A HOUSING masterplan for all of south Worcestershire is in tatters after councillors in Malvern Hills broke ranks and voted to send years of work back to the drawing board.
The South Worcestershire Development Plan (SWDP) came to a shuddering halt yesterday as Wychavon opted to go it alone, accusing former partner Malvern Hills District Council of being “reckless”.
Worcester City Council looks set to follow suit and develop its own plan – although it says it is still “assessing all options”.
The drama started to unfold during a five-hour meeting at Malvern Hills on Tuesday evening.
As the clock dragged past midnight, councillors shot down a motion declaring the emerging SWDP “deliverable and sound”, opting instead for further investigation of alternative housing sites flagged up at the 11th hour by a council task group.
Council leader David Hughes had warned that such action could spell the end of more than five years’ joint working and within hours of the vote Wychavon had broken away to progress its own plan.
Wychavon leader Paul Middlebrough said: “The decision that Malvern Hills have made means that they’re walking away from the plan and joint working. This is nothing short of reckless and fails to be in the best interests of their residents and wider communities.”
About 150 members of the public packed into the meeting at the Bank House, Bransford, and made their feelings clear as a wave of often confusing proposals and counter-proposals were thrown back and forth between councillors.
When it came to the crunch no fewer than 12 separate votes were taken, with some councillors appearing as uncertain as the public were on what was actually being decided.
Calls from the floor denounced proceedings as “a shambolic mess” and “an absolute diabolical muddle” while at one point even deputy leader Coun Paul Swinburn slammed the “procedural shenanigans” as “bringing the council into disrepute”.
But amid the confusion the key votes came down to whether to order further investigation of the task group’s recommendations to alter mass housing allocations in both Malvern and the southern edge of Worcester, which is Malvern land.
The Malvern proposal, to reduce an urban extension of 700 homes at Newland to 250 and disperse the remainder to other sites, was backed by 21 votes to 15. The task group’s call to reduce an urban extension of 2,450 homes at Broomhall, south of Worcester, to 1,200, with the shortfall made up by allocations of up to 500 homes at Redhill and 800 in the Norton/ Littleworth area, was voted through 19-16.
Both options will require further investigation and consultation, leading to a delay of potentially at least eight months.
But councils that do not have a recognised local plan are set to be at the mercy of the new developer-led National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) when it comes into force in March. With developers already circling over Wychavon due to its lack of a five-year land supply, delay was something the council was never willing to entertain.
Coun Middlebrough said his authority was in a “strong position” to deliver its own, unchanged plan and remained on schedule to make a submission to the Secretary of State in early 2013.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
What is the South Worcestershire Development Plan?
The SWDP is a joint plan drawn up by Worcester City Council, Wychavon District Council and Malvern Hills District Council to satisfy house-building targets of 23,000 from now to 2030, and ensure industrial land.
It decides important planning policies such as the proportion of affordable homes.
It is also supposed to accommodate Worcester’s growth and would allow the three councils to pool the cash they would get from developers to spend on infrastructure.
Why is it so important?
Worcester is out-growing its city boundary, and there was initially an acceptance by Wychavon and Malvern they would be accommodating that housing growth.
They also benefit from the drafting of common planning rules, and the councils also saved £100,000s by pooling resources, and not having to employ specialists separately.
What if the SWDP gets scrapped?
At the end of the day, all three councils will need a Local Plan – a whittled down version of the SWDP – covering their own areas.
Meanwhile the councils are open to developer-led planning – particularly true in Wychavon which has lost more than a dozen planning appeals because it has no such plan.
Wychavon and Worcester have previously said, without the SWDP, they will get their own local plans in place ready for the examination of a government planning inspector by March.
What’s the worst that could happen?
There is a window of opportunity for the developers to submit massive house-building applications.
At Wychavon and Worcester, each may rely on the work that makes up the SWDP, because their councillors agree with it in principle.
But at Malvern, the council may need to re-visit discounted sites and its leaders say the process could take up to a year.
This could see the full-scale resurrection of shelved applications such as the 3,950-home bid on land around the Crown East roundabout (near Dines Green).
WORCESTER City Council has refused to hide its anger over the rejection of the South Worcestershire Development Plan – with the leader saying he is “very disappointed” by the decision.
Councillor Simon Geraghty said he was unhappy about the stance by politicians in Malvern Hills, and that the council would be “assessing all options” before taking a decision over what to do next.
Of the 23,000 homes contained in the SWDP, around 8,400 are in Worcester, making it the urban centre of future development in the county. During deliberations yesterday it also emerged that:
- A scheduled city council meeting set for Monday, December 10, to rubber-stamp the SWDP is still likely to go ahead.
- Council chiefs are likely to ask Worcester’s politicians to agree the document, on the basis it could form an “evidence base” for any new plan which could emerge going forward.
- Worcester City Council has not ruled out working on a fresh plan in conjunction with Wychavon District Council, in the event politicians in Malvern Hills stick to their stance.
Coun Geraghty said: “I’m very disappointed by the decision Malvern Hills members have made.
“We will be assessing it carefully and will look at each and every possible option open to us.”
He said politicians in Malvern had “refused to listen to their own leadership team, professional officers and legal advice.”
He also said a meeting of the SWDP’s joint advisory panel (JAP), which has spent years drawing up the document, will meet on Friday as normal.
Discussions are expected to take place over the coming weeks with council chiefs in Malvern and Wychavon before any decisions are made on the next steps.
A HOTLY-opposed urban extension of 700 homes at Newland on the edge of Malvern could now be scrapped, with dispersed development around the town being investigated as an alternative.
Planning officers will now be charged with investigating and gathering evidence on the alternate sites before engaging in public consultation.
This process will take time – possibly eight to 10 months – raising the prospect that Malvern Hills will not have a plan in place before March, when the new developer-led National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) comes into force. Malvern Hills leader David Hughes fears this will leave the area “out on a limb” and at risk from a “deluge” of speculative development proposals that will be very difficult to contest.
He warned that while alternatives are worked on, developers could well press ahead with bids for Newland and any other sites identified by either the SWDP or its predecessor the South Worcestershire Joint Core Strategy.
But John Raine, author of the alternate proposals, accused Coun Hughes of “calculated” scaremongering and trying to rush the SWDP through “irrespective of public opinion”.
“I am absolutely delighted the council held its nerve. This is all about willpower and commitment and I am sure we will be able to find a way to avoid the meltdown the leadership wants us to believe awaits us,” he said.
THE leader of Wychavon council has delivered a scathing broadside to colleagues in neighbouring Malvern after they backed their own house-building strategy.
Councillor Paul Middlebrough, leader of Wychavon council, said Malvern Hills District Council’s decision to push on was “nothing short of reckless” and failed the best interests of its residents.
A clear majority of Malvern councillors backed a motion containing changes which act to effectively tear-up the South Worcestershire Development Plan as it is.
Wychavon, Malvern and Worcester City Council have been working on the draft for years. Despite that, Wychavon will ask its councillors meeting on December 10 to rubber stamp the existing unaltered draft of the SWDP as proposed.
Wychavon chiefs now view the SWDP as a lame duck and are privately furious with Malvern councillors who supported last-minute changes to the plan. Coun Middlebrough says Wychavon would now “go it alone” with its local plan.
“We remain in a strong position to move forward our own plan,” he said.
“This will mean no change for our communities in Wychavon and we remain committed to delivering a plan so we have clear direction and do not fall foul of the appeals process or unwanted development.”
Wychavon will try to submit their new plan to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in early 2013 for examination.