West Oxfordshire District Council must consider planning applications differently after an inspector ruled the authority had overestimated its ability to meet housing targets by up to a quarter.
The ruling came as part of an appeal that was dismissed by the Planning Inspectorate – a national body that has the final say when applicants are unhappy with outcomes from councils – but the inspector found that submitted evidence showed “the council cannot currently demonstrate a five-year supply of housing land”.
Councils must show there is enough land dedicated within their local plan to cater for an adequate number of new homes over the next five years.
If an authority does not meet the target, national guidance says a “presumption in favour of sustainable development will apply”, meaning developers benefit from greater scope to build on land that is not allocated for housing.
West Oxfordshire’s calculation was that it could show a 5.02-year supply but evidence put forward by Greystoke in its push to build 141 assisted extra care residential units and 32 affordable homes in Burford questioned this.
The council could not counter claims that planning permission has elapsed on some of the region’s smaller sites or show that outline planning permission on larger sites would deliver housing in the next five years, leading the inspector to find the real figure “is closest to the appellant’s submitted position of 3.68 years” – more than 26 per cent short of the council’s stated position.
Planning officer Kelly Murray said: “Although the council hasn’t a formal position on this as yet, we as officers are speaking with our policy colleagues and trying to gather evidence.
“At some stage, a formal public position will be available, but until then, you should be aware that this is likely to mean the tilted balance would apply.
“Particularly in the case of large schemes but also in the case of smaller schemes, the benefit of providing housing will be scrutinised quite carefully against the potential harm… because there is a presumption in favour of sustainable development.”
She later added that local plan policies would not be dismissed outright when considering applications but that any reasons for refusal would now have to be more robust to avoid the council being “more vulnerable to successful (planning) appeals”.
“It is more about the balance, how we weigh the public benefit,” she continued.
“If we know we have a five-year land supply, we are much more able to refuse on the basis of harm. If we don’t, we need to show that harm, whether it be landscape harm or harm to a heritage asset, to be much greater and that we have considered that.
“It is nothing to do with the policies, it is to do with how we address them, and how we make a decision based on those policies.”