By Michael Hardware, Director of Planning and Property
Not usually associated but these two districts are currently on a similar path: planning inspectors have found both wanting in their duty to cooperate with adjoining authorities. Sevenoaks was in the High Court earlier this month with a judicial review of its inspector’s decision and St Albans awaits the outcome of that case in order to decide its next steps.
The inspector for the Sevenoaks local plan, Karen Barker, decided earlier this year that the council had not worked with neighbouring councils over its unmet housing need and had failed in its duty to cooperate. Sevenoaks council disputed this, pointing to 800 pages of evidence that it had.
Sevenoaks was the only council in the country to submit a plan which did not meet its objectively assessed housing need. It provided for 9,996 new homes when the OAN was 11,312. The council said that the green belt restricted its ability to meet the target.
The council was given leave to have the inspector’s decision reviewed in the High Court and that hearing took place earlier this month. A decision is expected imminently.
St Albans council was similarly criticised and has not been slow to challenge such decisions in the past (it judicially reviewed the previous inspector’s decision in 2017). Its Lib Dem administration is, however, being more cautious than its Conservative predecessors and has decided to await the outcome of the Sevenoaks case.
At its Planning Policy Committee (PPC) earlier this month the mood was somewhat indignant. The inspectors’ use of the phrase “no evidence of cooperation” was viewed as being too strong and largely unjustified. Officers said they were satisfied that they had provided enough evidence to demonstrate that the duty to cooperate had been fulfilled.
The decision was not to withdraw the local plan – they had the green belt as a safety net to protect against speculative development and did not need to do anything immediately. They would watch the outcome of the Sevenoaks judicial review as it would provide caselaw precedence in order for St Albans to consider its next steps.
The PPC chairman was quite upbeat looking at this as an opportunity rather than a disaster – with planning reforms the council has the opportunity to do this right under the new structure, although to complete by 2023 was optimistic. There was, however, no mention of local government review which will undoubtedly have an impact on this process.
If the Sevenoaks JR fails, then St Albans council will most likely decide to withdraw its local plan and start again. If Sevenoaks succeeds, the council may well consider its own JR (again). Whichever way the council goes, it will mean a delay for the local plan.
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