Mid Sussex’s rural character is in ‘grave peril’ after a ‘dark day’ for the district saw an increase in housing targets for the area.
Mid Sussex District Council originally proposed 800 homes a year in its local plan, which sets out where and how many homes will be built up to 2031.
Jonathan Bore, a Government appointed planning inspector, has been scrutinising the plan during a series of examination hearings over the last few months and recommended the figure be increased to 1,026 homes per annum in his interim findings.
His report released on Monday (February 20) has been met with dismay by countryside campaigners, MPs, and district councillors, who have labelled the target unrealistic, unsustainable and undeliverable.
Michael Brown, Mid Sussex’s representative from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), argued the district’s rural character is in ‘grave peril’ and the only way the council could meet the ‘ridiculous’ new target would be to approve developments in ‘wholly inappropriate locations’. He said: “This is a dark day for Mid Sussex and for the countryside that makes it such a special place to live and visit.”
He suggested that Mid Sussex would fall behind its inflated new target, with the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty ‘once again at serious risk’.
He said: “Many of those who at parish level embraced the Government’s promise of localism, and put in so much extended effort to develop neighbourhood plans, will find that they need to revise their plans and release more land for development. They will view the recommendations of the inspector as a real slap in the face.”
Kia Trainor, a director at CPRE Sussex, added: “Mid Sussex has been asked to hike up its housing target to close an affordability gap and meet the unmet housing demand for people living in Crawley. You have to ask if it is right for rural districts in Sussex to take the houses which urban areas cannot provide? Will allocating swathes of countryside in Mid Sussex for development fix our broken housing market?”
Examination hearings are set to resume next week.
Mr Bore’s report called for a ‘positive and proactive reassessment of known sites and the identification of potential areas of growth’, and suggested significantly lowering the threshold for strategic sites from 500 homes.
Reacting to the report, Garry Wall, leader of Mid Sussex District Council, said: “We are disappointed the inspector has not, it appears, listened to the arguments we put forward on behalf of residents and businesses. He has stuck with the views he expressed early in the process and seems determined to force a very high housing figure on the council. This will have a significant and detrimental impact across the district. We are also very concerned about the negative impact on neighbourhood planning.
“We will need to carefully consider the implications of his interim conclusions, taking advice from our planning consultants and barrister, and respond robustly when the plan hearings re-convene in just over a week.”
Meanwhile Mid Sussex MP Sir Nicholas Soames was ‘astonished’ by the inspector’s report and the introduction of a ‘completely unreasonable’ target, which he argued ‘flies in the face of all the evidence’.
He said: “It’s very very bad news and I’m extremely anxious and very worried about it and at a total loss as to how the inspector came to this figure.”
Sir Nicholas raised concerns about a lack of infrastructure and the threat to areas with designated protection such as the South Downs National Park and the AONB. He promised to ‘make a good case against this’.
He added: “Villages like Lindfield are being crammed with totally unsuitable developments by ruthless developers who do not give a stuff about the consequences of their developments.”
Arundel and South Downs MP Nick Herbert, who represents parts of Mid Sussex including Hassocks and Hurstpierpoint, called the increase ‘far too great’ and felt it failed to take account of infrastructure constraints and potential impact on the countryside.
He said: “I simply cannot see how this level of new housing can be supported when we already have acute pressure on local public services, including a totally inadequate rail service.
“I am also deeply concerned about the impact on village neighbourhood plans, and I question whether housing numbers on this scale can be delivered.
“We accepted that the housing number would go up, and there is a local need which must be met, but these proposals are totally unrealistic and go too far.”
In an article for the CPRE Sussex Review this week, Mr Herbert said that he will join a ‘battle for the countryside’. In his report Mr Bore said ‘more consideration should have been given to the potential for new freestanding developments as opposed to settlement extensions’.
Mayfield Market Towns, which is promoting a new settlement near Sayers Common, has released the results of an independent poll of Mid Sussex and Horsham residents where 69 per cent of respondents backed 10,000 new homes in one location rather than development scattered across the district on the fringes of other towns and villages.
Debbie Aplin, project director for MMT, argued a new settlement would be able to deliver the required social infrastructure such as doctors’ surgeries and new schools alongside 30 per cent affordable housing.
Asked about lack of rail links, she said a new town would not be ‘London centric’ and would be a ‘totally different concept of people living a more rural lifestyle’ to meet housing shortages across the coast including Brighton.
She added: “We are looking to engage with Mid Sussex and continuing our conversations with Horsham. We are a democracy and everybody should have a say but decisions on something as critical as housing do need to be made.”
MMT’s proposals have not been included in either Horsham District Council or MSDC’s local plans.
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