Earlier this month, a planning inspector approved Horsham District Council's local planning framework after it was altered to meet his demand for a higher level of housing provision. Barbara Childs is head of strategic planning and sustainability at the council.
Q. How did this task land up on your desk?
A. I have been involved in policy planning for more than 20 years mostly in this council. In 2009 we did our first consultation. That was under a different national planning regime when housing figures were decided at a regional level. I went off in 2012 to do a different job in the authority, heading up economic development and leisure. However, the authority was finding it difficult to get the members to buy into any level of housing growth, so called me back in to help try and get buy-in.
Q. What were the challenges involved in producing the housing numbers?
A. The South East Plan had told us we needed 650 homes in the district every year, but after that was abolished we went back and looked at objectively assessed need and came up with a figure of 575. By the time we submitted the framework for inspection that had gone up to 650. One of the most difficult challenges for members – not just in this authority – is that there is high demand for housing. Members understood that we needed to meet our own housing needs. What was more challenging was explaining that we need to meet others’ unmet need under the duty to cooperate.
Our neighbours are very constrained. Crawley is built up to its boundary, while other neighbours have the sea and a national park to contend with. We are relatively unconstrained.
I had to hold a lot of informal briefings to explain what was happening in other areas of the country with similar issues. This involved explaining the sorts of decisions that the Planning Inspectorate was making. Eventually they understood there was no fudging the housing numbers.
Q. What other pressures were you under?
A. At the hearings into the plan, there were more than 30 developers trying to push the number of homes per year up above 1,000. The inspector wrote to us and then said that number needed to go up to 750 and then 800.
As part of our preparatory work we had anticipated that this might happen and outlined how we could meet 800 homes a year until the last part of the plan. We successfully argued that any more would not be possible due to the time needed to get infrastructure in place and for local communities to get used to new development.
Q. What was the most difficult thing about the process?
A. The inspector places an emphasis on having an up to date evidence base, but the goalposts keep changing. There were changes in household projections, the retail outlook and affordable housing changes. Dealing with those shifting sands is tricky.
Q. Now the inspector has approved the framework, you can put your feet up, then?
A. You can get too tied up in the process but what the framework is really about is implementation and that starts now. We are going to start work on a site allocation document next year. Then we need to conduct a review to work out how we are going to meet housing need in the final part of the plan. I will also have a bit of space to work on other areas needing policy advice such as supplementary planning documents. One such project will look at a vision for Horsham town centre and how we make the most of economic opportunities there.