Do we see a shift?

By Michael Hardware, Director of Planning and Property 

Three local plans have failed, and there are rumours that the Ministry is becoming more proactive. Sevenoaks, Uttlesford and now St Albans local plans have all hit the buffers and MHCLG has been pushing various councils to make more progress.

The Sevenoaks local plan foundered late last year as the inspector felt the council had failed in its duty to cooperate with neighbouring councils. The council will have to decide whether to accept the inspector’s view and withdraw the local plan or challenge the decision in the courts. With the numbers involved and the constraints within Sevenoaks, this will have impacts on adjoining authorities such as Tandridge and Tonbridge and Malling.

Last month the Uttlesford local plan was halted. One of the inspectors’ concerns was over the reliance on three garden communities for a significant proportion of housing numbers. The inspectors suggested that one garden community, to the north jointly with South Cambs, should be dropped. Even with an adopted plan, the council was unlikely to achieve a five-year land supply. The council has the choice to withdraw the plan now, but it is likely to wait to see what happens with the North Essex Joint Plan. This has just entered the next stage of its examination in public and includes three large garden communities: Braintree, Colchester and Tendring. A third of the Braintree garden community is within the now unsound Uttlesford Plan. A similar withdrawal of a community in North Essex was rumoured to be West Tey but could that change to Braintree?

The inspector has done the new Uttlesford administration a huge favour as Residents4Uttlesford was elected last May on the basis of opposing the local plan. But have they? Now the district is facing two or three years of speculative development with little or no control and significantly less developer contributions. What is more, the new local plan, which will have more numbers and focus more on existing settlements, will come forward during the run-up to the next local elections.

Just last week the St Albans local plan inspector suspended the examination in public citing “serious concerns” about the document’s “legal compliance and soundness”. St Albans has the second oldest local plan in England and this is its second attempt to progress its local plan. It is understandably one of the councils on the MHCLG ‘naughty step’ and the ministry is rumoured to want to make an example of one council to get all the others motivated to get on with things – could it be St Albans?

It is more likely to be South Oxfordshire which looked like it wanted to withdraw its local plan last summer until MHCLG stepped in. Robert Jenrick gave the council until the end of last month to submit evidence as to why it has not progressed its local plan and hinted that he may ask Oxfordshire County Council to take over.

This removal of plan-making powers was also threatened to Castle Point earlier last year when it failed to vote through its draft local plan for Reg 19 consultation. Essex County Council was being lined up to take over there, although it is not known how far those discussions went. Castle Point has now managed to get its local plan through council and is just about to complete its Reg 19 consultation ready for submission.

MHCLG does appear to be more active now that the General Election is over and Brexit pushed through. This will continue as Mr Jenrick has kept his job in the reshuffle earlier today. Esther McVey, however, in the true tradition of housing ministers, has lost her job just four months after being appointed – that is nine ministers since 2010, almost one a year! Continuity and application is what is needed now to push through the many local plans and get some way to achieving the Government’s 300,000 homes per year aspiration.

It does appear, however, that the Inspectorate is moving in the opposite direction, which will certainly not help with that aspiration. Is it toughening-up its approach? It was widely believed that inspectors were being pushed to get plans through even if it meant modifications and early reviews.

We are seeing shifts from both MHCLG and the Inspectorate, but it does appear to be in different directions!