Four-day review gets underway with questions over impact of council’s Local Plan housing target, reports Josh Mellor, Local Democracy Reporter
A public probe into whether Waltham Forest’s plan to build 27,000 new homes over the next 15 years is legally “sound” has begun.
Government planning inspectors last year refused to approve Waltham Forest Council’s draft Local Plan – which would guide where the new homes can be built – due to “significant concerns” about whether it was “justified and deliverable”.
Their concerns centred around the council’s determination to build hundreds more homes than required by the government’s annual housing targets.
To address the issues, a four-day review session began yesterday (Tuesday) with an opening from assistant director of place and design Sarah Parsons, who said an “incredible amount of hard work” had gone into addressing the inspectors’ concerns.
Regarding the housing target in the council’s plan, which is about 600 homes per year more than the government or City Hall targets, the assistant director said there is already a “healthy pipeline” of 8,000 homes with planning permission.
On locations and sizes of “tall and taller” buildings, another concern for inspectors and campaigners, Parsons noted that national and London planning policies allow towers with “exceptional design”.
A group of twelve council planning officers faced a series of questions from the inspectors, with Waltham Forest Civic Society member Robert Gay raising concerns about their evidence. He said the council’s rejection of an option to lower the annual homes goal to 1,200 shows its “single-mindedness” about higher housing targets.
But Parsons said the council rejected the Mayor of London’s lower target of 1,200 homes per year for failing to meet Waltham Forest’s “objectively assessed” housing needs. She added: “We are not single-minded in our determination but we see that [the option of higher housing targets] plays a wider role in the Local Plan.
“It will enhance the local character, play an important role in reducing the number of floods, reduce trips across boroughs and comes with a whole package around new open spaces.
“This is an incredibly broad plan that addresses all of those needs; we can demonstrate this clearly, particularly through the plan’s design-led, holistic and comprehensive manner.”
The inspectors also scrutinised the council’s new modelling of the air quality impacts of thousands of new residents. A study presented to the inspectors last year concluded that under the new draft Local Plan there could be significant levels of airborne pollutants.
However, the council has since commissioned a study which concludes that there will be an “overall net reduction in traffic” although certain roads close to the protected Epping Forest would see some increases.
Parsons argued the council’s “active travel” policies were already improving air quality and that the few roads set to see more traffic were “so small it will be insignificant”. She said: “We can fully justify the plan and our conclusion is that there will be no aspects of harm to natural areas.”
The assistant director added that thanks to “progressive policies” such as car-free housing schemes, there would be an “insignificant” impact on air quality from the Local Plan.
An objection about the impact on Epping Forest by Natural England has also now been withdrawn. Marc Turner, principal planning advisor to Natural England, said the new study’s methodology is “more robust” and the council has committed to a “substantial monitoring package” to protect the forest.
However, Robert Gay questioned the accuracy of the estimated car journeys, such as whether they took into account the number of deliveries residents of car-free developments receive. He added that when “push comes to shove” the council might bow down to developers wanting more parking spaces in a similar way it has compromised over its affordable housing targets.
But Parsons defended the council’s study as a “strategic model” and insisted that the council would expect “compliance” from developers over parking spaces.
To reduce the new residents’ use of Epping Forest, a protected natural space which has an estimated 4.8 million visitors per year, the council has developed a “suitable alternative natural greenspace” strategy.
The strategy proposes “enhancements” to 39 green spaces across the borough, worth a total of £27m, that would offer residents alternative places to visit.
Gay questioned the accuracy of the strategy’s calculations of visitor numbers, pointing out that sites close to Epping Forest such as the Whipps Cross Hospital redevelopment lack sufficient green space.
The Local Plan examination will continue until Friday, 10th March.