Probe begins into Norwich housing blueprint

Developers have insisted they have no intention of 'running riot' by forcing through unwanted plans for homes in and around Norwich, as an inspector decides whether a blueprint for where thousands of houses should be built is up to scratch.

The blueprint, known as the joint core strategy, centres on where to put more than 30,000 homes and jobs in and around the city between now and 2026 and identifies a number of locations for homes to be built, earmarking 7,000 to the north east of Norwich, including at the Rackheath eco-town, 3,000 in Norwich, 2,200 in Wymondham and 1,000 in Hethersett.

A Greater Norwich Development Partnership (GNDP) made up of Norfolk County Council, Norwich City Council, Broadland District Council, South Norfolk Council and the Broads Authority was formed to draw it up.

But since then the political landscape has changed. The Northern Distributor Road, an integral part of the scheme, will have to fight it out for funding with other projects while the scrapping of regional housing targets has created uncertainty.

The GNDP has raised fears that, should the blueprint, known as the joint core strategy, not gain approval, it would leave a gap to be exploited by developers who would submit speculative planning applications it would be tough for councils to turn down if the strategy was not in place.

The draft version of the strategy came under the spotlight yesterday at the first day of a three week investigation into whether it is sound.

Planning consultants such as Barton Willmore, Bidwells, Savills, JB Planning and Pegasus, are strongly represented at the hearing, given they represent a string of developers hoping to build homes in and around Norwich.

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At yesterday's meeting John Pugh-Smith, representing Barton Willmore, suggested that the uncertainty and 'shortcomings' in the strategy might make it worth inspector Roy Foster considering a suspension of the examination so further consultation can be carried out between developers and the GNDP.

Barton Willmore, which is representing companies keen to build in Wymondham, pointed out an option for where homes should be built known as option two plus was selected by members of the GNDP rather than the preferred option one which was put forward by officers.

That was considered to be a political decision because South Norfolk Council was keen to reduce the amount of homes earmarked for the district in favour of more in Broadland's district and Barton Willmore queried whether that option had been properly assessed.

The planning consultancy wants the opportunity to redistribute where housing should be and/or for a policy of reserve site allocations to be built into the joint core strategy, should a more flexible approach be needed.

Barton Willmore suggests if, for example, it proved impossible to build 7,000 homes in north east Norwich, then provision could be made for extra homes in Wymondham and Poringland instead.

And John Holden, for Pegasus Planning Group, said even without a joint core strategy, developers would still have to abide by planning guidance and, given Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has made clear local councils will get more power to determine the suitability of planning applications, developers would not be able to 'run riot'.

He said: 'We are in a period of great uncertainty and what needs to be put into context is that with any decision that might be made through development plans or controls it is the local authorities which are very much in command. Things are changing and we may not be able to run riot in the way you think.'

But, so far, the GNDP has shown no appetite for negotiating with those developers. The planning inspector himself recently asked whether the partnership wanted to go ahead with the inquiry given the uncertainty over funding and housing targets and was told it did.

Phil Kirby, Broadland District Council's strategic director, representing the GNDP, said: 'The partnership believes that this strategy provides the best way for managing growth, delivering improved services, as well as building new and expanded communities with enough jobs, good public transport, schools, community facilities and open space. It is a strategy for jobs, homes and prosperity for local people.'

On the issue of why option two plus was chosen, barrister William Upton, for the GNDP, said legally the partnership had to come up with the most reasonable and most appropriate option.

He said: 'The decision lies with councillors. In weighing up the different options they came down in favour of the two plus preference as it was the overall best fit. You can almost substitute best fit for most appropriate.'

The examination is set to last for three weeks and other topics which will be explored include the NDR, the environment, housing in the 'growth triangle' to the north east of Norwich and a focus on growth in Norwich itself.