One year on: Has Harrogate’s Local Plan changed its housing future?
“It’s better to have a plan than no plan at all.”
Those were the words of Harrogate councillors who one year ago today voted to adopt the district’s controversial Local Plan.
It came after more than six years of difficult discussions between residents, council planners and government officials, and even after all that time there was still disagreement and dismay.
One year on, has the plan met its aims? And is Harrogate better off for it?
The Local Plan paves the way for thousands of new homes and businesses to be built over the next 14 years.
It has been hailed as crucial to Harrogate’s housing future as before it was approved the district’s door was left ajar to a wave of unwanted developments.
This was because without a plan, the council could only reject housebuilder’s proposals on strong grounds that would stand up against legal challenges – and not just because the homes were unwanted.
Liberal Democrat councillor Pat Marsh has sat on the district’s planning committee for more than 30 years and seen three Local Plans come and go.
She described the most recent as “torturous” and said during the six years prior to its adoption, the absence of a plan coupled with national planning rules that gave a “presumption in favour” of developments meant Harrogate’s hands were tied when it came to contesting housebuilders.
“If we acted outside of the National Planning Policy Framework and refused applications, then appeals were started by the developers and several were lost,” she said.
“Developers took huge advantage of this and rushed to Harrogate to take up the opportunities afforded to them because of no Local Plan. It was the most frustrating time to be on the planning committee but we didn’t just give way, we did fight.”
Harrogate has become so attractive to developers because of its high property prices which now average around £350,000, according to Rightmove.
This is great news for big bosses at building firms but not so much for first-time buyers desperate to get a footing on the property ladder.
It’s also why the Local Plan has set a target of building 208 affordable homes each financial year, with 215 built by the start of 2021.
There is also an overall aim of building 637 new homes during the same period, with 622 completed at the end of January.
Councillor Tim Myatt, cabinet member for planning at Harrogate Borough Council, said while he was well aware that not everyone agreed with where new homes are being built, the plan had been a “significant positive” for the district since its adoption.
“I don’t have rose-tinted glasses and I know that not everyone will agree with the plan,” he said. “The majority of people I speak to acknowledge the need for new and affordable housing but getting consensus on where it should go can be a challenge.
“We have delivered much needed new homes including a high percentage of affordable dwellings and are making good progress on reducing the gap between homes needed and homes delivered.
“And we have successfully defended appeals for housing on sites which are not allocated, demonstrating the greater control the council has with the Local Plan in place.”
As well addressing Harrogate’s housing and economic needs, the plan also sets out environmental priorities on cutting carbon emissions and sustainable travel.
This was a key part of the debate which spanned over six years but Shan Oakes, chair of Harrogate and District Green Party, has described the plan as being “entirely unfit for purpose” and in “urgent” need of reforms to tackle the climate crisis.
She said: “The current policies and actions from Harrogate Borough Council have led to wide-ranging issues for the people that live and work in the area, from poor provisions for schools, health services, cycling, and public transport, to disregarding existing roads and accessways as well as not covering the biodiversity of the area.
“We feel the Local Plan renewable energy policies need to be urgently reformed or they risk preventing rapid zero-carbon progress.”
Also at the heart of the debate was a decision on where to build a 3,000-home settlement in the east of the district. There were two main contenders – the former Flaxby Park golf course and a huge plot of land near Green Hammerton, with the council opting for the latter.
This was despite a strong contest from campaign group Keep The Hammertons Green who encapsulated the feeling of many residents facing development on their doorsteps but at a much larger scale.
Chris Eaton, chairman of the campaign group, said while residents did not agree with what was being proposed in the Local Plan, it was now time to “accept” it.
He said: “Now we want to get behind the settlement as something we can all be proud of. The vision should be really ambitious for an exemplar of a beautiful village with masses of native deciduous trees and interesting architecture and layout.
“The settlement must be built to recognise that it will serve the community in an era of almost universal use of electric cars and with climate change and emissions reduction at its core.
“And, critically, it must meet the planning inspector’s requirement that it is fully separate from existing villages.”