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Where did those housing numbers come from?

Updated: Jun 25, 2023

The Hall Farm proposal first appeared in the Tory council’s November 2021 draft local plan update. At that point, Cllr Lindsay Ferris, then Lib Dem lead on the Local Plan, wrote a thought-provoking article in Wokingham Today, querying the housing target numbers WBC was supposed to be following. He pointed out that the annual target figure had varied quite a bit over the preceding years, and couldn’t see how it had been calculated. All that was clear was the housing figure (whatever it was) was not to be questioned and the council simply ‘had to work with it’.

One target figure had been 856, worked out by an unknown group of people, Cllr Ferris said. It had now come down to about 790, but no reason for the reduction was stated. He was concerned that even the 790 figure would mean a 20% increase in total number of properties in the borough, when the national population increase was forecast to be only 5-6%. Why, he asked, was housing being planned for a massively above-average population increase here? Also, how would a big population increase square with the council’s decarbonising agenda, and what would the impact be on biodiversity? All good points.

Fast forward a year and a half, and as WBC’s Executive Member for Planning, Cllr Ferris can now put questions about housing numbers to the Westminster government. Though whether he'll get any coherent answer from an administration expiring of terminally exhausted credibility is arguable. It’s not even clear what the housing target figure for the current local plan update will be, as the government hasn’t finalised the changes it trailed last year to the National Planning Policy Framework. Maybe 790? Nobody knows.

In fact, though, the earlier housing target numbers that puzzled the Twyford Councillor weren't as opaque as his Wokingham Today article suggested. It’s worth looking at the process of how they were arrived at, to understand what’s been going on pretty much behind the scenes.

Out with the CSDP, in with the SHMA

Ten years ago, the council was working to an average figure of 661 new dwellings per annum as part of the Core Strategy Development Plan that ran from 2010. Then in 2014 the government imposed a National Planning Policy Framework requirement on local authorities to prepare a Strategic Housing Market Assessment, to “assess their full housing needs”. Along with this went an agenda favouring co-operation between neighbouring councils. A property consultancy firm named G.L. Hearn was commissioned by the Berkshire local authorities and the Thames Valley Local Enterprise Partnership to produce a report on future housing needs. The TV LEP is an important player in this whole business, and we’ll come back to it.

The “Berkshire Strategic Housing Market Assessment” report was produced in February 2016. It calculated the Borough’s housing requirement, beginning with a number derived from forecast population growth 2013-2036. This was 656, very close to the existing figure WBC had set itself in the 2010 Core Strategy. But Hearn then increased that number in a series of add-ons, covering migration from London, housing left vacant, forecast employment growth, and affordability. That way, it boosted the WBC housing target figure to 856.

The LEP says ‘Jump!’ WBC says ‘How high?’

The key point is that the G.L. Hearn report was closely following an agenda already put out by the Thames Valley Local Enterprise Partnership. This government-funded organisation describes itself ‘as a strategic collaboration between business, local government and academia’ (Hi Reading University!). In 2014 it published its “Strategic Economic Plan 2015/16–2020/21”. This said it was ‘keen to ensure that a review of housing targets (my emphasis) is carried out expeditiously, reflecting the ambitions set out in our Strategic Economic Plan’. It wanted to impose its own priorities on a council such as Wokingham, despite the fact that the council already had a housing plan lasting up to 2026. What were these priorities? It campaigned for yet more housing, using two key drivers.

One was to jack up the housing target figure by factoring in affordability of housing, an idea that central government passed into law in 2015. ‘Population projections may have to be adjusted’ it said, ‘where there is evidence that housing affordability is significantly worse than in adjoining areas’.

The other was a “Duty to Cooperate” imposed on councils, which meant each had to consider neighbouring areas’ needs. In the 2016 report, G.L. Hearn echoed the same two points, saying ‘planning for housing and employment growth must occur (my emphasis) across administrative boundaries, facilitated by local authorities’ Duty to Co-operate’, and using ‘affordability’ to increase the housing target figure.

The LEP gave itself a monitoring role over councils, to ‘support the six local planning authorities to ensure they positively engage with the Duty to Cooperate to deliver strategic planning priorities and update their local plans’ (my emphasis). ‘Support’ is a cute choice of wording: they probably meant something more like ‘direct’ or ‘oversee’. A more recent LEP document helpfully tells us how this pressure works: The LEP has ‘a regular dialogue via a Liaison Group that includes senior [council] officers from each of the six unitary authorities in the Thames Valley Berkshire Area. There is also regular dialogue with the Heads of Planning.’ So the LEP ‘ensures’ councils do their duty - but there’s ‘dialogue’.

Lots more housing… because of Brexit???

Following the Hearn report, WBC and neighbouring councils came up with a ‘Strategic Planning Framework’ document. For Wokingham, this incorporated the 856 target homes figure worked out earlier by G.L. Hearn. The document stated that councils would collaborate to obtain the ‘growth required to meet the objectively assessed need for the Housing Market Assessment’.

An interesting reason was given for boosting local housing numbers: ‘Now that Brexit is a reality, investment in infrastructure such as housing will send a strong and positive message to those international companies with UK, European or Global HQs in TVB; their retention is more critical than ever.’ So Wokingham's housing requirement was being shaped to suit national policy, not just the future needs of people in Wokingham. Local housing policy had been hijacked to serve higher-level interests.

In short, Hearn’s Strategic Housing Market Assessment report for WBC and other local councils proposed what the Thames Valley LEP had already put forward: to override existing local development plans so as to generate lots more housing. The councils, in their Strategic Planning Framework, dutifully agreed to what was being asked of them. The upshot in Wokingham's case was a lot more houses than had been planned for, when the council had set its housing target back in 2010.

It seems that planners obsessed with their visions of economic growth have for years been setting the pace, when it comes to deciding how much of our borough is going to be built over.

By 2021, even an alert leading opposition councillor was struggling to make sense of what he was being told at Shute End about the borough’s housing target requirement.

So what chance did the rest of us have, of understanding what was being cooked up behind our backs?

Post written by Pat Phillipps

Below: Hall Farm viewed from the air.

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