One of the most controversial issues faced by Horsham District Council is the local housing plan (Local Plan). Affordable homes are vital to meet our own housing needs.
We are required by Government to build houses for our District and neighbouring areas. However, the housing number currently being imposed on us by the Government is unprecedented.
To us as local councillors the housing targets set by Central Government are very high and questionable in terms of market absorption and infrastructure. This issue is incredibly unpopular with all voters in the South East. We tried to deliver what was required and balance the requirements of Central Government with the views of local residents.
Based on evidence provided by studies and input from stake holders we were arriving at an outline Local Plan to go to Council. One of the key studies was the housing deliverability study which set a ceiling of sorts on the area in development terms. During preceding months we had written three times to Central Government challenging the targets on us - to no avail. Changes to the planning system in July forced us to delay the Local Plan so we could comply to new requirements. Now we must delay again because Natural England has issued a Position Statement on Water Neutrality which has possible consequences for our Plan.
I wish to ensure our electorate the best possible deal on housing. There have also been pledges from Boris Johnson about not building on green fields which may change the rules affecting the Plan.
The appointment of a new minister Michael Gove to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities may also have an impact on the Local Plan and the rules governing it. These two items may reduce our target levels. We will query these.
Natural England recently identified that the extent of development required by Central Government is already having a devastating impact on rare habitats in our District. Planning Authorities must introduce measures requiring that all future development meet strict water neutrality parameters to limit the impact of water extraction at Hardham. This places severe limits on our short term planning permissions. This Water Neutrality position overrules other planning factors, and water abstraction has thrown into question housing targets based on our studies and Government targets.
This is a legally binding constraint.
This provides the Council with a level of protection against speculative development whilst we work with Natural England and Southern Water to resolve this issue. We are commissioning further work to assess the impact of these new restrictions on our Local Plan and particularly the implications on housing numbers. We are also working with Chichester and Crawley Councils on this collaboratively.
This will inevitably introduce an unavoidable delay in the timetable but without this further evidence our Plan would be unlikely to proceed to public examination.
We have a responsibility to protect the environment. We will do the necessary work to assess the impact of these new restrictions on the Local Plan. Whilst Natural England has paused development in other areas over nitrates in water courses this is the first time water extraction has been cited as a reason, which gives some indication of the severity of the problem. We are also talking to our local MPs and seeking help from them.
It will take some weeks to understand the full implications of the new restrictions. We are already talking to developers to understand how they plan to meet the requirement for water neutrality. It is likely that our current Local Plan will be affected in some way by this issue. We will continue to update you as further information becomes available. In any event I can assure you that your local Conservative Council is working as hard as we can on behalf of our residents to ensure Horsham District remains one of the most desirable places to live in the UK.