Written evidence submitted by the northern parish councils of Rother District Council and Burwash: Save our Fields (the Joint group) [FPS 143]



1)             The members of the Joint group are:

a)             Councillors from Brightling Parish Council, Burwash Parish Council, Etchingham Parish Council, Salehurst and Robertsbridge Parish Council, and Ticehurst Parish Council

b)             Our County councillor

c)             Two of the local Rother District councillors

d)             Members of Burwash: Save our Fields

2)             Burwash: Save our Fields was set up in 2014. Details of the group can be found at www.burwashsaveourfields.org.uk/. Since 2014, the group has been involved in about 12 planning applications, issues and planning appeals and it has seen its arguments accepted in all of them.

3)             The Joint group was set up this year to co-ordinate a response to government planning proposals.

4)             Areas the Joint group can assist you with:

a)      Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs)

83% of Rother District Council is in an AONB. Over 90% of Rother District Council is in a protected area, the AONB, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), RAMSAR sites etc., see para 28.

b)      Rural issues

The parishes are rural parishes. Planning is primarily urban-centric. Rural issues in planning are some of the most intractable.

c)      Local perspective

Parishes and local groups are able to assess how planning works for the public. They have an independent focus about their impact on villages which statistics rarely provide. Unlike some witnesses, our overriding consideration is the public interest. All but one of the parishes have recently been involved in drafting a Neighbourhood plan.

d)      Housing needs

An examination of a local area can often show the problem of finding homes for the young and the elderly better than statistics. Housing problems are particularly acute in rural areas.

Executive summary of this written evidence

5)             The main points of this written evidence are:

a)             The proposed formula for calculating the housing for local authorities is flawed and will not deliver what is claimed (Step 1 in Consultation document page 12).

b)             An adjusted formula will still produce the wrong figures.

c)             The proposed formula will reduce the new housing which young people can afford.

d)             There is inadequate protection for AONBs. They are a vital national asset which must be fully protected.

e)             There should be greater concentration on reducing land banking and stopping it from increasing in the future.

f)              The recent 2020 proposals do not adequately address the problems of housing and planning in rural areas.

The problem with the proposed formula

6)             The key questions about the proposed formula are:

a)             ‘Is 5% of existing housing stock in each local authority a suitable yardstick to estimate housing needs?’ (see Consultation document para 23),

b)             Is Workshop-based median house price earnings ratio (the first affordability adjustment) a suitable adjustment?’ (see Consultation document para 29),

c)             Is change in affordability over the last 10 years a suitable factor to include in the formula?’ (see Consultation document para 29).

All other issues revolve around these three questions.

Is 5% of existing housing stock in each local authority a suitable yardstick to estimate housing needs?

7)             A local authority area may have a number of suitable sites or very few. Before the pandemic, a local authority area might have been experiencing high growth or contraction due to declining industry etc. A local authority may have a very large part of its area protected by being in an AONB etc. 5% of the existing housing stock will not reflect these factors. The 5% estimate will guarantee housing targets are wrong.

The affordability tests

8)             The second and third questions in para 6 can be taken together. The sub-text in the proposals is that by building more where people cannot afford houses, the price of housing will fall and people will be able to find somewhere to live. The research in the UK (Bank of England Staff Paper No. 720) and elsewhere shows that greatly increasing the supply of housing in a district will not lower house prices. Logic also supports the research. Suppose Esher and Richmond were identified as areas where people couldn’t afford homes. Further suppose all the fields in those areas were built on, in an attempt to solve the problem. Over the eight or so years, the new houses would be considered by those living within say 30 miles of the area and some living further afield and abroad. If only those in Richmond and Esher could buy the houses, the price of houses might fall, but as the area where potential purchases live would be so wide, there would be no drop in house prices.

9)             Rother District has one of the lowest GDPs in the country because there is so little industry and commerce. The main employment is public sector work, health care, service industries and to a limited extent hospitality. Partly for these reasons Rother District has very low wage rates. East Sussex has no section of motorway. It has some of the worst roads in the country. However, Rother District has high house prices, partly due to its proximity to London and partly because of the number of people who retire here because of good communities, the sea, it is considered warmer than other parts of England and because its beautiful countryside. Most local people cannot afford ‘affordable homes’ and the young who grow up in the area have to move out to find somewhere to live. These problems will not be solved by the new formula. They would be solved if there was housing allocated for local people. Exception sites are welcome but the funding for them and the land for them is not there.

So how should house targets be fixed?

10)         There is no easy solution. However, the government proposal will not assist those trying to find a home. The Joint group puts forward the following solution.

a)             The government has decided 1 million homes for the five-year housing requirement. Perhaps 900,000 might be more realistic.

b)             There should be a decision whether there are going to be any new towns started in the five-year period and if so how many houses the new towns would produce in the five-year period.

c)             The number of housing units where planning permission has been granted but the developer or owner chooses not to build (land banking figures) should be ascertained.

d)             The two figures in b) and c) should be deducted from the 1 million/900,000 figure.

e)             That new figure should be divided by the total population of England and then multiplied by the total population of each local authority area to give each local authority a base target.

f)              The local authority would then be able to submit reasons why that figure should be increased or reduced. The government should provisionally state its agreement or opposition to the local authority figure.

g)             An Inspector should rule if there is a dispute.

11)         Factors which the local authority and the Inspector could take into account should include: the estimated demand for new housing, the estimated available land for housing, its land banking figure, the area subject to protection, and such housing trends that look reliable and relevant.

12)         While these figures are being assessed (hopefully in less than nine months), the old targets would remain in force.

13)         This solution would ensure that the target reflects all relevant local conditions.

How should the programme be accelerated?

14)         In 1945, after the war, compulsory purchase of land was used to accelerate the house-building programme. One of the housing ministers was Harold Macmillan and he achieved totals of up to 350,000 homes a year. This was not achieved by requests or targets. The system had a number of advantages. It made land available relatively quickly. It produced houses that the local population wanted. The poor could be housed and the vulnerable protected.

15)         If land were compulsorily purchased, the purchase price could be set by a new body, which could be a national authority or a number of local ones. This would drive away the speculators and add certainty. The authority, called here the Housing Authority (HA), would manage the scheme. A possible procedure would be as follows:

a)             The HA should, working with others, identify land suitable for housing. This would include land banking sites.

b)             The HA would apply for planning permission (if required).

c)             The community would have the same ability to support or oppose the planning applications.

d)             If planning permission were granted, the HA would buy the land at 10% more than it would be worth without planning permission.

e)             The HA would then finalise the proportion that would be sold at the market rent and the proportion for renting. Because of the difference between market rent and the purchase price, the non-market housing could be paid for.

f)              The houses for rent could be retained by the HA, given to the local authority or put into a housing association.

16)         The issue is complex and the Joint group would be able to provide an assessment in another paper.

The questions in the terms of reference

A Is the current planning system working as it should do?

17)         Yes. It needs adjustment, but not replacement.

B What changes might need to be made?

18)         The suggested changes are distributed in this document.

C Are the Government’s proposals the right approach?

19)         No. The government’s proposals would be a disaster for house building, communities and the environment. They do not address the problem of homelessness, of which the largest group is those adults who can only afford to live with their parent(s). Another group is those in rented accommodation. The proposals will not break the power of local oligopolies which control some housing markets, see House of Lords Inquiry 2016 Paper No 20.

D In seeking to build 300,000 homes a year, is the greatest obstacle the planning system or the subsequent build-out of properties with permission?

20)         The obstacles are neither of these. The main problem is ensuring that the houses are built when permission has been granted. Other obstacles include the lack of funding for planning departments, the poorly drafted primary and secondary legislation, the poorly drafted planning rules and the overriding desire of many developers to make profits rather than build the right housing. In our area there is a problem with the poor quality of applications lodged with Rother District Council. If the applications complied with planning law and rules, applications could be dealt with so much quicker using considerably less public funds.

              E How can the planning system ensure that buildings are beautiful and fit for purpose?

21)         There needs to be:

a)              more clarity in the NPPF,

b)              improved local authority local plans, and

c)              greater use of guidelines by regional bodies.

22)         The High Weald AONB Design Guide and Management Guide are Rother’s para 21c). These guides and the guides they replaced have transformed design in the area. These guides show how well-written planning rules can make a real difference.

F What approach should be used to determine the housing need of a local authority?

23)         See para 10.

G What approach should be used to determine the housing requirement of a local authority?

24)         See para 10.

H What is the best approach to ensure public engagement in the planning system?

25)         Good information readily available, an extension of the time to lodge an objection, in some areas better websites and a reformed Planning Inspectorate, which is very community-hostile.

I What role should modern technology and data play in this?

26)         It should play a full role but it should not remove non-digital involvement in the planning process. Many of the most vulnerable members of society do not have access to computers or have poor computer skills. It is essential that the pink notice system is retained so those who live next to a site where a planning application has been lodged know about it. The vast majority of the public will never check planning application data to see if someone has made a planning application. The problem with IT in planning departments is that the local authorities do not have the resources to update their data properly and to invest in good IT software. Rother District Council is so short of resources that it may be a month before a planning application is validated, and the data is listed so badly it is very difficult to find a document.

J How can the planning system ensure adequate and reasonable protection for areas of environmental importance?

27)         This is Glover territory. However, the NPPF is weak in this area, making it difficult for all. Clear planning rules are needed about building in protected areas. The issues are developed in section L below.

K How can the planning system ensure adequate and reasonable protection for buildings of historical and architectural importance?

28)         Greater clarity in the NPPF.

L What changes, if any, are needed to the green belt (in our area the issue is protection for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty)?

29)         First, in our area there are some brownfield sites but most of the housing would have to be in the AONB or one of the protected sites. Under the new scheme, the housing quota rises from 736 units to 1,173. There are land banking sites.

30)         The acute problem in Rother is shown in the plans below. The AONB covers 83% of the District.

Permission has been sought to include the plans in this written evidence.

31)         The area not in the AONB is covered by the following protective zones. Areas of less than 5 hectares are not listed but they can affect surrounding areas.

a)      Natural England designates:

i)                    Special Protection Areas (SPAs). The area covered is Dungeness, Romney Marsh and Rye Bay, 4,010.29 hectares.

ii)                  Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). The areas are Dungeness, 3,241.43 hectares, and Winchelsea Beach, which is listed by Rother District Council but not listed by GOV.UK.

iii)                 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). The areas are Dungeness, Romney Marsh and Rye Bay, 10,172.9 hectares, Hastings Cliffs to Pett Beach, 312.2 hectares, High Woods, Bexhill, 33.7 hectares, Rye Harbour, 5.6 hectares and Pevensey Level. There are 21 in the District.

iv)                 RAMSAR sites. The areas are Dungeness, Romney Marsh and Rye Bay, 6,377.63 hectares, Dungeness to Pett Level (according to Rother District Council), and Pevensey Level, 3,577.71 hectares.

v)                  Ancient woodland (too numerous to list).

b)      East Sussex County Council designates the sites of Nature Conservation Importance. The Council appears to rely on other authorities designations.

c)      Historic England supervised by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport designates Historic sites. The area is in Cooden, near Bexhill (World War I).

d)      Rother District Council designates the Conservation Areas (20 in all). Rye has an extensive conservation area.

e)      The European Commission designates the European Natura 2000 site. The area is Dungeness, Romney Marsh and Rye Bay.

f)       The Environment Agency publishes the flood zone data. The designation covers almost all the countryside not in Bexhill or the AONB. The degree of protection would vary.


g)      The area to the west of Bexhill has a similar flood zone designation.


32)         Some of areas obviously have multiple protections although the areas designated are different. Some of the hectares quoted will be partly inside and partly outside Rother District. It is hoped the list is correct. There may be other protected areas.

33)         We have been told that there are at least 20 local authorities where at least 80% is a protected areas. It is generally stated that 90% of Rother District is in the AONB or a protected zone. The assessors of this figure appear not to have included flood zones. Also the 90% figure implies that 10% is available for housing whereas a large section of the land not in the AONB or a protected zone is in the Bexhill area. Bexhill has two Conservation Areas (Bexhill Town Centre and Bexhill Conservation Area). The room for development in this built-up area is limited and few large sites are likely to become available. Consequently, taking into account the fact that the majority of the built-up area of Bexhill is not available for development, the Joint group estimates that 97% of Rother District has protected status or is in the built-up area of Bexhill. Whatever the true figure is, virtually all of Rother District is in a protected area.

34)         The NPPF needs a concise policy to protect the AONB. Current policy is hard to apply.

M What progress has been made since the Committee’s 2018 report on capturing land value and how might the proposals improve outcomes?

35)         Matter for others.

N What further steps might also be needed?

36)         The Joint group stresses the need for planning rule clarity and adequate resources for the local authorities.

Land banking

37)         Planning permission has been given for 1 million homes but developers decline to build them. This shows that the lack of housing is not because of the planning system but the growth of the land banking. In rural areas where a large development is granted planning permission, the houses are built slowly to stop the price of a particular type of house falling. The problem is worse where there is a local oligopoly which can control the market.


38)         The Joint group recommends that:

a)      The proposed double affordability formula should be abandoned.

b)      In its place should be the one sketched at para 10 above which takes into account all relevant factors.

c)      Policy should ensure that sites with land banking are used.

d)      Compulsory purchase of land should be investigated. The threat of compulsory purchase would free up land.

e)      Local authorities should be properly funded.

f)       The NPPF and many local plans need to be clearer and more concise.

39)         The Joint group hopes that this written evidence is helpful.



November 2020