On 6 June the County Planning Committee is being asked to approve a large development of 470 dwellings that falls well short of both Local Plan and National standards, says the City of Durham Trust.
The site, near Sherburn Road to the east of Durham City, was removed from the Green Belt by the County Durham Plan which was approved in October 2020. This came with conditions: the new housing would result in “strong, vibrant and healthy communities by creating a high quality built environment using an agreed design code and adopting principles of the Garden City movement including accessible local services.” This has not happened. The application is a joint one from Barratt Homes and Miller Homes. They are proposing to build their usual house types that can be found up and down the country.
A third of the houses are too small to meet the Nationally Described Space Standard, which the County Durham Plan now requires all new houses meet. Evidence gathered during the preparation of the Plan showed that many new homes in the County were being built below this Standard, having an impact on the quality of life of residents. To allow the developers to get away with sub-standard houses now would be inexcusable and the Trust urges the Planning Committee to refuse it.
The Trust has a number of other important grounds for objecting to this application: it seeks to cram 470 houses on land allocated for 390, with a consequent impact on green and open spaces; it has an adverse impact on magnificent views to and from Durham Cathedral, a World Heritage Site; contrary to national policy, it fails to give priority to pedestrians and cyclists over motorists and offers poor access to public transport.
Those are all important criticisms, but the focus of our current concern is that the Planning Committee is being recommended to approve houses that do not meet the Nationally Described Space Standard; they are literally sub-standard. Policy 29 of the County Durham Plan requires all new residential development to meet this standard within one year of the adoption of the County Plan in October 2020. It is now more than two years since then, yet the Committee Report states that “72% (168 properties) for Miller Homes and 64% (150 properties) for Barratt Homes either come close to or exceed the overall minimum floor space requirements set out by the national technical guidance.” (Paragraph 92) This means that significant proportions fall short.
That same paragraph argues that “this development received a resolution to grant planning permission from committee members prior to the first anniversary of the County Durham Plan, the grace period afforded by the policy for implementation.” However, the actual date that planning permission was given was 25th March 2022, five months later. Moreover that planning approval only granted outline permission. It only granted permission for access to the development. Approval of the details of appearance, landscaping, layout and scale (which are called “the reserved matters”) would have to be the subject of a later application to deal with these reserved matters and that is the application that will be before the committee on 6 June.
Contrary to the impression given by paragraph 92 of the Committee Report, the proposed house types have not already received approval as part of the earlier outline planning application. Indeed at that stage the house builders had not even been selected – the outline permission was given to Banks. The new houses must be considered against the Nationally Described Space Standard as part of the current reserved matters application. As things stand, a third of them of them fail to meet that basic standard.
There is currently a planning application for Bent House Lane covering the issues that were not decided when the original proposal was approved. The Trust lodged an objection to this on 29th July. As the developers have recently posted a set of amendment documents we have now lodged a further objection. We welcome the indications that some improvements have been made with regard to the setting of Bent House Farm, and commend the developers for engaging in ongoing discussions with residents of that group of properties. However, most of our concerns remain.
The land is statutorily allocated for residential development as a “sustainable urban extension” to Durham City and that is what the Trust looks to be fulfilled. To put it simply, all we seek is adherence to the terms of County Durham Plan policies, and particularly Policy 5 on which such meticulous care and scrutiny were exercised by the Government’s Independent Inspector in arriving at the specific wording. Both the Banks outline application and the current Reserved Matters application fall woefully short of those requirements.
On October 19th 2021 the Trust sent out a press release expressing its dismay that the County Planning Committee approved the planning application for 500 houses at Bent House Lane. The dismay was not against the building of houses in that locality which is a policy (Policy 5) in the County Durham Plan, but that so many of the aspects required by this policy, and other policies, about how the site should be developed had been ignored.
An application has now been made to consider the reserved matters for this site, i.e. appearance, landscaping, layout and scale; the previous approval for the plans for this site was just for outline planning permission for the site, with details only for the road access. The Trust’s objections to this application once again highlight that it fails against Policy 5 and other policies of the County Durham Plan. Briefly listed below are the applications’s responses to the following policy requirements:
All-in-all, the application offers a standard housing estate that could be anywhere, not the promised sustainable urban extension providing a distinctive gateway to Durham City.
The City of Durham Trust is dismayed at the approval today by the County Planning Committee of the planning application for 500 houses at Bent House Lane, promoted by Banks Property Ltd.
The Trust accepts the principle of housing on this site, but argues that the plans fail to live up to the qualities set in the new County Durham Plan.
The County Plan is very clear: a comprehensive master plan is required. The masterplan proposed by Banks is simply “possibilities” and does not demonstrate how the phasing of the development will be achieved, where the affordable housing will go, where much-needed accessible bungalows will go, or require a carbon-neutral development.
At 500, the number of houses being proposed significantly exceeds the 420 specifically set in the County Plan, and the Trust is concerned that the impact of these extra houses will harm the inner setting of the World Heritage Site and the much-loved green belt landscape enjoyed by local people.
The County Plan includes very important policies to secure sustainable transport improvements, giving people more choice to travel by bus, walking and cycling. These policies were almost wholly disregarded in the report to the County Planning Committee. Cycle lanes and better bus services would have improved the environment for the whole neighbourhood. Instead, the additional car trips generated by the site will add to the noise and air pollution, increasing danger for existing residents, and adding to greenhouse gas emissions.
John Lowe, Chair of the Trust commented: “The Trust regarded this major development as a significant test of the County Plan. Years of careful policy work have been wasted when councillors could and should have demanded better from the developer.”
Along with other objectors, The Trust gave detailed suggestions of how the development could be designed to be the modern, beautiful, environmentally friendly and sustainable place that would benefit residents and enhance the City. However, unfortunately these suggestions have not been taken on board. Durham residents do deserve better!
In the previous posting we saw how the government’s acceptance of the Sixth Carbon Budget necessitates a major reprioritisation of our transport spending locally. Since declaring a climate emergency in February 2019, can we see evidence of the County Council making radical changes to how transport-related developments are designed and assessed, or is it still “business as usual”?
The County Durham Plan, adopted in the autumn of 2020, allocates sites around the county to meet the need for housing. Two sites on the edge of Durham City were removed from the green belt in order to make the land available for housing. The County Council justified the removal of green belt protection partly on the basis that sites beyond the green belt would be less sustainable. It was argued that building on green belt land adjacent to the city would enable residents to walk, cycle and use public transport for a greater proportion of their journeys.
In November 2020 Banks Group, which owns most of the Bent House Lane site, submitted an outline planning application, DM/20/03558/OUT. This seeks to establish broad principles for the layout of the site, including a design code, and addresses access to the site including transport impacts and mitigations.
The Trust considers there is room for a great deal of improvement in the planning application, and that the application does not satisfy the County Plan policies in its present form. But rather than discuss details such as the landscape aspects, the road access to the site, or the relocation of the bus stops, I want to examine and challenge the assumptions behind the approach to the transport impacts taken by the developer and the Council.
Major planning applications are accompanied by a Transport Assessment (TA). Developers hope that the consultants employed to write the TA will be able to demonstrate that any highways impacts can be accommodated within the existing infrastructure, absolving the developer of any need to pay for improvements. In the case of the Bent House Lane application, seven junctions were assessed and modelled. An estimate of likely commuting destinations was produced, using 2011 census data. (Note that commuting only represents 20% of trips nationally, so this method will be flawed in relation to peak time education trips.) Traffic counts were combined with forecasts from the National Transport Model to estimate the likely flows in 2030, with and without the housing development going ahead. Of the junctions studied, in four cases the additional traffic generated by the development would, by 2030, exceed the capacity of the junction:
For three of these, the mitigation proposed is to convert the junctions to roundabouts, or to add traffic signals or extra lanes to accommodate the growth.
At the meeting of the A181 and the Sunderland Road there is no room to enlarge the junction, and instead the developer indicates a willingness to contribute funding towards walking, cycling and public transport improvements along the A181 and Sunderland Road corridors into Durham City, and the assessment refers to routes identified in the Durham City Sustainable Transport Delivery Plan. I have to confess that when helping to prepare the Trust’s responses to the application, I did not spot this offer of investment in sustainable transport in section 8.5 of the Transport Assessment. While detailed plans have been submitted for the remodelling of the other junctions, there are no plans covering walking or cycling improvements on the A181 or Sunderland Road. Perhaps the developer is relying on the Council’s preparation of the Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan (LCWIP) which is expected to be presented to the cabinet in June?
Despite the lack of detail, the TA concludes:
Following the implementation of sustainable transport measures of these types, it is considered that the residual impact of the proposed development on the operation of the highway network will be immaterial.
There is no evidence given to support this view. The application lacks detailed plans, evidence or modelling of the alternatives to motor traffic growth. This sadly reflects the importance assigned to motor traffic flow in contrast to sustainable transport by most developers and local authorities. There is a whole industry built around the problems posed by growth in motor traffic, with specialist software, survey techniques, and design solutions which highways engineers will instinctively reach for. But remember! – the Sixth Carbon Budget requires us to steadily reduce the amount of car traffic year by year by about 3% for the foreseeable future. The National Transport Model, which the applicant draws on for the forecast growth, does not yet reflect this. It is a “predict and provide” model based on laissez-faire transport policies which are not equal to tackling the climate crisis.
The Transport Assessment acknowledges (para. 7.7.4) that “traffic growth forecasts at both a national and a local level have historically tended to significantly overestimate growth”. It also notes that changing patterns of work and employment, hastened by the pandemic, are likely to flatten the peak demand. But in order to come to a “robust” assessment, neither of these uncertainties have been factored in. Still less has the need to actually reduce, in absolute terms, traffic levels.
The result is that the planning application, as currently formulated, envisages large-scale works at two or three road junctions to accommodate traffic growth which the application acknowledges is likely to be overestimated – traffic growth which needs to be reversed to meet our climate commitments. These have been prioritised over unspecified improvements for sustainable transport, the effectiveness of which has not been quantified.
If the Council is serious about prioritising sustainable transport, as it has claimed in various policy documents, then the planning authority should be requiring a much higher standard of analysis from developers, and the highway authority should take a sustainable-first approach to mitigation of the impacts. The expectation can be set by the Council at the pre-application stage.
Most development proposals have some downsides, and determining whether an application should be approved is a matter of balancing different policies and needs. To do this, planners and planning committees have to judge how much weight to give when an application does not fully comply with a policy by comparison with any benefits that will result. I would argue that in the context of the climate emergency, where we have to make a transition in transport “like none we have attempted before” (to quote Professor Greg Marsden), considerable weight needs to be given to the planning policies which favour sustainable transport.
Many developers quote from National Planning Policy Framework paragraph 109 which states that
Development should only be prevented or refused on highways grounds if there would be an unacceptable impact on highway safety, or the residual cumulative impacts on the road network would be severe.
The wording in earlier versions of the NPPF referred to “transport grounds” rather than “highways grounds” and developers and the Council sometimes still use the old wording. The change, however, was deliberate and significant. It signifies that development may be refused on various other transport grounds, such as poor provision for sustainable transport, without there necessarily being severe residual impacts on the road network.
The initial focus should be on the Transport Assessment and any associated mitigations. Most Transport Assessments follow a common pattern, and a standard aspect to include is an assessment of the accessibility of the site by different modes. In the Bent House Lane application, five pages describe the current walking, cycling and public transport networks around the site, and another five pages access the accessibility of local amenities by these modes. The analysis is often quite superficial: for example, as with many other Durham City applications, the section on cycling is keen to mention National Cycle Network Route 14 with its connections to Darlington via Hartlepool and South Shields via Consett, but is silent on the lack of dedicated provision for realistic local journeys.
By contrast, forty-one pages of the main report cover the highway network and the assessment of the junctions. These are supplemented by another 300 pages of appendices which are entirely devoted to motor traffic surveys and modelling.
A sustainable-first approach would also include a qualitative assessment of the pedestrian and cycle network, and would recognise that existing provision may be sub-standard. This need not be any more onerous than the traffic surveys and modelling. For example, there is a simple junction assessment tool in the new government guidance, Cycle Infrastructure Design LTN 1/20 (p. 178), which could be applied to each junction a cyclist would have to pass through to reach the local amenities, schools and employment sites. Most of the junctions around Bent House Lane would score very badly.
Improvements to the walking and cycling infrastructure could then be proposed. The Department for Transport sponsored Propensity to Cycle Tool would be consulted, demonstrating the potential for 17% of commuter journeys to be cycled, given good-quality routes. Such routes might parallel the main road routes, but there is also the opportunity to give sustainable transport a significant advantage by providing short-cuts. For example, from Bent House Lane the Elvet area and the university campus at Mountjoy could be reached via riverside paths. Liaison with local schools might identify other barriers to sustainable travel noted in their school travel plans.
For public transport a simple table of the service frequencies and destinations would not be sufficient: there needs to be a demonstration that journey times would actually compete with alternative modes. Bus priority measures could then be proposed and funded. There would be evidence of engagement with public transport operators.
Planning applications are determined according to the local County Durham Plan, which itself accords with national planning policy, and the change of administration at County Hall does not change this. But the weight accorded to policies – what is judged important, and where compromise can be accepted – is to some extent a political decision. And it is absolutely the preserve of the Council as highways authority to judge what is acceptable in terms of transport mitigations. The applicant has demonstrated that there are transport impacts which require mitigation, and the new administration could insist that major works to increase motor traffic capacity at junctions should be the last, not the first resort.
By prioritising sustainable transport interventions, not only would a greater proportion of the new residents’ journeys be by sustainable modes, but other people would benefit from the improvements, in turn freeing up capacity on the surrounding road network and reducing the need for motor traffic growth to be accommodated. The aim should be to avoid the need to commit any funding to road “improvements” because these will become frozen assets (or white elephants) if we are successful in reducing demand in response to the climate emergency.
If you are interested in more information on the Bent House Lane application, the Trust submitted an initial response to the planning application in January. Pages 4-6 summarise the transport objections, which are set out in detail on pages 13 to 35. A further response was submitted in March which covers public rights of way, road junctions and bus stops.
The full documentation can be found on the County Durham online planning application system by searching for reference DM/20/03558/OUT.
See our previous post on this topic.