Local authority misleads planning inquiry over boat dweller accommodation assessment

Elmbridge Borough Council concealed the fact that it had carried out a Boat Dweller Accommodation Needs Assessment almost six weeks before it reported to a planning inquiry on 15th March 2022 that the study had just begun, in order to boost its case for removing boat dwellers who are moored on unregistered land on the River Thames.

The Council had served planning enforcement notices on the boat dwellers in August 2019 to try to get them removed, which bounced the boat dwellers into applying for planning consent for the moorings in 2020, which the Council then refused. The boaters then appealed to the Planning Inspectorate.

If the Planning Inspector had known that the Boat Dweller Accommodation Needs Assessment had been completed on 3rd February 2022 and that it concluded there was a need for at least 10 residential moorings in the borough, the boaters’ appeal may well have succeeded. Local Planning Authorities are required under Paragraph 62 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to assess and reflect need in their planning policies via a strategy and action. As it was, the applications for planning consent were rejected, apart from temporary permission of two years for a family with a child under the age of five. See https://acp.planninginspectorate.gov.uk/ViewDocument.aspx?fileid=47259653

The Planning Inspector’s decision stated in Paragraph 51 that:

I am told that the Council is now currently undertaking a needs assessment. However, this is not currently in the public domain and so there is no evidence before me on the level of demand for permanent residential moorings and whether this would be addressed or met through a future development plan examination process or by some other means, and the timescales for doing so”.

Not only did the Council mislead the planning inquiry, it also failed to use the Boat Dweller Accommodation Needs Assessment to inform and shape planning policy in its Draft Local Plan for 2022 to 2037, published on 17th June 2022. The Local Plan designates the need for and the locations where different types of development, such as housing, can take place and specifies where land is to be protected from development.

It was left up to boat dwellers to discover that the needs assessment had in fact been published and now formed part of the Local Plan Evidence Base. But the Draft Local Plan is completely silent on the accommodation needs of boat dwellers. The south bank of the River Thames forms the entirety of the eight-mile northern boundary of Elmbridge. Yet the Draft Local Plan was prepared without regard to boat dwellers and fails to address the needs of those known to be living on so-called ‘unauthorised moorings’. The Plan fails to address the specific housing requirements of boat dwellers, contrary to Paragraph 60 of the NPPF.

The Draft Local Plan failed to consider the accommodation needs of boat dwellers because the needs assessment was done as an afterthought, after earlier publications of the Draft Local Plan had been out to consultation and too late to inform the final draft. This is inexcusable given that the Council was well aware of the issue three years earlier and of the need to do boater surveys where, as in the case of Elmbridge, there was a clear case for doing so.

There was no excuse to leave this to the last minute and the last opportunity to comment on the local plan before it was submitted for examination. No time was left to address the issue, and the subsequent search for suitable moorings to address the need identified was seriously lacking and rushed. At no time did the Council think to consult the boating community over its needs assessment or involve them in the search for moorings, knowing that there was very little time before the final draft of a Local Plan that had been years in the making was about to be submitted for examination. This delay cannot be blamed on Covid-19 as the Council managed to complete other background assessments to inform the Draft Local Plan well before the final consultation stage.

Planning consultant Alison Heine represented some of the boat dwellers in the planning appeal. She said:

The approach taken by Elmbridge Council lacks fairness, transparency and proper engagement with those most affected by this matter. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the February 2022 Boat Dweller Accommodation Needs Assessment was deliberately withheld.”

In 2019 a report by Elmbridge Council stated that there were around 50 to 80 boats moored along the River Thames allegedly ‘without consent’ within the borough and there was a need to address this in the Local Plan. This has not happened.”

The Council does not seek to add any policy to address the need identified. This failure to complete the Evidence Base in an appropriate and timely fashion, and address or even acknowledge a specific housing need for moorings on the River Thames, is a clear breach of Paragraph 62 of the NPPF which states that the size, type and tenure of housing needed for different groups in the community should be assessed and reflected in planning policies.”

In addition, the public had just one opportunity, in the consultation on the Draft Local Plan which ended on 29th July, to comment on the Boat Dweller Accommodation Needs Assessment. This will be the one and only chance to examine its methodology, assumptions and findings.”

Rex Walden, Vice Chair of the Residential Boat Owners Association (RBOA), said that the Boat Dweller Accommodation Needs Assessment was a very poor piece of work:

The survey was carried out in January, arguably trying to conduct a survey of this type in the winter is of questionable value. Many live aboard boaters on rivers like the Thames find a “safe haven” for the winter months so they are unlikely to be bankside unless they have found a very secure mooring. During the period of the survey, the river was moving on and off Yellow and Red Boards indicating strong stream conditions. From the map provided it appears that the researcher was on the opposite side of the river to Elmbridge most of the time and did not survey all of the river frontage in the borough. The most worrying aspect is that Elmbridge Council appear to have accepted this very flawed plan without demanding it is corrected – or they just don’t care.”

Steve Cross and Fatmir Kastrati, who have been moored at Molesey in Elmbridge for 16 and 13 years respectively, said:

After reviewing the Boat Dweller Accommodation Needs Assessment and Elmbridge Council’s comments on it, we are enraged at the injustice of it all. This report does not fulfil the boaters’ needs and Elmbridge Council are obviously deliberately sidestepping their legal obligations towards their boat dwelling residents.”

Section 124 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 brought boat dwellers into the ambit of local authority accommodation needs assessments in England for the first time. The NBTA had been campaigning for this change in the law since 2009. Pamela Smith, Chair of the NBTA said:

So far the outcome has been very patchy. Not all Local Housing Authorities where there are navigable waterways even know they need to include boat dwellers in accommodation needs assessments. A few have researched the needs of boat dwellers in depth, but this has not yet led to adequate provision of either temporary or permanent moorings for boat dwellers in the locations where they are required. We recommend that local authorities follow our Best Practice Guide for Boat Dweller Accommodation Needs Assessments.

For more information see https://www.bargee-traveller.org.uk/best-practice-guide/

See also https://www.elmbridge.gov.uk/planning/local-plan/

Mooring on the Lower Thames