Cheshire East Council has lost an appeal on a 95-home development in Alsager after the planning inspector concluded that the council did not have a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites.
In her decision letter, planning inspector Frances Mahoney said "the Council has not demonstrated a five year supply of deliverable housing sites in the borough" and "the position of the council as to whether it has an identified supply of housing land, has swung backwards and forwards" throughout the appeal process.
The inspector continued: "The Council's optimism that the sites upon which they rely as presenting development opportunities with a realistic prospect that housing will be delivered on the sites within five years is at best questionable and at worse unfounded". She said the appeal had provided a "reality check" for the council's evidence.
Plans for the proposed development on land off Dunnocksfold Road in Alsager were first submitted in October 2012. An appeal was submitted in May 2013 when the council failed to rule on the application.
The council then considered the proposal and said that it would refuse the application as the borough had a five year housing supply in place. The council changed its mind and ahead of an inquiry into the proposals held in February 2014 said that it could not conclusively demonstrate supply. However, Cheshire East then switched positions for a second time and presented a five year housing land supply position statement the day before the inquiry was due to take place.
Developer Emerson Group acted on behalf of the appellants, the Morris family and contractor PE Jones. Emerson was advised by Emery Planning.
The inspector raised concerns regarding the robust nature of evidence within the council's position statement for land supply, where she said "unrealistic assumptions" had been made. These included the Council assuming two or three developers working on a site when there was only one, and ascribing a greater number of units to sites than they actually have planning permission for.
On one site in Crewe the council assumed 10 units would be built, when a supermarket has now been developed on the site. In another case, the council assumed 10 units on a site that it refused development for. The inspector said that at the inquiry the council made adjustments to the land supply figure to factor in these "less than certain assumptions and factual inaccuracies", however they still gave her cause for concern.
Taking into account what the inspector said was "limited development" in the area, she estimated that the council only had a supply for 3.6 years. Using the council's own assessed supply figure, the figure was only 4.8 years.
The inspector highlighted flaws in the council's planned delivery of 1,150 homes a year, which she said was based on out-of-date projection figures from the Regional Spatial Strategy, and did not factor in the under-provision of homes since 2008. She also said it did not include a 5% or 20% buffer.
The inspector's final assessment of Cheshire East's five-year housing requirement was 2,029 homes a year.
Last week a government planning inspector submitted his initial comments on Cheshire East Council's draft local plan and said he was "concerned about the adequacy and methodology of the council's objective assessment of housing needs". He also highlighted the use of out of date figures.
Speaking to Place North West, Cllr Michael Jones, leader of Cheshire East Council, said: "If you go by RSS figures, we have at least a five year supply of housing, and these figures have been universally accepted until recently. Once you change the delivery levels to 1,350 a year as some are proposing [in Cheshire East's emerging core strategy], of course it is going to appear as if we have a shortfall.
"The supply required for the area is 11,000 units, and we have 17,000 in the pipeline, although not all will be delivered in five years. The annual figure named by the inspector has never been delivered in Cheshire East – we have never built more than 1,200 homes even in peak years.
"We are not getting consistency from planning inspectors, and the Government needs to decide what is required from us. We are currently in the unique position of delivering something that is not in our control, but is in the hands of developers."
When asked about the discrepancy in figures, Jones said: "The definition of a five year supply is an ongoing process, and at the point of appeal we were in the early stages. We have much more robust figures now, and are including lower estimates on sites to avoid criticisms such as the ones we received earlier in the process."