First Published: 18/11/2020
Most people will be aware that Elmbridge Borough Council (EBC) has been working on a new Local Plan for over two years. The new Local Plan will set out the number of new homes to be built in Elmbridge each year and will outline how that target is to be achieved. The plan is of crucial significance to residents of Oxshott in the face of threats of dramatically increased housing density and the potential loss of Green Belt land.
Up to 2015, EBC had an annual target of 230 new homes each year. This target was exceeded on a consistent basis. However, in 2016 this target was increased by central government to 480 new homes and in 2018, it was increased yet again to 620 new homes. Such a rapid increase left EBC with a severe shortfall. The new Local Plan is designed to show whether and how EBC proposes to seek to achieve the government target.
In 2019, EBC conducted a consultation on how it might achieve a significant increase in new homes. The outcome produced an inevitable groundswell against the potential for releasing Green Belt land for development. Since then EBC has been deliberating how to reconcile the conflicting requirements of a commitment to a significant increase in new homes and the clear public rejection of use of Green Belt land. While there is no obligation to produce a plan that conforms to the government’s housing target, the risk is that failure to do so for valid reasons runs the risk of a government appointed inspector declaring the plan unsound with subsequent potential intervention by government to direct local housing strategy.
Government Housing Strategy
Most recently, the situation has become even more confused with the release of government consultation documents on housing policy. Of greatest importance has been a proposal to amend the basis of calculating local housing targets by placing greater emphasis on local affordability. The hypothesis is that high affordability (calculated as the ratio of average house prices to average earnings) indicates un-met local demand that should be addressed by increased annual housebuilding targets. Use of what has been referred to as a mutant algorithm would result in the annual target for EBC being increased to 770 new homes. This is more than treble the target of only five years ago.
At a time when the government is placing emphasis on levelling-up between regions across the UK, implementation of the government’s proposals would have the perverse effect of directing housing investment in to the South East particularly, at the expense of other less-affluent regions of the UK. In addition, the logic underpinning the algorithm is conceptually flawed. It is broad-brush and its simplistic construction fails to address the way in which house prices are driven on different bases across the country.
FEDORA submitted comments on the housing number consultation in September. Together with residents’ groupings from Cobham and Downside and Stoke d’Abernon, a letter was also sent to Dominic Raab asking for his support on this matter. He has written to the Secretary of State for Housing and his response is awaited. Clearly this is a sensitive political issue.
It is understood that in the face of a threat of a further increase in housing targets, EBC intends to proceed with the approval of its new Local Plan. But the dilemma is clear. If EBC does not want to risk its plan being declared unsound by an inspector, it will need to commit to a level of new homes significantly greater than has ever been achieved in the past. To achieve that will put significant pressure on the need to release Green Belt land despite considerable local opposition.
In the event that EBC commits to the government’s housing targets and decides not to seek release of Green Belt land, the implications are serious. This will result in significant increases in densification across Elmbridge involving construction of high-rise buildings and an attack on existing green space by yet more sub-divisions of existing plots, further ugly in-fill developments and an abandonment of the principle of protecting the character of an area.
For those who live in Oxshott, the threat to Green Belt is very real. Two sites are already earmarked as candidates for development: these are the land alongside Blundel Lane and Waverley Road and the land behind Danesway next to Princes Coverts. And the consequences of increased densification can be seen both on Bevendean with approvals for large blocks of flats and on the Ridgeway with further sub-divisions. All this type of development will increase significantly across Oxshott with the inevitable damage to the character of the area and the pressure on already inadequate infrastructure.
An ideal outcome would be for Government to realise that loading housing needs on to areas such as Elmbridge is inappropriate and for EBC to continue with housing targets consistent with those actually achieved in recent years. The Local Plan would reflect that lower number with a statement to protect the Green Belt and focus development in Elmbridge towards urban areas using High Street properties and brownfield sites. But that, sadly, is idealistic, and the reality is very much more likely to involve substantial compromises that have an unwanted and permanently adverse effect on areas such as Oxshott.