to the infrastructural constraints posed by bolting developments on existing over-burdened communities.

Dan Starr, Letter to the Editor, Walden Local, 1 September 2016

Yet, as time as has moved on, R4U’s position has become more vague and it is unclear where it would put settlements. It also refused to co-sign the latest failed local plan, despite its involvement in the planning policy working group that drafted it. This decision enabled it to escape being associated with a controversial plan – an electorally wise decision and one that it says is vindicated by the inspectors. However, it also failed to be honest with the electorate about alternatives. It could end up paying a heavy price for trying to be all things to all people.

It would be a political challenge to unite the party behind new settlements in wards it controls, two of which were targeted for garden communities. As such, it will be tempting for it to adopt the policy Cllr Freeman advocated just over six years ago, as Great Chesterford is controlled by independents not aligned to R4U – they are disposable to a party with an overwhelming majority. However, the inspectors said the council “should delete the North Uttlesford garden community” plan as it “performs the least well against the Garden Community Principles.”

Alternatively, it could examine Stansted as a target as our wards are controlled by the main opposition party, the Liberal Democrats. If that occurs, we will have a bigger headache than Pennington Lane trying to address the myriad of constraints already facing us.

There are no easy solutions and coming years will represent the most challenging era in Uttlesford’s history as a council.