The formal hearings into Cheshire East Council’s stalled development blueprint for the next 15 years are set to start again next month, following the council’s submission of its final set of amendments to the government planning inspector.
A report to Cllr Rachel Bailey, Cheshire East’s cabinet portfolio holder for the Local Plan, requested approval of a set of alterations to the plan, including updating its site selection process and progress, sites under consideration, and safeguarded land. This was endorsed by the council, with no further suggested revisions.
The Local Plan sets out the council’s case for sustainable economic growth and is the strategy the council wants to adopt to manage development in Cheshire East up to 2030.
The examination into the plan was suspended last year to allow further work to be carried out on key evidence areas. The additional work was submitted to the inspector in July, and a statement from inspector Stephen Pratt last month confirmed that the examination could resume.
A procedural meeting is due to take place on 6 October, followed by a series of public hearings which will begin on 21 October.
The inspector will then submit interim views in mid-November, and will decide whether hearings can continue again in March.
The target date for adoption of the plan is the end of 2016.
When Pratt suspended the public examination into Cheshire East’s Local Plan last October he outlined “serious shortcomings with the council’s objective assessment of housing need and future provision”.
The Local Plan initially proposed a minimum of 27,000 houses between 2010 and 2030, averaging 1,350 homes a year. In the revised draft, the council increased the number of dwellings by 33% to 36,000 by 2030.
In a letter to the council on 14 August, Pratt said while the council felt the revisions did not significantly change the strategy and vision of the plan, he stressed that “the implications… cannot be dismissed lightly and need to be carefully assessed”.
He highlighted that housing supply included in the plan amounted to 32,000 homes, so he was “unclear as to how the shortfall is intended to be met”.
He also responded to the council’s request for confirmation that “there is no proper basis upon which it would be reasonable to conclude that the Local Plan strategy is so fundamentally flawed that it should be withdrawn at this stage”.
He said that “in my interim views I made it clear that the submitted Local Plan strategy had several shortcomings which would probably lead me to conclude that it is unsound. Until I have fully considered the additional evidence… I cannot yet come to the conclusion that the council seeks”.
Commenting on the resumption of the examination, Nick Lee, managing director of NJL Consulting which advises housebuilders in Cheshire East, said: “The Local Plan is stumbling forwards again with the further hearings; but it will still be of major concern to many that the approach to deciding on how much housing land is needed is not aspirational. The process of considering Green Belt release remains under scrutiny as, despite a review of method, the same main outcomes are arrived at. There has been no real assessment of genuine alternative approaches to this which could have less impact on the Green Belt.”
Dan Mitchell, partner of Barton Willmore, said: “The government clearly wants local plans in place at whatever cost. To be fair to Cheshire East, they have aligned housing figures with recommendations, which is welcome. What is now frustrating is the protracted nature of the examination process.”