A government inspector’s decision this week to overturn a planning refusal in Elsenham on appeal makes the prospect of Bloor Homes’ plans for 168 houses at Pennington Lane – a one-track “quiet lane” – more likely than ever.

We cannot depend on just a refusal by the UDC planning committee, whose powers are weakened by the lack of a credible local plan, nor can we count that past appeal refusals provide a reliable defence against this development. As such, it is important for all residents to submit their objections to Uttlesford District Council via the planning portal. My response is here.

Nevertheless, in the long-term, the short-sighted Nimbyism that prompted the new administration to scrap the local plan – the policies that guide the district’s development strategy – means that Uttlesford will have to take on twice the amount of housing development that previously envisaged – around 1,200 per annum in 2020-2040, according to the government. As a community we will have to start suggesting suitable alternatives to unsuitable sites such as Pennington Lane. We cannot fool ourselves that no new housing is a realistic policy, because the consequences of this approach – as advocated by Residents for Uttlesford in their single-issue election campaign – is unplanned development imposed by developers and enforced by government inspectors.

Reasons for Refusal in 2013

Campaigners for Save Stansted Village (SSV) have pointed out to the planning inspector’s refusal in 2013 for constructing an estate on a neighbouring site. He said: “I agree with the Council and many local residents that the scheme would harm the character of the countryside north of Bentfield Green. That would be contrary to ULP countryside policies, and it weighs in the planning balance against the grant of outline permission.”

In relation to high traffic volumes, another concern raised by SSV, the inspector said: “I think it would become very noticeable – and not just in the peak traffic times – as the development were completed and occupied, and would begin to erode the peace and quiet which are such valued characteristics of this calm enclave on the edge of Stansted.”

Indeed, many residents of Hargrave estate are justifiably concerned about a massive increase in traffic volume through the narrow and winding roads – and the certainty of up to four years of construction traffic. They will also lose the amenity provided by the one-track Pennington Lane, which is used mostly by pedestrians and cyclists and was crucial for people exercising during the lockdown period.

However, the context has changed since 2013 and the likelihood of development has increased as a result of the “Residents for Uttlesford” (R4U) administration’s decision to withdraw, rather than amend, the draft local plan following criticism by government inspectors. Instead, the council continues to rely on the policy drawn up in 2005, which is woefully out-of-date.

Delivering leaflets to oppose the proposed Pennington Lane development

“No Policy” is Council Policy

R4U was elected on a single-issue platform to withdraw the local plan. Instead of immediately withdrawing it after the May 2019 election, R4U submitted the plan to the inspectors, but suggested strongly that it had no intention of defending the plan or delivering the garden communities that would be the basis for development. Realising that the council had no faith in its own plan, the inspectors castigated it, but stopped short of recommending withdrawal.

After the verdict, R4U refused to ask inspectors for further clarification, but resorted to their typical inertia and a full two months passed before R4U finally withdrew the draft local plan and left UDC with no local policy framework, either adopted or emerging. Yet, six more months have past and progress is painfully slow and the prospect of Whitehall taking direct control of the planning department awaits if nothing is adopted by end-2023 – a development that would irreparably damage the council’s reputation.

In the mean time, the council cannot refer to an existing draft policy, as it did in the past when justifying planning refusals, because there is none. It is restarting a process that usually takes at least four to five years from ground zero, hoping to complete it within three and a half years – although seemingly with little sense of urgency.

SSV Chairman James Hogg summed up the threats posed by a lack of a local plan back in January: “SSV are worried that the current situation could lead to opportunistic landowners and developers individually promoting their own inappropriate locations whilst ignoring the big picture of future housing needs of Uttlesford. This must not be allowed to happen.”

DM Young, the planning inspector in this week’s appeal over the Elsenham site, gave a damning indictment of planning policy failure, pointing out that the current 15-year old policy “was adopted seven years before the original National Planning Policy Framework Framework (NPPF) at a time when there was no requirement to boost significantly the supply of housing, no requirement to identify an objectively assessed need and no presumption in favour of sustainable development”.

He added: “The plan only covered the period to 2011 and consequently expired nearly ten years ago. As the appellants point out, the local plan has now been out of date for longer than it was in date.”

Young also noted that the local plan housing requirements “were derived from household projections which are now about three decades out of date”.

Cornerstone Policy Kicked Out

The Elsenham appeal underlined the collapse of a cornerstone local planning policy with the inspector overruling the Countryside Protection Zone (CPZ) which is supposed to provide a buffer zone between Stansted Airport and residential settlements such as Stansted, Takeley and Elsenham.

I warned in November 2019 that the CPZ was under attack following UDC’s approval of a 130-home development in Elsenham which lies within the zone. I stated: “If polices are summarily waived in this way, we will have planning chaos and unlimited speculative development – precisely the problem R4U claimed it would stop!”

Letter in the Bishop’s Stortford Independent, 27 November 2019

We now know that the CPZ is non-existent as a policy and the dated existing local plan has been buried. Far from protecting residents from the effects of Stansted Airport, as they claimed in their election campaign, through its woeful bungling incompetence R4U has created the circumstances for housing growth right under the flight path.

HLS Failure Pulls the Teeth Out of Planning Authority

Due to the policy vacuum, the council cannot demonstrate a five-year housing land supply (HLS). UDC has a HLS of just 2.6 years – well below the target, and even below the three-year HLS minimum at which a neighbourhood development plan (NDP) developed by parish and town councils would kick in. Stansted has been waiting for UDC to finalise its new local plan to ensure that the NDP complements district policies, but has now been told by the R4U administration told not to progress even as R4U councillors mock the parish with snide remarks for not having one in place.

National policy says that when a council consistently fails to have a five-year HLS, all of its policies for delivering housing are out-of-date. As such, local policy can be waived entirely and planning permission can be imposed if it is considered “sustainable development”. Much of the housing growth we are now seeing is being delivered through plans that were rejected by UDC but won on appeal, indicating just how toothless the council has become.

In the 2013 Bentfield planning appeal, the inspector noted that UDC was close to achieving a five-year HLS. He said: “4.6 years supply is clearly better in planning terms than, say, 2 or 3 or even 4 years supply. I give that some weight in my overall balancing of the pros and cons of the proposed development. If there were only, say, a demonstrable 3.6 years HLS (as was the case when SCG 1 was first drafted), that would weight the balance in favour of development rather more than does the current 4.6 years HLS.”

In Bloor’s supporting documents, it points out the lack of a five-year HLS

Fast forward to 2020 and Uttlesford’s failure to secure enough land for housing supply targets means it has lost control over planning policy and its strategic power to determine where new homes can be built. If Bloor can convince the planning committee or, in a likely appeal, an inspector that the Pennington Lane location is “sustainable”, then we will have this estate in a location that has been repeatedly dismissed by UDC.

Sustainability in the planning context covers economic, social and environmental factors. There is a social need for housing and lack of a five-year HLS is unsustainable. At a time of growing housing need, there is a high possibility that an inspector will be minded to approve the development of Pennington Lane, as suggested in 2013.

Bridgehead for Development

Bloor Homes is testing the council’s resolve and seeking to break into the countryside west of Stansted. If the development is approved – which is more likely in an appeal than at the planning committee – it will be a bridgehead for further housing development of hundreds of houses, potentially in excess of 800. It would not only be larger than Forest Hall Park estate, it would have a far greater impact on the character of Stansted, particularly the Bentfield area.

For those outside the Stansted area, approval would open up the prospect of developments previously dismissed as insane. A development on Pennington Lane would be similar to building an estate on Saffron Walden’s Seven Devils Lane with access via Auton Croft, enabling the southwards expansion of the town through rolling countryside towards Debden. Unthinkable? Maybe no longer. This is the consequence of political failure.

What Makes Pennington Lane Unsustainable?

Campaigners still have scope within the NPPF for opposing the development based on its lack of sustainability. Aside from the destruction of Bentfield’s identity and a rural landscape amenity with unplanned speculative development, the roads cannot support the likely 300+ cars that will go in and out of the estate.

Either traffic will travel through the one-way Pennington Lane to bypass the congested part of Cambridge Road, or they will ram through Hargrave Estate at the time when children are being dropped off and collected from Bentfield primary school on Rainsford Road, Bloor’s preferred thoroughfare.

However, on this point, Bloor is likely to provide misleading traffic statistics. As I stated in February, the decision to start monitoring traffic during half-term “is bound to skew results to bolster the case for the road being used as a conduit for traffic from a potential development.” And the monitoring continued into the early part of the Covid-19 lockdown, skewing the results even further.

The cause is not lost, by any means, but within the context of Uttlesford’s planning policy failure the chances of approval on appeal are a lot higher than in 2013. As such, the battle has to be fought harder than ever with compelling arguments.

As a community, we should also accept that housing development will continue and think about places where growth is sustainable. This is the best chance of preventing damaging schemes, such as Bloor’s proposals.