Dacorum Lib Dem Councillor-Group submission to Local Plan consultation

1 Mar 2021

Introduction

The Dacorum Local Plan for the next 18 years needs to provide the right homes, in the right places for local people, and rise to the twin challenges of climate change and a (post) COVID-19 world.

We would like to thank the exceptionally hard working Officers of DBC for their excellent work in putting together this plan. With the competing needs of a growing population and the Climate Emergency, not to mention an excessive target from MHCLG and a rapidly changing society it is inevitable that there will be disagreement on the best way to proceed, but this does not in any way diminish our appreciation for the efforts of our officers.

There has been a shortage of affordable housing across the UK in recent years, and in Dacorum in particular, there is an acute shortage of social housing. At present there are over 7000 people on the housing list in Dacorum, and despite a modest social housing building programme by DBC this figure has been increasing in recent years. Our build programme, whilst laudable, has not been keeping up with the increasing need.

In an attempt to make housing more affordable across the Country, Government set a target of building 300,000 new homes per year. It is intended that this be achieved through setting local housing targets at a national level, using the 'standard method'. The standard method is an algorithm which increases the housing target above Office For National Statistics ('ONS') projections for areas where the housing is unaffordable. This approach assumes that increasing housing stock above housing demand will result in a reduction in house prices. Whilst this may appear to be a logical approach, it inevitably results in increased housing target figures for areas in the London commuter belt and in the South of the country as a whole. London is not affordable for a large proportion of people working and living there, and so it is a well trodden path to move out of London into commuter belt towns when you want to buy a home, or start a family.

  1. Do you think the overarching vision and the strategic objectives are right for the Borough?

No, simply building more and more homes in Dacorum will not provide any noticeable depressive effect on house prices in the area, it will rather attract more people from London to buy here. This does nothing to reduce the numbers on our housing list, and very little to address the specific housing needs of Dacorum.

This consultation was originally for the period 27th November 2020 to 7 February 2021, but this was extended on 13 January up until the 28 February. However, the country is still under a COVID lockdown, and people are not allowed to leave their houses unless necessary. Whilst the consultation is available online, it is clear that the individuals who are not able to access it properly include those who are most at risk from this disease, and advising people in risk categories 1 -4 to go to the library to access the documents is nonsensical. The consultation ought to be extended to 6 weeks after the current lockdown has ended so that those without access to appropriate technology are included.

In addition, much of the work done on the local plan was carried out before COVID-19 and the consideration of changes in lifestyle as a result of the pandemic and arising from it have not been included in arriving at this plan for how Dacorum will grow and change over the next 18 years. This is a major flaw in the plan, and it is vital that this is rectified.

The Emerging Local Plan provides for too many houses overall, and insufficient social housing. The number of houses calculated by the Standard method, has changed during the course of the consultation,

Initially, the Standard method that required a 2.6 fold increase in our housing numbers from the Objectively Assessed projections from the ONS 2018. This meant that our projection of 355 dwellings per year was increased to 922. The algorithm which caused this unrealistic uplift was widely criticized and has been abandoned. Whilst it is positive that the original algorithm for the Standard method, which limits the increase to 1.4 fold the ONS figure has been readopted, it is not clear why out of date figures (2014) from the ONS are required to be used, when there are more recent projections. The result of this is that our housing target figure has increased to 1023, and this is both completely out of step with the actual need for new homes in Dacorum, AND a target so large that it risks large amounts of countryside, the amalgamation of our distinct settlements and fundamentally flies in the face of national climate change commitments.

  1. Do you have any specific comments about the sustainable development strategy?

The Local Plan contains very little about sustaining villages, and does not address ensuring that our villages are self-sustaining communities, rather than car dependent dormitory settlements.

The plan does not address the Glover Review which proposes to make the AoNB into the Chilterns National Park. Some sites proposed will actively damage the AoNB.

There has not been a full consideration of employment in the borough, particularly in light of recent changes, such as reduced office use, which may well reduce commuting.

  1. Do you have any specific comments about any of the guiding policies?

Many of the policies were drafted prior to the onset of COVID 19, and so require updating to reflect expected changes in lifestyle. There is also a need to make sure that all of our policies tally with the UKs 2050 net zero commitment, and the Council's 2030 net zero commitment.

For example, policy SP2 b) and SP5 state that there should be no net loss of office floorspace from 2025 onwards. Considering the likely move away from office space by businesses looking to reduce costs after the pandemic, and maximise their use of new technology for home and distance working, this does not appear to be a logical starting point.

Policy SP5 seeks to grow employment through capitalising on the borough's position close to the M25 and M1, and this fundamentally contradicts the UK's 2050 net zero commitment.

  1. Do you have any comments about any of the delivery strategies?

The delivery strategies include a large amount of greenbelt which we do not consider should be released. A housing target which cannot be considered an objectively assessed need for our area is not an exceptional circumstance to release green belt.

Moving Household Waste to HH01 with no route to the north for >7.5 tonne vehicles and overlooked by AoNB not in line with policy.

  1. Do you have any specific comments about any of the proposals and sites?

No Comments.

  1. 6. Do you have any comments on the sustainability proposal?

Water

The plan acknowledges that our local water resources are under extreme pressure, from the use of ground water for water supply and from climate change. The Chalk streams in Dacorum are Globally rare, and already carry an unacceptable burden.

In 2019 the River Gade ran dry. In November 2019 the Council passed a motion to prevent further decline of our chalk streams, and ensure that our Local Plan will do all that is possible to protect these important ecosystems. This is not recognized in the Local Plan.

Policy DM33 of the Local Plan states the following objective:

  1. c) avoid the need to abstract water from the ground, in particular from the Rivers Ver, Gade and Bulbourne catchments.

However, the plan proposes an increase in our population of up to 28% (probably at least 20%), which indicates a likely increase in water requirements by a similar amount. Without a credible plan to indicate how the additional water for this increase in housing will be provided, as well as additional requirements for offices, shops and factories then this need will have been created, not avoided.

The details on the proposed sites for development do not provide any information on the potential negative impacts on our chalk streams, and the mitigation measures of potential adverse effects on our water resources are stated as incomplete (they are acknowledged only to 'help' mitigate the impact). Therefore the plan includes an implicit negative impact on our chalk streams which it acknowledges will not be fully mitigated.

There is no credible plan to avoid extraction of water from the ground, and thus policy DM33, whilst indicating the correct intentions, fails in its stated objectives.

Sewage capacity is already inadequate, and it is not clear from the plan how this will be recitified.

Climate

For the UK to meet its net zero obligations by 2050, local emissions must come down even faster. The airline industry and certain areas of manufacturing are particularly difficult to decarbonise, and the advancements which will allow for this will take some time. In contrast, there is already much that can be done to reduce our local emissions, and our local plan must play its part in this.

The plan does yet provide sufficient details to indicate how carbon emissions from the building and use of new homes will align with the government 2050 net zero target. Given the scale of building proposed, and even if this is significantly reduced, there is a clear conflict between plans for more building, significantly more Co2-producing population, and Co2 targets.

We are pleased to see that the Local Plan DM23 has been drafted to include a 19% improvement on carbon emissions as compared to Part L regulations, and a requirement for developers to contribute to on site renewable energy generation.

However, since the Emerging Local Plan was released there has been a Government announcement regarding the Future Homes Standard. From 2025 Part L regulations will be updated to require an even higher standard of carbon emissions reduction, with fossil fuel burners banned in new homes from this point, with a carbon emissions reduction of 75 to 80% compared to the current standard. Government has also advised, that to ensure industry is ready to meet the new standards by 2025, new homes will be expected to produce 31% lower carbon emissions from 2021.

This highlights the need for the Local Plan to have a comprehensive carbon reduction action plan in place. Individual ideas and policies are welcome, but we must first begin with an understanding of the carbon cost of development. This begins with proper measurement.

It is essential that we note that in building houses the carbon cost is more than simply the cost of heating the houses in future, the carbon cost of removing land from Green belt is significant. Soil is a large absorber of CO2, and when it is dug up and built over much of this is released, not to mention the lost future absorption.

Dacorum Borough Council needs to calculate its baseline CO2 emissions from housing, transport and land use. There is currently no acknowledgment in the Local Plan of the carbon cost of removing land from greenbelt. To play our part in meeting the UK net zero 2050 target, it will first be necessary to calculate the carbon cost of:

1) Removing any land from green belt or green field.

2) Building the houses, including carbon cost of materials involved and cost of transporting those materials.

3) Using those houses , eg heating, and providing electricity for their occupants.

4) Expected carbon emissions from travelling to and from those houses.

5) Expected carbon cost of dismantling and disposal of the assets at the end of life (this will encourage develops to use recyclable materials).

We urge the council to include a requirement for developers to do this calculation, potentially jointly with the Council and other stakeholders.

All carbon cost will need to be, as an absolute minimum offset, for us to play our part in meeting the 2050 net zero obligation, and developer contributions should be a part of this.

We welcome the requirement for two new trees to be planted for every new dwelling in major developments, but suggest that this is

  1. Extended to minor developments, and
  2. Considered in more detail, certified against an independent scheme (eg the Woodland Code) to ensure carbon sequestration from those trees over time, perhaps by using a third party to plant and manage the trees to ensure maximum CO2 capture.

Biodiversity

There is a 10% net biodiversity national requirement, which will soon become mandatory. To meet the spirit of this requirement as well as the legal obligations, any building and resultant changes to the environment, be that infrastructure, housing, commercial property or agriculture, will need to be calculated in terms of the change in the underlying biodiversity value, and a 10% net gain provided. It should be a requirement that an assessment of biodiversity value change be included and published as part of planning proposals, and verified by an independent third party.

Transport and Infrastructure

An efficient public transport network enables people to travel directly to their destination quickly. For public transport to be viable, it must also be popular, full or near full capacity. At present we have a problem that buses are insufficiently popular, and so will go 'round the houses' to gather sufficient passengers. However, this leads to longer journeys, which encourages people to find alternatives. If you can buy a house then buying a car is also likely to be available to you, and so this becomes the choice made by many of our residents.

Housing is not often built with transport in mind, but any new housing estates in Dacorum must be constructed with a road layout which encourages bus and train use, and topography allowing, bicycle use. When we allow developers to build executive housing on the outskirts of Hemel, Tring and Berkhamsted, we must be aware that those that can afford this housing, which is far above the affordability ratio used by the Office for National Statistics of 4 times salary, will likely be working in London, and will therefore be expecting to take the train to commute. It is essential that any new housing development include a transport plan which does not rely solely on cars, both as part of our Climate Change obligations, and since the capacity of many of Dacorum's roads simply cannot hold any further traffic. Family homes must be within easy and safe walking distance from schools, and if they are not, then these trips must also be included in the transport plan.

In the current local plan many of the large housing estates proposed are far from the train stations in Dacorum, and there is no explanation provided as to how the people who live in these homes will travel to and from work. On top of this, the housing on many of these estates will include large numbers of executive homes where one or more adult is likely to be commuting to London. This Local plan places the people most likely to need easy access to the train station, and most likely to be able to afford a car, in the position that they will need to use a car to get to work every day.

Neither our transport network nor our environment can withstand the resultant increase in car journeys.

We are pleased to see, in The Draft Infrastructure Plan for Dacorum the Transport User Heirarchy which requires the County Council to design any scheme and develop any transport strategy in the following order:

Opportunities to reduce travel demand and the need to travel

  1. Vulnerable road user needs (such as pedestrians and cyclists)
  2. Passenger transport user needs
  3. Powered two wheeler (mopeds and motorbikes) user needs
  4. Other motor vehicle user needs

Draft Dacorum Infrastructure Delivery Plan Policy 1

However, there is also an infrastructure prioritisation which will guide spending on infrastructure. This defines infrastructure improvements as Critical, Essential and Required with Critical having the highest priority.

Table 8 of the Draft infrastructure delivery plan details the priorities of proposed infrastructure, and we note that overall, schemes which are designated to have 'lesser relevance' are cycle way improvements and other green infrastructure. It is essential that environmental improvement schemes are not competing for funding with major road improvement schemes. To date Garden Communities schemes across the country have found that the vast majority of funding has been spent on road improvements, and this is not a mistake we can afford to repeat.

  1. Do you agree that the evidence base that accompanies the plan is adequate, up to date and relevant?

Whilst it is clear that an enormous amount of work has been carried out in relation to the local plan, there are multiple recent factors which have not been taken into account.

The vast majority of the Local Plan was prepared prior to the offset of COVID, and so doesn't account for major changes in working and shopping practices which are expected, or the requirement for public open space which has become more pronounced.

A large proportion of the evidence base doesn't account for the recent update in Climate Change science, which insists upon an accelerated pathway to net zero.

As well as the recent change in the housing target figure which is produced by the standard method, which in fact changed mid consultation, there are significant impacts to be considered from the proposed white paper changes. Particularly significant are the plans to categorise land as 'protect' and 'growth' and 'renewal' areas. Under the current proposals from the Local Plan, 750 hectares of additional greenbelt are planned to be released, and it would appear that these areas would then automatically become 'growth' areas. This would result in a significant loss of planning influence by the council and local residents, which has a myriad of potential pitfalls for our community.

Many of the documents in the evidence base are understandably not up to date with these changes, and whilst this is not required for every piece of evidence, these potential changes are enormously significant and must be given due consideration in relation to the local plan, which to date, is not the case.

Certain important documents such as the Dacorum Infrastructure Plan remain in draft form, and it is difficult for residents to make an informed judgment on the Local Plan as a whole when key documents such as this are not final. With a proposed increase in population of a quarter, infrastructure is one of the main areas of concern for residents, but with this area barely touched on in the main plan, and as the Dacorum Infrastructure Plan still subject to unspecified changes, it is not possible for residents and businesses in Dacorum to form a well advised opinion on these matters.

There is no mention of the Glover Report, which proposed the AoNB become a National Park.

No strategies for or mention of agriculture even though 85% of borough is rural.

The Habitats assessment is out of date (2006).

No Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) documents are published alongside the draft Local Plan for consultation.

  1. Do you think the plan is consistent with National Planning Policy Framework and supporting guidance?

No, due consideration has not been given to policies which protect assets such as green belt and AoNB.

Objectively Assessed Need

The National Planning Policy Framework requires that all planning authorities prepare Local Plans to provide housing which meets their objectively assessed need.

  1. Plans and decisions should apply a presumption in favour of sustainable development.

For plan-making this means that:

(a) plans should positively seek opportunities to meet the development needs of their area, and be sufficiently flexible to adapt to rapid change;

(b) strategic policies should, as a minimum, provide for objectively assessed needs for housing and other uses, as well as any needs that cannot be met within neighbouring areas 5 , unless:

(i) the application of policies in this Framework that protect areas or assets of particular importance provides a strong reason for restricting the overall scale, type or distribution of development in the plan area 6 ; or

(ii) any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole.

NPPF section 11

Section 60 of the NPPF suggests that the housing need is set by the standard method. However, the housing figure from the standard method for Dacorum has changed during the course of this consultation.

  1. To determine the minimum number of homes needed, strategic policies should be informed by a local housing need assessment, conducted using the standard method in national planning guidance - unless exceptional circumstances justify an alternative approach which also reflects current and future demographic trends and market signals. In addition to the local housing need figure, any needs that cannot be met within neighbouring areas should also be taken into account in establishing the amount of housing to be planned for.

NPPF section 60

In November 2020 Dacorum had a standard method 'housing target' of 922 dwellings per annum. This was based on the most recent Office for National Statistics ('ONS') housing need projections, (355 per year averaged over the next ten years for Dacorum) and uplifted by an algorithm which placed import, not only on housing affordability, but also on the change in housing affordability in the last ten years. This resulted in a multiplier applied to the ONS projected need of 2.6, and overall housing target of 922 dwellings per annum.

In December 2020, Government announced that it would no longer be using this method to calculate the housing target and that it would revert to an earlier affordability algorithm. This algorithm limited the uplift from ONS figures to 1.4 x ONS figures. With the latest ONS figures suggesting that Dacorum would need 355 dwellings per year this would provide a housing need figure of around 500 dwellings per annum. However, rather than use the latest projections, Government announced that it would instead revert to the 2014 projections.

'We will continue to use the 2014-based household projections. The government has carefully considered whether to use the 2018-based household projections and has concluded that, due to the substantial change in the distribution of housing need that would arise as a result, in the interests of stability for local planning and for local communities, it will continue to expect only the use of the 2014-based projections.'

Government response to the local housing need proposals in 'Changes to the current planning system'

As the latest housing need projections for Dacorum are around half the 2014 ones (355 vs 730)

using out of date 2014 projections results in a 'housing target' figure for Dacorum of 1023 dwellings per annum. It is specifically stated that the reason for using the old projections is because there is a 'substantial change' between the old projections and the most recent ones.

Therefore, it is self-evident that the housing target produced by the standard method cannot be accurately described as an objectively assessed need.

We urge the Council to request of Government, that the best information available be used to calculate our housing target. That is, the most recent ONS figures, and the standard method (which limits uplift to a multiplier of 1.4).

If Government does not agree to alter the Standard Method across the country to reflect more recent trends, the NPPF section 60 allows for planning authorities to set their own housing need under 'exceptional circumstances'.

It is our view that the fact that the target figure set by using the 2014 projections is not in any way an 'objectively assessed need', combined with the fact that providing for over double the actual required need would fundamentally fly against the UKs 2050 net zero commitment, provides this exceptional circumstance to apply an alternative approach to calculating the housing need.

It is our considered view that as such, DBC should use the latest housing projections, along with the original standard method to calculate its housing need, and update this local plan to provide for a 9,000 homes over 18 years.

Protected areas

If the housing target provided by the current standard method and old ONS projections must be used, it is clear from the NPPF and the recent release from MHCLG that this target is considered only a starting point.

11 b) strategic policies should, as a minimum, provide for objectively assessed needs for housing and other uses, as well as any needs that cannot be met within neighbouring areas, unless:

  1. the application of policies in this Framework that protect areas or assets of particular importance provides a strong reason for restricting the overall scale, type or distribution of development in the plan area; or
  1. any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole.

NPPF section 11

'Many respondents to the consultation were concerned that the 'targets' provided by the standard method were not appropriate for individual local authority areas. Within the current planning system the standard method does not present a 'target' in plan-making, but instead provides a starting point for determining the level of need for the area, and it is only after consideration of this, alongside what constraints areas face, such as the Green Belt, and the land that is actually available for development, that the decision on how many homes should be planned for is made. It does not override other planning policies, including the protections set out in Paragraph 11b of the NPPF or our strong protections for the Green Belt.'

Government response to the local housing need proposals in 'Changes to the current planning system'

On top of this, it is worth noting that the reasons given by MHCLG for rejecting the complex housing algorithm (which for Dacorum gave a target figure of 2.6 x the ONS projected housing need) focused on the pressure on rural areas and Green belt.

'In particular, we heard that too much strain was being put on our rural areas and not enough focus was on the renewal of our towns and cities.'

'in some places the numbers produced by the standard method pose a risk to protected landscapes and Green Belt. We should be clear that meeting housing need is never a reason to cause unacceptable harm to such places.'

Government response to the local housing need proposals in 'Changes to the current planning system'

In the emerging local plan, which uses the figure of 922 dwellings per year, it is proposed that over 750 hectares of Green belt be released and allocated for housing. If the figure of 1023 dwellings per year were used, it can only be assumed that pressure on green belt would be even greater. Great import is attached to preserving Greenbelt in the NPPF.

  1. The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts. The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence.

NPPF section 133

It is also clear from the NPPF that the release of green belt can only be considered in 'exceptional circumstances'.

  1. Once established, Green Belt boundaries should only be altered where exceptional circumstances are fully evidenced and justified, through the preparation or updating of plans. Strategic policies should establish the need for any changes to Green Belt boundaries, having regard to their intended permanence in the long term, so they can endure beyond the plan period. Where a need for changes to Green Belt boundaries has been established through strategic policies, detailed amendments to those boundaries may be made through non-strategic policies, including neighbourhood plans.

NPPF Section 136

We consider that meeting a housing target which cannot be accurately described as an 'objectively assessed need' does not qualify as an 'exceptional circumstance' in which Green belt may be released.

Furthermore, even where exceptional circumstances apply, green belt may only be released as a last resort.

  1. Before concluding that exceptional circumstances exist to justify changes to Green Belt boundaries, the strategic policy-making authority should be able to demonstrate that it has examined fully all other reasonable options for meeting its identified need for development. This will be assessed through the examination of its strategic policies, which will take into account the preceding paragraph, and whether the strategy:
  2. a) makes as much use as possible of suitable brownfield sites and under utilised land;
  3. b) optimises the density of development in line with the policies in chapter 11 of this Framework, including whether policies promote a significant uplift in minimum density standards in town and city centres and other locations well served by public transport; and
  4. c) has been informed by discussions with neighbouring authorities about whether they could accommodate some of the identified need for development, as demonstrated through the statement of common ground.

NPPF Section 137

We do not consider that all other options for housing have been appropriately considered in this local plan. For example, the windfall figure which is provided for in this plan is 133.8 per year. In the last fourteen years the windfall figure has been 306.2 per year on average (346 per year over the last five years). The figure for this plan period is therefore far lower than could be reasonably expected. However, permitted development rules have been widened significantly, and now include the potential to increase the height of buildings, adding flats on top of blocks of flats and adding flats on top of shops. This will likely mean that windfall figures will if anything, increase. On top of this, the pandemic is expected to cause a shift away from office space for businesses in favour of more flexible working practices and this is likely to free up more brown field space within towns all over the country, thereby taking pressure off green field and green belt sites.

According to the NPPF:

  1. Green Belt serves five purposes:
  2. a) to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
  3. b) to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
  4. c) to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
  5. d) to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
  6. e) to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

NPPF Section 134

Releasing the amount of Green belt proposed, is likely to prevent essential renewal of our town centres post pandemic.

Social housing need in Dacorum

Planning authorities are expected to meet their needs for different types of housing, not only the headline figure for number of dwellings.

  1. Within this context, the size, type and tenure of housing needed for different groups in the community should be assessed and reflected in planning policies (including, but not limited to, those who require affordable housing, families with children, older people, students, people with disabilities, service families, travellers, people who rent their homes and people wishing to commission or build their own homes).

NPPF Section 61

There are currently over 7000 people on the housing list in Dacorum. That is over 7000 people who meet the criteria for council or housing authority housing and who have asked for it. This need is not being met adequately through this plan. The Local Housing Needs Assesment ('LHNA') for South West Herts estimated that the number of affordable houses needed per year in Dacorum is 363 and that 87% of these should be social housing. Whilst this figure may also be impacted to a certain extent by the expected decrease in growth which has caused the ONS projections for our area to reduce from 730 to 355 dwellings per year, the current need is still large.

It is our view that the Local Plan does not include sufficient allocations for affordable, or in particular social housing for the needs of Dacorum residents. Of the 922 dwellings proposed per year only 70 per year are expected to be social housing, as compared to the need for 315 social dwellings per year from the LHNA. We would like to see a third of housing delivered in Dacorum be social rented housing. A large proportion of the housing envisioned in this plan will not be affordable for our residents, but is rather aimed at London commuters, and this will do nothing to improve the affordability of housing in Dacorum.

(ENDS)