Joint Core Strategy hearing could hold the key to Norwich’s growth ambitions

Anti-urbanisation campaigner Stephen Heard preparing for the public inquiry into the Joint Core Stra

Anti-urbanisation campaigner Stephen Heard preparing for the public inquiry into the Joint Core Strategy growth plans north of Norwich.PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY - Credit: Archant Norfolk

On the eve of a pivotal public hearing governing where thousands of homes could be built around the fringe of Norwich, campaigners are attacking the growth targets and policies which could shape the city's future. Rural affairs correspondent CHRIS HILL reports, in the first part of a week-long series.

Unless you're a fan of impenetrable council jargon, you might find it hard to stay awake through the following sentence – but there's a very important reason for reading on.

Because the interaction of core strategies, planning policy frameworks, development partnerships, site-specific allocations, five-year-land supplies and area action plans will have a fundamental impact on thousands of lives in the coming years.

And the discussions which will shape our future communities are happening right now – with a pivotal public hearing starting tomorrow which could hold the key to the growth ambitions for Greater Norwich.

The city is on the cusp of the biggest urban expansion in living memory, with 37,000 new homes outlined in the growth ambitions of the Greater Norwich Development Partnership.

The GNDP's Joint Core Strategy (JCS) is a blueprint which allocates areas where new homes could be built in Norwich, parts of Broadland and parts of South Norfolk up to 2026.

While allocations south of the city are dispersed around existing towns and villages, to the north they are concentrated on the so-called 'Growth Triangle', where up to 9,000 new houses could be built around Salhouse and Rackheath.

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Campaigners are fearful of the strategy's effects on communities and countryside as the city sprawls outwards, and a judicial review was forced by a legal challenge from Salhouse businessman Stephen Heard.

A High Court judge ruled last year that the JCS was flawed, and told the four GNDP councils that they had not adequately demonstrated why the Growth Triangle site had been chosen.

Mr Justice Ouseley ordered a new sustainability assessment for Broadland's section of the plan, looking at alternative locations.

A renewed consultation followed which has led to the examination in public which will start at Carrow Road tomorrow.

Mr Heard's campaign group SNUB (Stop Norwich Urbanisation) will argue that the consultation process has again been flawed, while the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) will use government statistics in a bid to undermine the justification of the overall housing targets.

But the GNDP councils are standing by their proposals, which they said are aimed not only at meeting future housing demand, but promoting growth and improving the city's infrastructure.

SNUB's submission says: 'We do not believe that the local authorities have taken on board the comments made by Mr Justice Ouseley and as a result have merely re-engineered the original proposals rather than take a serious review of the options for future house-building in the Norwich Policy Area.'

Mr Heard said: 'We don't think they have taken the spirit of the judgement into consideration. They have come up with options that are basically the same as they were before the court case.

'We have always said the total housing targets were flawed. Things have changed considerably since those targets were set in 2001 and we have been calling for an overall reduction in that number, and for them to be dispersed.

'But the main driver of our submission is that this development is in the wrong place, and we don't believe the consultation was as good as it should have been.

'If you look at the whole of Norfolk there are a lot of job opportunities in the science park (at Colney) and on the east coast in the offshore industries. We would much rather see the houses go where the jobs are, and the infrastructure improved to go with it.

'That would be preferable to taking out acres of productive agricultural land which is going to provide food for future generations.'

Mr Heard said if this week's hearing went against the GNDP it could prompt the unravelling of the whole JCS.

'It is like a house of cards', he said. 'If this examination in public throws out the north-east growth triangle, I would suggest it would deal a death blow to the GNDP. Immediately it would put a viability question on the NDR (Northern Distributor Road).

'I would suggest that the GNDP would be riddled with in-fighting, if it's not already, and if the GNDP folds because of this, then we really would be back to the drawing board.'

Following the initial legal challenge, Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that the housing numbers earmarked for the area did not need to be changed.

But CPRE Norfolk's submission uses government statistics to attack the overall target for 37,000 houses set out in the JCS as 'excessive and not justified by the evidence base'.

Projections published last month by the Department for Communities and Local Government show the number of households in Broadland, Norwich and South Norfolk is projected to rise by 17,000 between 2011 and 2021, taking account of inward migration and falling occupancy levels per house.

By extending these predictions to 2026, allowing a like-for-like comparison with the JCS, the CPRE estimates a new housing requirement of 25,500 – equating to an over-supply of 12,289 houses against predicted demand.

David Hook, chairman of CPRE Norfolk's planning group, said: 'Don't get me wrong, the numbers are still big, but they are nowhere close to what the GNDP says is needed.

'The government's own figures show that what the GNDP is planning would be an over-supply of 12,000 houses. It is like adding a town the size of Thetford to the north of Norwich. Why would they want that? Do they even know what they are creating? It could do so much damage.

'If you add in the houses already completed since 2001 we are getting towards 50,000 new homes in the first quarter of this century. That's the really frightening thing.

'Thinking about 17th and 18th century Norwich and the growth that came up to the end of the 20th century, with all the new council houses and flats – in the next 25 years we are almost creating that again.

'If you add all the extra houses planned along the A11 corridor the nightmare scenario is of a ribbon of urban development stretching from Rackheath to Thetford. Do Norfolk people seriously want that? I think that is the biggest question out there at the moment.'

Mr Hook said while about 14,000 people are on the combined housing waiting lists of Norwich, Broadland and South Norfolk Councils, only 30pc of those (4,200) are defined as 'inadequately housed'.

'The waiting lists show 4,200 people genuinely in need, so there is no way to justify the 37,000 target,' he said. 'It is not about meeting demand, it is about creating demand and creating a population expansion.'

Andrew Proctor, leader of Broadland District Council and former chairman of the GNDP, defended the decision-making process which led to a concentrated proposed allocation in the Growth Triangle.

'He (the judge) was not remitting the numbers for any part of the Norwich Policy Area, he was purely looking at whether there was the justification for that substantial size of growth in that location,' he said.

'The councils responded to that and looked at all the options again, and they did that sequentially and thoroughly. The one that came out on top, and the one that we recommended, was the Growth Triangle. In overall terms, it generated the most in terms of creating communities for the future. It gave the opportunity to concentrate not only housing but schools, employment opportunities, job creation and all the relevant infrastructure that goes with it.

'It is not all about housing, housing, housing. It is about jobs, homes and prosperity for all. It was a balanced decision but we decided to go for concentrated growth as it produces more advantages.'

Mr Proctor said there was also a 'divergence of opinion' on the projections for future housing demand.

He said: 'The GNDP commissioned a housing topic paper which shows the numbers being proposed for future growth are still robust, based on all the aspects of the economy growing in the area and the requirement for more houses.

'There is a lot of information which says this is right. If you look at it nationally, the government is trying to encourage economic growth, and we want to contribute to that. You can get the view that this is all about housing, but my view is that while houses are part of the proposals for the future, but our key driver is about promoting growth in the economy for this area. It has grown for many years, and it will continue to grow. Why would we not try to promote this as an area to come and live, and work, and contribute to the overall economy?'