The public inquiry into Cheshire East Council's local plan opened on Tuesday in front of a packed room of planners, local campaigners, lawyers and residents at Macclesfield Town Hall.
The Government-appointed inspector, Stephen Pratt, started the formal examination by saying he had concerns about both the legal compliance and soundness of the plan, and raised questions about the council's level of co-operation with neighbouring boroughs.
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 focus of the first day of the examination was the council's fulfilment of its duty to co-operate with neighbouring boroughs such as Stockport, Stafford and Cheshire West & Chester, in particular over cross-boundary housing issues.
Representatives from consultants How Planning, Emery Planning Partnership, NJL Consulting and Barton Willmore were in the room, along with developers, landowners, residents and heritage groups.
In its opening statement to the examination, the council said the plan "addresses the needs of a thriving borough with a strong desire to maintain and develop economic prosperity, capitalising on the many strengths and attributes the area possesses. It seeks to tackle infrastructure problems and improve community's sense of place.
"Throughout this process we have worked closely with our neighbouring authorities and relevant statutory bodies; in this regard the timing is seldom perfect, with adjoining plans at different stages to our own."
A point raised by Paul Goodman, representing Handforth Council, and Peter Yates, representing Harefield Residents Group, was that Cheshire East only began talks with Stockport Council over the plan in March 2013, which the inspector agreed was quite late in the local strategy process.
The inspector questioned the depth of the discussions that had occurred with other neighbours such as the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, and Warrington Council. Head of strategic and economic planning for Cheshire East, Adrian Fisher, cited joint motorway and infrastructure projects, and in Stockport the BAE Woodford regeneration masterplan, to show close working between the areas.
Pratt also explored the background to the council's agreement to incorporate 500 homes on behalf of the High Peak Council into its own allocation. He asked what evidence had been found to prove that High Peak couldn't meet its own need before a decision was taken. While Fisher said that the council had felt it was right to make a contribution, the inspector questioned this choice considering that "Cheshire East can't meet its own need without going into the green belt".
Cheshire East Council told the inquiry it expected to be able to take care of its housing need within its own borough, and said neighbouring Cheshire West & Chester would be similarly self-sufficient. However, the inspector raised inconsistencies between the borough's two local plans, with Cheshire West's emerging plan stating that it was expecting to take some of Cheshire East's housing provision. He requested a joint statement from the councils, to clarify their position.
With the Cheshire East local plan described repeatedly by council leaders as one for employment and growth, the inspector questioned the council measures to utilise the strength of cross-boundary schemes such as Airport City. Fisher said the council's plans were "complementary" to the activities of its neighbours.
Speaking outside the Town Hall, Gary Halman, partner at How Planning, said: "The inspector has made it clear that this will be an inquisitorial procedure, with probing questions asked of the council and representatives.
"There are big issues to be addressed in the next few days, particularly when it comes to housing numbers. Cheshire East is planning to deliver 27,000 homes, but many consultants disagree with that estimate."
The council's plans to build 1,350 homes each year has been repeatedly criticised by local developers and planners, who believe the estimate is too low.
At appeals, planning inspectors have repeatedly ruled that Cheshire East will miss its target unless it increases its development pipeline.
The hearings are set to continue until the end of October. Members of the public and any organisations are welcome to attend the hearings, but the inspector will only hear statements from those parties who made representations on the submission version of the plan.
The inquiry continues.