Fears raised of housing crisis in Berwick
Concerns are being raised about Berwick's ability to meet its housing need in light of the low numbers proposed in the new Northumberland Local Plan.
The previous core strategy, which was withdrawn last summer after the Conservatives won power, proposed a figure of 900 homes, although the Berwick Neighbourhood Plan team was looking to go above this to 1,250, based on a housing needs assessment it had carried out.
The recently-published draft of the new Local Plan, which is set to go out to public consultation next month, proposes an indicative housing number of 540 for the Berwick Neighbourhood Plan area for 2016 to 2036 (610 for the wider Berwick area including East Ord).
Labour councillors and politicians have raised concerns about damaging constraints being placed on Berwick to enable the Conservative administration to meet its political goal of reducing housing numbers elsewhere in the county.
Eric Goodyer, a former town councillor who chaired the neighbourhood plan steering group, said: “There is proven housing need in Berwick and it is wholly unacceptable that in order to stop Dinnington Garden Village, Northumberland County Council will be responsible for making the homelessness and overcrowding crisis in Berwick worse.”
However, the county council has said that the figure in the Local Plan is a minimum and the neighbourhood plan can propose more housing than this.
And Coun Georgina Hill, independent county councillor for Berwick East, said: “It is nonsense to suggest that the county council is looking to constrain development in Berwick.
“It goes without saying that there is no place for political, or any other, axe grinding on a neighbourhood plan group.”
Neighbourhood plans are the most local level of the development framework, beneath the county-wide Local Plan and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
A Northumberland County Council spokesman said: “The council is committed to working with neighbourhood planning groups and is looking to secure alignment between the emerging Northumberland Local Plan and neighbourhood plans.
“Officers from the council have been proactively working with the Berwick Neighbourhood Plan Group on the preparation of its neighbourhood plan.
“In relation to the housing number, the draft Local Plan identifies an indicative housing number for Berwick neighbourhood plan area of 540 dwellings for the period 2016 to 2036. This number is a minimum figure and Berwick Neighbourhood Plan can plan for more housing than that set out in the draft Local Plan.
“Berwick Neighbourhood Plan Group is in agreement that the draft Local Plan should not propose a settlement boundary for Berwick, thereby allowing the neighbourhood plan to determine the appropriate level of growth for the town.”
But claims have been made that the neighbourhood plan group is ‘under pressure’ from the county council and is being ‘blocked’ from adopting a higher target.
David Bull, chairman of Berwick Labour Party, said: “This means our current problems in Berwick will continue and a housing crisis is inevitable in the town unless we can force a change in policy at the county council.
“We need Labour and public opinion to force a Tory retreat on this policy.”
Coun Allan Hepple, the cabinet member for planning during the previous Labour administration at County Hall, added: “I’m aware that there is a dire need for affordable housing as private rents are high, a fact identified by the Citizens Advice Bureau a year or so ago.
“The Berwick Neighbourhood Plan would also have synergy with an economic plan that was being developed with local people, local business, the education sector and Scottish Borders, which in my view would have provided much-needed economic growth in the town. I believe this was also supported by local business.”
But Coun Hill emphasised that the neighbourhood plan group is free to propose a higher level of housing, so long as there is evidence to back it up.
“I understand that the neighbourhood plan group has been advised that a neighbourhood plan has exactly the same status as a local plan in the context of planning law which governs the determination of planning applications,” she said.
“In terms of the housing needs assessment, the group has also been advised that neighbourhood planning allows communities to plan for more housing than that set out in the strategic policies of a Local Plan, subject to having appropriate evidence to justify that approach.
“The only stipulation in planning law and guidance is that a neighbourhood plan may not plan for less housing than that set out in a Local Plan.”
Local democracy reporting service