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Wealden Local Plan was rejected in early 2020House Building in Wealden - have we lost control? Q&A with Liberal Democrat District Councillor Paul Sparks

Across Wealden, there has been a sharp increase this year - both in terms of speed and volume - in the granting of permissions for major new housing developments, including many that local communities have lodged objections to, and even some that had been previously rejected.

The fact that this is also happening alongside proposed cuts to the Fire Service and budget shortfalls for other essential public services, together with inadequate infrastructure (already under-capacity for the existing population) seems odd, to say the least.

Recent approvals despite warnings and objections by Liberal Democrat and other opposition District Councillors, alongside real-life horror stories such as the foundations of half-built houses being flooded, raw sewage contaminating an open pond in Hellingly, and even leaking onto the streets of Hailsham, have led to a lot of locals understandably asking "What is going on?"

Here, we try to provide some insight in the form of a Q&A with Councillor Paul Sparks, Leader of the Lib Dem group on Wealden District Council, who was interviewed by Crowborough Campaigner and Wealden Lib Dems Exec Member, James Partridge.

JP: How long have you been active in local affairs?

PS: I was a County Councillor for eight years, during which I sat on the Fire Authority and was Vice-Chair for two years. I have been a District Councillor for nine years in total.

Why is the building of so many houses being approved?

The current Conservative Government's policy (set in 2017) is for there to be 300,000 new homes built in England every year through to the mid-2020s. There is general acceptance that the country needs more houses, but the science behind this target number is not clear. Some think it is too high, others too low.

How many of these will be in Wealden?

Every district has to use the government's standard method to calculate its share. For Wealden this means 1,231 new homes built per year. That's 6,165 over five years or the equivalent of a town the size of Uckfield. However, if the national total produced by the standard method doesn't add up to 300,000 homes a year nationally, the method may be changed to produce a bigger number for everyone, including Wealden.

If that's what the government has decided, why bother with the planning process?

Good question and there are signs that many councillors have more or less given up and are waving applications through.

The Government's stated view is that local councils, elected by local people, should decide where the new homes should go. The theory is that this decision is made by producing a Local Plan, the aim of which is to get the right homes built in the right places, along with the right infrastructure and public services. The planning approval process ensures homes are built in accordance with the local plan.

A problem arises when you don't have an up-to-date Local Plan, which Wealden does not, because in January this year, Conservative-controlled Wealden District Council failed in its long-running attempt to produce an acceptable one that could be approved and adopted.

The problem is compounded if you cannot show that you have a supply of land available on which to build these government-mandated new homes din the next five years. At the moment, Wealden District Council cannot show this..

So what does this mean in practical terms?

Developers can now apply to build new houses almost anywhere they like (provided of course that they've already done a deal with the landowner) and, in most cases, it is very difficult to refuse permission. Wealden has, therefore, essentially lost control of this process.

Even in the High Weald AONB?

To quite a large extent, yes. An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is not, contrary to popular belief, totally protected from development. If you have the two problems mentioned above and refuse permission to build new homes in the AONB, the developer is very likely to appeal successfully against the decision, because current government policy is that, when push comes to shove, new homes are more important than AONB (but not, I should clarify, the Green Belt).

Does Wealden really need 6,165 new houses over the next five years?

Probably not as many as that, but we do need a lot. As part of producing the (now withdrawn) Wealden Local Plan, the Council commissioned professional assessments and came to the conclusion that we needed 950 new homes each year. (It's worth noting that the new Local Plan - currently being redrafted and not expected to be finished until 2023 - will, under government rules, have to use a different method of assessing need, which is expected to produce an even higher number).

However, as important as the number of new homes is the type. Very many people (even with the first time buyer government subsidy) cannot afford to pay the prices charged by private developers - the government's preferred supplier. The average Wealden wage earner would have to borrow 11.5 times their pay to buy an averagely priced new Wealden home. There is also a serious lack of affordable rental homes - e.g. the council housing waiting list for 3-bedroom properties is several years. Private rents are high - often many times more than a mortgage would be for a similar home - and the maximum amount of housing benefit a working family on low income can receive is capped, so may not even cover half of a month's private rent.

Don't developers have to build affordable homes?

Yes - in theory. District Council policy is to require developments of more than 10 new homes to consist of at least 35% affordable housing. However, many sites in Wealden do not achieve this and, in the recent past, less than half of the 35% affordable housing originally proposed when the developments were greenlit had been built. As an example, 1,000 new homes are under construction at a new development in Ridgewood, Uckfield. At most, there will be 150 affordable homes built in total - 200 fewer than the 35% minimum requirement.

This is because, after planning permission has been given, developers are able to negotiate the target down in order to achieve an acceptable profit (usually taken to be 20% of the cost of the development). These negotiations are done in private, although the result is published on the council's website. This may seem odd, but if developers cannot make an acceptable profit, they simply won't build the homes.

What about infrastructure and public services?

The theory is that the developer has to contribute to these, either through a contract with the Council (known as a "Section 106 Agreement"), or by paying a Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) or both. The reality is that this system is not very effective and, as events in Wealden have shown, it can mean that the infrastructure and services turn up long after the new homes have been built and occupied, if at all.

A major development requires input from at least six organisations, including government departments (e.g. environment agency), the County Council, utilities companies and the NHS. None of these are under the control of Wealden District Council . Getting them to deliver would be easier if there was a Local Plan in place - and of course this would also enable them to plan ahead properly too.

What - if anything - can be done to regain some control?

We are limited right now, but we do urgently need a Local Plan as well as a five-year supply of land for housing developments. We also need to promote the building of more affordable homes and of homes to be rented out by housing associations and the council itself. We must also work with everyone to ensure that infrastructure is in place before homes are sold and occupied.

The above interview took place in August 2020