A government inspector’s decision to allow plans for almost 150 new homes on fields either side of Waverley Lane in Farnham after an eight-year planning battle has been met with fury and despair.
Wates Developments Ltd, one of the country’s leading privately-owned development companies, first submitted plans for 190 homes on land known locally as Compton Fields in 2014, but was refused planning permission by Waverley Borough Council a year later.
It has since come back with five further applications for developments on the same fields, and finally managed to convince a planning inspector to overturn Waverley’s refusal of its latest plans for 146 homes after a four-day appeal inquiry.
Inspector Lesley Coffey’s ruling is a dagger to the heart of the community-backed Farnham Neighbourhood Plan.
The plan, supported by almost 8,000 people at referendum in 2020, rejected the Waverley Lane site as being outside Farnham’s built-up settlement boundary. However, the community planning policy document is dismissed in the appeal notice as a “permissive policy” to be used as “guidance” only.
Specifically, the inspector opted to give only minimal weight to the neighbourhood plan's policy FNP14, setting out housing site allocations to meet the Farnham area's share of the borough's government-set housing target.
Ms Coffey stated in her decision notice: "Policy FNP 14 sets out the housing allocations necessary to meet the housing requirements for Farnham within Waverley Borough Council's Local Plan Part One. It does not preclude development on other sites within the Neighbourhood Plan area.
"I therefore find that the proposal does not conflict with Policy FNP14.
"In my view Policy FNP14 is a permissive policy and sets out guidance for specific sites. Whilst the allocated sites may be preferred, Policy FNP14 does not suggest that only these sites should be developed. Indeed, such an approach would be contrary to The Framework that seeks to significantly boost the supply of housing."
Ms Coffee admitted that her ruling conflicts with that reached by a fellow inspector in February, relating to the Hawthorns site next to Bells Piece in Hale Road.
On that occasion, the inspector Tim Wood also overturned Waverley's refusal of planning permission for 65 new homes proposed by the Stax Group, ruling that the homes were needed to help bridge Waverley's shortfall in housing delivery.
But Mr Wood did give "moderate" weight to policy FNP14 in the neighbourhood plan, stating that because the Hawthorns site was deemed to be outside Farnham's built-up area boundary as defined in the town plan, "the appeal site is not an appropriate location for new housing".
Ms Coffey's ruling to allow Wates' plans for 147 homes in Waverley Lane to go ahead against the wishes of local people and policy has left the councillor who led Farnham’s community-backed Neighbourhood Plan through two referendums “both furious and disappointed”.
Councillor Carole Cockburn (Conservative, The Bourne) travelled back from Scotland to present the town’s case against Wates’ plans at the April appeal inquiry.
She stated the site was rejected both for its inclusion within the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty boundary review and its protection of the “green gateway” into Farnham.
And Cllr Cockburn strongly disagrees with the inspector's ruling that the plan is only "guidance", stating the Farnham Neighbourhood Plan selected sites based on robust criteria, "not drawn out of a hat”.
“The plan makes provision for 3,005 dwellings but this counts for nothing now because the plan is over two years old and Waverley Borough Council cannot demonstrate the required supply of housing elsewhere in the borough," she added.
“I shall continue to fight for more respect for neighbourhood planning but the borough’s decision to delay an update to its Local Plan has cost Farnham dear.
“This will not be the last unfortunate decision.”
David Beaman, Farnham Town Council joint leader and chairman of Waverley's planning committee, also expressed his disgust at the decision and fears for its implications for the rest of the town and borough.
He said: "My initial reaction to this decision is unsuitable for printing in your newspaper! With the proposed designation of part of the location as AONB one would have thought that this would carry some weight but instead the Inspector has brushed aside Natural England's intention to submit the Variation Order just because it had not yet been submitted. How short sighted is that?
"As for the inspector's comments about FNP14 as just being permissive words cannot adequately express my personal anger at the likely implications of such a statement."
Liz Townsend, planning portfolio holder at Waverley Borough Council (Lib Dem, Cranleigh East), said: “The council has received the inspector’s decision and noted the comments with respect to Policy FNP 14.
“This is a housing allocation policy, that allocates the sites necessary to meet the housing allocation for Farnham within Local Plan Part One and has been consulted on with local residents.
“While technically speaking Policy FNP 14 does not automatically exclude any other land from coming forward for housing development, it is extremely disappointing that such a low weighting seems to have been given to this policy and this is directly at odds with another inspector’s conclusion in the recent Hawthorns appeal report.
“However, this does not prevent an inspector coming to a different conclusion and I fully appreciate how frustrating this will be for all those who have worked so hard on the Farnham Neighbourhood Plan.”
Wates Developments has previously defended its scheme, saying its promise of 146 new family homes at Compton Fields are "vitally needed" in the area.
Its latest proposals include 146 new homes, of which 54 will be affordable, 14 acres of green space, local highway improvements and a contribution of around £3.5 million in Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) funding.
The development would also provide 14 acres of public Suitable Alternative Natural Green (SANG) space, traffic calming measures along Waverley Lane, and ongoing protection for the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
Amendments to its earlier proposals, as well as reduction in the number of homes, include two new children’s play facilities, increased landscape buffers, an increase of public open space, and a new pond and wetland feature.
In addition, Wates says the site will see an increase of public open space and walkways. The proposals are set back from Waverley Lane, to provide a green fronting to the development and a new pond and wetland feature will encourage biodiversity and wildlife.
A spokesman said last year: “We are delighted to submit our planning application to Waverley Borough Council and are fully committed to bringing vitally needed new homes to this part of Surrey.
“Following feedback from the community, we have worked with our technical team to revise the proposals to include 146 new family homes, including 54 affordable homes.
“As part of our submission to Waverley Borough Council our plans include extensive public open space, children’s play space and create significant high-quality habitat.”