As the number of proposals for housing developments soars, Sarah Freeman reports on fears one of Yorkshire most picturesque districts is about to be damaged forever.
Until recently the only activity in the fields which lie a couple of feet from Nick Sefton’s backdoor was caused by the resident wildlife and the occasional dog walker.
A keen twitcher, one of the bonuses of buying the house in Killinghall, near Harrogate, was the ready access to open countryside and the less eagle-eyed might have taken little notice when men wearing high vis jackets began to take an interest in the land early last summer.
With the village on the route of the Tour de France, at first Nick thought they were checking possible campsite locations. However, it turned out the men were assessing the greenfield site for much more permanent dwellings. A little further probing revealed developers Gladman had identified the land, which belongs to a local farmer, as ideal for a new 91-home estate.
“When we bought the house six years ago we did make enquiries about the land,” says Nick, but were told, ‘Don’t worry, no one will build on there, it’s a greenfield site’. This isn’t about nimbyism. Permission has already been granted for 268 new homes at the other end of the village, but that doesn’t seem to matter. If we don’t find a way to stop these plans going ahead it will not only ruin the character of the village, but will open the floodgates to similar developments all across this part of Yorkshire.”
Some fear those floodgates have already been opened. Similar battles are going on elsewhere in Harrogate as the town begins to the full impact of the ‘planning free for all’, which has taken hold since its Local Plan was thrown out last summer. The plan - which has to be adopted by all local authorities - set out the number of houses required over a five year period and in Harrogate’s case had concluded the district would need to build 390 homes a year.
However, due to changes in the way the housing quotas are calculated under the National Planning Policy Framework, Harrogate saw its annual total increase to between 860 and 1,000. With its plan out of date before it was even published, the council had little choice but to withdraw it.
“We took advice from the Government who told us to push ahead with the original plan, but include a proviso for an early review which would allow us to adjust the numbers,” says Michael Harrison, Conservative councillor for Killinghall and cabinet member for planning. “So you can imagine our frustration when we did exactly that only to be told that our plan was inadequate because the figures weren’t accurate.”
With Harrogate forced to go back to the drawing board, the lack of a local plan has created a planning loophole which many fear is being exploited by speculative developers. While the council is still able to reject planning applications it considers unsuitable, developers know that without recourse to a local plan the chances of those decisions being overturned at appeal are high.
Since July, Harrogate has received 20 new applications for 2,178 houses - around a three-fold increase on the same period the year before. Of those, four have been approved, one refused and 15 are pending consideration.
“Harrogate is not alone, but all local authorities without a local plan have been placed in a very difficult situation. If an application goes to appeal unless you can prove it will cause significant and demonstrable harm - a more severe test than a local authority would normally use - then the guidance is to grant permission.
“If a decision is overturned, the council is also liable to pick up the legal costs. Those alone can run into six figures. That’s real money and at a time when local authority budgets are under increasing pressure, it’s not money any council can afford to lose.”
Cllr Harrison says an already frustrating situation is being made even more ludicrous by the fact that even if they could put in place a new district plan tomorrow, any major developments given the go ahead now may not even count towards the final total.
“The only developments which would count would be those which will be built within the next five years. We could say yes to a plan for 10,000 homes, but if we are realistic a development of that kind which requires significant infrastructure has zero chance of being completed within the time frame.”
The Government is coming under increasing pressure to amend the regulations to include developments approved, rather than built, within the five year time period. However, if it refuses many fear that in order to meet housing targets, councils will have no option but to give the go ahead to a rash of smaller developments which can be built quickly.
According to research carried out by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, in areas without a local plan, the success rate of planning permission appeals currently stands at 72 per cent compared to 35 per cent in other areas. In the past two years it says, 26,840 houses on greenfield sites have been given the go ahead at appeal when the local authority was found not to have earmarked enough land for housing.
“We are not against development, but we campaign to ensure that we have the right kind of development in the right place, at the right time, for the right reasons,” says Jules Marley, chair of the Yorkshire and Humber arm of the organisation. “This loophole in planning guidance is allowing developers to bypass local democracy and leading to an erosion of faith in the planning system.”
Gladman, which has its headquarters in Cheshire, has refused to comment on its plans for Killinghall and other sites within Yorkshire, but it is one of a number of firms offering to secure planning permission on a no-win no fee basis.
With costs of legal fees often running into hundreds of thousands of pounds, it’s an attractive offer, as is its boast of securing planning permission quickly - as it says on its website ‘think 14 months, not 10 years’.
Back in Killinghall, those against the planned development at Nidd House Farm have until next Friday to lodge their complaints. Under the banner Don’t Kill Killinghall, Nick, along with a number of other residents, have already carried out their own ecological and traffic survey, but they know they are David to the developer’s Goliath.
“We have had to move quickly, because the application was lodged on December 23, but we believe we have a very persuasive dossier of why this development shouldn’t go ahead,” says Nick. “We have shown that this site is home to many protected species like badgers and owls. We can prove that the access to the site is totally unsuitable for the amount of traffic which will be generated we can also show that it will scar a village which was mentioned in the Domesday book.”
The villagers may have history on their side, but that may not be enough to prevent the landscape of Killinghall being changed forever.