WAVERLEY Borough Council faces an imminent threat of being placed in ‘special measures’ and having planning decisions taken out of its hands, as a consequence of it undermining the newly-made Farnham Neighbourhood Plan earlier this year.
In a report to the council’s executive committee on Tuesday – updating Waverley’s performance against Government targets for the ‘speed’ and ‘quality’ of determining planning applications – officers warned that should several appeals go against the council in coming months, its powers of determination could be withdrawn and handed to the Secretary of State.
The borough council’s current performance on speed of dealing with ‘major’ and ‘non-major’ applications is “excellent”, say officers, and its performance on ‘non-major’ appeals is “well within target”.
However, executive members voiced “grave concern” on Tuesday night about the authority’s impending failure to meet the government’s target for the number of major planning applications refused by the council but allowed at appeal.
Against a target threshold that no more than 10 per cent of major appeals should be allowed, Waverley’s record is currently 6.4 per cent.
But officers predict that, subject to the result of several appeals yet to be decided, and refusals not yet appealed, this figure could soon rise to 16 per cent in the “worst case scenario” breaching the Government target.
Pending appeals outlined by officers as putting Waverley at risk of special measures include plans to build:
• 157 homes in Waverley Lane, Farnham,
• 140 in Lower Weybourne Lane, Badshot Lea,
• 56 to the rear of Bindon House in Monkton Lane,
• 102 in Upper Old Park Lane, Folly Hill,
• 254 opposite the Hogs Back Brewery in Tongham Road,
• 43 at Baker Oates Stables in Gardener’s Hill Road,
• 97 on the site of Farnham Park Hotel in Hale Road, and
• 43 at Green Lane Farm, Badshot Lea.
With the exception of Tongham Road, each of the above appeals hinge on the weight afforded to the Farnham Neighbourhood Plan, which excludes the sites as either inappropriate for housing or for falling outside of Farnham’s Built-Up Area Boundary.
Waverley adopted the Farnham planning blueprint in late July after a huge 88 per cent of voters backed the plan in a referendum in May.
However, the borough council then undermined the document just weeks later when, announcing modifications to its own Local Plan, it proposed that Farnham find space for a further 450 new homes, requiring a possible early review of the Neighbourhood Plan.
It now appears Waverley’s decision, to cast doubt on the borough’s only up-to-date planning blueprint, could come back to haunt it should its major appeals target tip over 10 per cent as a result.
Addressing the damning report on Tuesday, Farnham Town Council leader Carole Cockburn highlighted the problems caused by Waverley’s decision to propose a review of the adopted Farnham Neighbourhood Plan.
“I assumed you were aware how important Farnham Neighbourhood Plan was in defence of appeals,” she said. “As soon as the Waverley executive declared the plan out of date within weeks of its being made, developers wrote to the Secretary of State, asking him to allow the three recovered appeals.
“Without the protection of a made neighbourhood plan, the developers claimed that the evidence was not convincing enough.”
Waverley’s performance was described as a “significant concern” by Liz Sims, the borough’s head of planning, who recommended more training workshops for councillors and officers and the need for councillors to “recognise and engage the presumption in favour of sustainable development” to avoid “unnecessary” refusals.
She also urged that Waverley’s new Local Plan should be progressed “as quickly as possible” to strengthen the council’s defence against harmful developments.
But hopes that Waverley will meet its timetable target of getting the first part of its Local Plan adopted in December, now look increasingly unlikely, after government inspector Jonathan Bore posed a new set of questions this month on the latest modifications to the plan, which have not yet been answered.
One question relating directly to Farnham, asks how Waverley can ensure the 450 houses on top of the 2,780 allocated for Farnham can be built, due to the timing of the Farnham Neighbourhood Plan review and Natural England’s objection the Local Plan does not identify enough mitigating land, or Suitable Alternative Natural Green Space.
It was also revealed at Tuesday’s meeting that Waverley has spent more than £500,000 fighting appeals against its planning decisions in the last two years alone – equivalent to 3.5 per cent of the council’s total budget for 2016/17. This includes £51,000 Waverley has been ordered to pay developers in costs for “behaving unreasonably”.
Waverley leader and Upper Hale councillor Julia Potts said: “To see more than £500,000 spent on defending appeals is absolutely horrendous and it’s partly because we don’t have a sound Local Plan.
“Hopefully we are well on the way to that now and can adopt one to ensure appropriate plan-led development. Think what all that money could have been spent on, such as services to vulnerable residents. We need to make sure we invest in planning services and officers. If we don’t we will continue to have issues. We must ensure the Local Plan is adopted as soon as possible.”