LEWES PLANNING WARS, LEWES COUNCIL V MARIA CAULFIELD, THE FIELDS OF ETON AND WINSTON CHURCHILL.

In recent weeks a row has broken out between Cooperative Alliance controlled Lewes District Council and local MP Maria Caulfield about how many new developments must be allowed in the District in coming years.  The Council says that the government is forcing it to aim for 782 new dwellings per year, or 7820 over a decade- the equivalent of a new town the size of Lewes town.- and then another 7820 in the following 10 years, even though there are already 2,017 sites in the District with planning permission that have not been built on.

The MP does not dispute these figures but says that they are only in place because the Council has not done its job properly.

It is the job of the Lewes Eye to find out the facts behind the claims so for the last few weeks the Eye has been investigating.

WHO IS AFFECTED?

Any development targets must be met largely in the area outside of the National Park which has special exemptions, which means that Peacehaven, Newhaven, Seaford and the area north of Lewes town (including Ringmer, Chailey, Newick, Wivelsfield and the surrounding countryside) will be the key areas affected.  Lewes Town and the lower Ouse Valley come under the National Park so are not so badly affected. That increases the pressure on the remaining areas. 

SO HOW DID WE GET HERE?

How did we get from a requirement to have up to 385 dwellings built each year to a requirement to pretty much double that?  There are a number of reasons:

FROM REALITY TO AN ALGORITHM

The current 20 year plan for the period 2010-2030 was adopted by the (then Conservative controlled) District Council in 2016.  (The delay was partly the result of a legal challenge by Wealden Council)  A government inspector looked at Lewes District could reasonably provide and decided that no more than 385 dwellings could reasonably be provided.  275 of them would be outside the National Park

But the government wants to move away from actual reality on the ground and substitute what it calls a “standard method” based on population growth expectations that are now over 6 years old and of dubious provenance.  This standard method suggests about 550 units per year should be provided regardless of local circumstances.

On top of the number of dwellings required by the standard method the government there is now a premium based on how expensive an area is compared with local incomes.  It says that a hugely increased supply of dwellings will bring down prices to more affordable levels. Now you might think that this is a good thing.

But of course prices will not come down, unless we concrete over the whole of the District and possibly not then.  But what WILL happen is that there is more pressure to develop in this and similar areas.  A house costs much the same to build in any part of the country.   But what will go up is the profit.  A house that costs £130k to build will sell at perhaps £430k in places like Ringmer.  It might sell for less than £150k in Workington.  So the result of this premium is to encourage development in areas of high profitability.

This profit is likely to be shared between the land owner and the developer.  If a land owner can get planning permission, or official agreement that the land is suitable for housing, they may take a greater share of the profit than the developer. 

Agricultural Land in East Sussex costs between £7k and 9k an acre . By contrast the value of land with planning permission, or even land which has officially declared as suitable for housing, is much higher.  Here is an example of 1.5 acres with planning permission being sold for £400k.

RUBBISHING LOCAL PLANS

But aren’t local plans supposed to take planning back to the people?

That’s the theory, but in fact Government rules make it hugely difficult. Councils must go through every stage of the process correctly.  If they do not then their plan will be rejected.  Poor old Wealden council, , the authority that is responsible for some of Ms Caulfield’s constituency and which is controlled by the Conservatives, has not even been able to come up with a 20 year plan which the government will accept

Our MP seems to have been silent about what is happening in Wealden but keen students of the adverts in the Sussex express will see that this failure has resulted in a huge number of planning applications in that district.

Even if, like Lewes District, you have a plan, then the Government can and does change the rules all the time.  You can start work on renewing your plan, but it will be judged by the rules in place when the plan is finished, which you don’t know yet.

As an example of these rapid changes, the Government proposed in 2020 to alter the algorithm to demand even higher targets.  In Lewes’s case this would have taken the annual target to well over 800 new units.  Then in December they dropped it again. In a letter sent to a constituent and passed to the Eye, which seems to be based on a fairly standard letter sent to a number of people, Maria Caulfield says that the government withdrew proposals to increase the  for the number of dwellings that the council had to allow in December 2020.   This is true insofar as the Government reduced the target from just over 800 a year to 782 but appears to the Eye to be misleading.

More seriously in 2018, after the adoption of the Lewes plan the Government decided that 20 year plans had to be reviewed every five years to see if they were still up to date.  If they were not reviewed then they could be effectively ignored.  The Eye thinks that this puts councils in an impossible position.

CAN’T THE COUNCIL JUST REVIEW AND RE-ADOPT THE EXISTING PLAN?

No, the council has to go through all the steps set down by Government

According to the council “The Government’s own Planning White Paper published in summer 2020 identifies that this process of local plan preparation takes an average of 7 years under the current system”. The Eye understands that no councils in East Sussex have managed to keep right up to date, which suggests that the timetables are not reasonable.

WHAT DOES THE COUNCIL HAVE TO DO? 

The council had to call for interested parties to put forward sites for development.  This is not a planning application- just a bid to have sites listed as suitable for development. They did this in September 2020

The Council will also consult with town and parish councils. (Amazingly, there is no requirement to do this at an early stage and in other council areas this may not happen until things are much more set in stone).  It started doing this in February.  Not surprisingly people were upset about the number of sites put forward for development.  The sites put forward included a huge proposal by Eton College, who seem to own most of the land around Plumpton. 

Further stages will follow, including a public consultation in the summer.  Everything has to be done by the book if the Council is to persuade the Government inspector that it has looked at every source of land possible and that it is not possible to develop 780 dwellings a year.   The council may be forced by the process to give some ground and allow something approaching that figure and to allocate more land as suitable for development.  The Eye hopes that everyone involved will help them give as little ground as possible.

The Eye understands that Maria Caulfield has asked the Government to extend the deadline for reviewing the plan beyond May 2021.  That is good, what we need is realistic timetables.

SO HAS ETON COLLEGE PUT IN A PLANNING APPLICATION?

It has not.

In her letter to her constituent Maria Caulfield strongly implies that it has. She says she will get it called in, which is something you can only do with a planning application.  In fact she cannot do this because, as a glance at the Lewes District Planning portal will show, there has been no application.

Planning normally works in two stages.  First you agree a local plan, which says that this area is suitable for housing, that area for agriculture and so on.  Once you have got your land allocated for (say) housing, you can then put in a planning application.  It will almost impossible for the Council to then refuse the application on the grounds that housing cannot be built there. (But the Council could say that too many houses were planned, or they were the wrong sort, or similar). 

It is possible to get planning permission where the site is not allocated for housing if the council has completely failed to come up with a plan, as in Wealden, but it is still difficult if the council is developing a plan.

But the actions of the College highlight a long term weakness of the planning system.  So far as the Eye knows, the College’s main activity on the land it owns it  is to have  collected the rents from tenants.  Now, with hardly any effort at all they may make a big profit.

Winston Churchill had quite a lot to say about the iniquities of this sort of land ownership. Amongst other things he said “Unearned increments in land are not the only form of unearned or undeserved profit, but they are the principal form of unearned increment, and they are derived from processes which are not merely not beneficial, but positively detrimental to the general public”.  Some things don’t change.

If the land Eton owns were designated as suitable for housing it would probably not develop it itself.  Instead it might employ an agent to work up a scheme which would get planning permission and then sell the site to a developer, who would then try to modify the planning permission to get something more profitable.  This is what happened a few years ago when the owners of Newlands School in Seaford decided to close the school.

You can visit a website here which is for a campaign specifically to oppose the Eton College plan. You can sign up to the campaign on the site.

WHAT ABOUT THE CONSERVATIVE COUNCILORS ON LEWES DISTRICT?

Conservative council members have been very quiet.  They were running the council up to the middle of 2019.  If Maria Caulfield thinks that the Council has been running too slowly then she is criticising her colleagues in the Conservatives.

The Eye believes that in the Council there has been a cross party consensus locally about what it to be done and that our MP is intervening for personal political gain.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?

It appears to the Eye that the Government is trying to bypass the planning system for the benefit of land owners and developer and to the detriment of local people.

It is clear we need to end the system where local people have to jump through hoops to prevent the government imposing unsuitable development on them.  We have great housing need, but also maybe we ought to look at the way existing housing is used. In 2019 there were over 1,100 empty homes in the district  District Council has very little power to do anything about this.  The government needs to penalise those who leave places empty without good cause.

According to the Council there are 2,017 planning permissions granted in Lewes District which developers are sitting on and not building. If they put a time limit on planning applications this would help prevent this land banking.   

It would be even better if the government enabled local authorities to build properly  affordable council housing- the type local people really need, this would genuinely solve the affordable housing crisis.

Article date  17/3/21.  Maria Caulfield has been asked for comments on this article but has not yet replied.  Any comments she makes will be reflected in changes to the online version of this article.