Harborough council agrees to take on share of Leicester’s housing

Harborough District Council's HQ.Harborough District Council's HQ.
Harborough District Council's HQ.
The council’s leadership is eager to reassure residents that this will not be as bad as it sounds

Harborough District Council voted last night (Monday) to sign an agreement that will see a portion of the homes for which Leicester says it does not have room built in the district instead.

The decision comes after a politically fraught few months which have pitted the local MPs for the area against the council leadership.

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Neil O’Brien, Alicia Kearns and Alberto Costa have argued that changes to Government policy expected to come in July 2025 mean that the council does not need to take on Leicester’s unmet need as they will no longer have to show they have cooperated with their neighbours to get their own plans for future development approved, as is currently the case. The council’s leadership has taken legal advice which states not signing the agreement and deferring a new local plan until after the changes come in could leave the district without that plan until 2030 as they will not be considered a priority council by the Government under the new rules. A local plan is a document which sets out where homes can be built in the area and how many are needed, which the council says it needs to update now in order to protect the district from uncontrolled building.

Last night was no different, with the vote divided down political lines and a narrow majority of councillors – 18 to 14 – coming out in favour of signing the agreement, known as the statement of common ground. This means the district will take on an additional almost 2,000 homes on top of its own targets in the coming years.

However, the council’s leadership was eager to reassure residents that this will not be as bad as it sounds. They argued that because they have delivered more homes in the past three years than their current local plan requires of them, they can slow down house building in the coming years.

If they can backdate their new plan to 2020, so it includes the homes built over the last three years, they would only need to build 340 homes a year for the rest of the plan’s life – until 2041. However, opposition councillors raised some concerns over the “if” in that pledge. The planning inspectorate, a Government body charged with overseeing planning disputes and signing off on these plans, will have to agree to this.

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Conservative councillor Jonathan Bateman said: “I just wonder if there are any guarantees that the 2020 baseline will be accepted by an inspector because it can look as though we are deliberately going for 2020 because between 2020 and 2023 we’ve had 3,000 [homes delivered], that then brings the housing numbers down that we need to actually provide.”

Lead member for planning Simon Galton admitted no one could say for sure. He said: “It’s a question of whether we want to give it our best shot and go for it. We’ll have to hope the inspector accepts it. We have tried to put together a credible figure based on evidence.”

He added: “What I do believe is we’ll absolutely give it our best shot, we will resource up this council in ways we haven’t done in the past and we will put everything into it.”

It was also argued that completing the plan before the new rules come into play is just not doable as local plans in neighbouring areas have taken between 33 and 60 months whereas the authority is now pushing itself to complete the process within 19 months. One elected member said the council was trying to do this “at hyper speed” and that was a great concern for him

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Director of planning and regeneration for the council, David Atkinson, said there could always be issues that delay the process. However, he added: “Believe me we have got robust project management in place for this plan almost down to the minute. We think we have a fantastic chance of meeting an 18 or 19 month submission window.”

The opposing sides of the chamber also clashed over the financial cost of signing the plan now with the view to progressing the new local plan before the new policies begin. Just shy of £2 million has been set aside for the endeavour.

Conservative councillor Neil Bannister said: “Just to try [to deliver the plan by July 2025], not to guarantee that it will be delivered, but just to try, there’s going to be a draw down of an additional £1.9 million. No guarantee of success. You may well want to consider if it’s worth the additional £1.9 million to put your money on a chance, an opportunity, a number on a card table so to speak.”

Liberal Democrat councillor Mark Graves countered, however, saying they were not proposing to spend additional money on the local plan’s development but the expected cost was in line of that spent on the last local plan which was passed in 2019.

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A number of conditions were also attached to the proposal to sign the agreement. These included the council’s share of homes being reduced if the examination of Leicester’s local plan finds the city has room for more homes and the ability to withdraw from taking on the extra homes if changes to Government policy mean the authority no longer has to show it has cooperated with its neighbours to get its own local plan approved.

Some councillors raised concerns over whether they would actually be allowed to withdraw once signed, but were reassured by officers that this was a gentleman’s agreement rather than a legally binding document.

Ultimately, Lib Dem leader of the council Phil Knowles said: “What we’re looking to do is protect our district, our towns, our villages, our communities. The important thing you have to do is deliver for the future.

“I would emphasise again that what you have been told about vast increases in housing numbers, the facts are there for you tonight. We’re talking about a figure of 340.

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“I’ve said on many occasions I don’t want to take Leicester’s unmet need, and I still don’t want to take it, but the bottom line is do we stomach taking some of it and come up with a figure of 340 or sit there and say ‘no not signing it’ and end up with figures that are out of our control [because the council has not got an up-to-date local plan]. Houses being built in fields at the end of streets.”

However, responding to the news the vote had passed, MP for Harborough, Oadby and Wigston Neil O’Brien said: “Residents will be very disappointed the council have chosen to do this. It means that our housebuilding target will be nearly a quarter higher than it otherwise would be – about 123 extra homes extra each year. Instead of going down as planned, our housebuilding target will be going up.

“Residents are overwhelmingly against this unfair plan to increase our housebuilding target: more than 3,000 signed the petition against it. They don’t want the Council to spend nearly £2 million extra taxpayers’ money on expensive consultants to ram it through on what the council calls a ‘fast track’ basis.”