The planning inspector overseeing Cheshire East Council’s local plan examination has published his interim views, warning that if the council chooses to continue with proceedings the plan is likely to be found unsound.
Inspector Stephen Pratt highlighted “serious shortcomings with the council’s objective assessment of housing need and future provision”, alongside a mismatch between the council’s economic plan and its housing strategy.
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As these interim views may affect the future progress of the examination, the inspector said that it “may not be appropriate to resume hearings in early December” as previously suggested by the council. Pratt said that if the council chose to continue with the examination, the plan would be likely to be thrown out. He outlined other options available to the council, such as suspending the examination to allow for additional work, or withdrawing the plan and resubmitting it for examination once it has been reworked.
The examination began in September and was due to run until the end of October. The inspector adjourned it in October due to the “unexpectedly large volume” of additional material submitted in relation to strategic sites.
Pratt said: “It is not in the best interests of planning or plan-making to recommend an unsound plan for adoption, which would run the risk of subsequent legal challenge.”
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 local plan proposed a minimum of 27,000 houses between 2010 and 2030, averaging 1,350 homes each year.
This figure 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 housing target unless it increases its development pipeline.
The inspector highlighted that the council considered alternative levels of housing provision and acted on criticism of its approach only after the plan was submitted. According to the representations received, “these alternative estimates of housing requirements do not represent marginal adjustments… but raise fundamental differences of opinion and approach which result in estimates of over 40,000 dwellings compared with CEC’s figure of 27,000”. The inspector said that he believed these views should have been “fully considered” before the plan was finalised and submitted.
The purpose of the interim views is to inform the council as to whether it has met the legal requirements, whether the approach to the overall strategy is soundly based, and what further evidence is needed before the examination can continue.
In summary, the interim views of the inspector were that:
- The council has met the minimum legal requirements of the duty to co-operate (with neighbouring authorities and bodies)
- The economic strategy is “unduly pessimistic”, and does not reflect the proposals of other parties and the extent of site allocations proposed in the submitted plan
- “There is a serious mismatch between the economic strategy and the housing strategy”, with a “constrained relationship” between the proposed level of jobs and new housing
- There are shortcomings in the council’s objective assessment of housing needs, both in the baseline figure and failing to take into account market signals and affordable housing need
- “The proposed level of future housing provision seems inadequate”
- The settlement hierarchy is sound, but further work is needed to justify the spatial distribution
- The evidence around changes to the Green Belt “seem flawed”, with “insufficient justification” to establishing a new Green Belt to the south
Nick Lee, managing director of NJL Consulting, advises developers Taylor Wimpey, Himor, Bethell and Footprint in the borough. He said: “It is a highly damning report from the inspector in virtually every aspect. There are strong suggestions of pre-determined housing figures that fall way below what is necessary for a genuinely sustainable jobs-led growth agenda.
“Its ramifications for the council will be huge; influencing outstanding planning appeals, even greater pressure for more land release; and putting the council continually on the back foot. Serious questions need answering as to how the council ever got into this situation when all have said it is a fundamentally flawed plan.”
Jonathan Vose, principal at Walsingham Planning in Knutsford, added: “The findings of the inspector are clearly far-reaching and compelling. Some of Inspector Pratt’s most notable comments include the lack of consistency between the proposed housing and economic strategies, the shortcomings of the council’s objective assessment of housing needs, particularly when this matter has been recently explored in great detail through the various land supply related appeal decisions and subsequent High Court Challenges and the evidence base put forward in relation to Green Belt release, particularly its retrospective nature. The council must now consider in detail whether it can address all of these matters, and others, within a timescale that negates the need for a full withdrawal and redrafting.”
Gary Halman, managing partner at HOW Planning, said: “Keys issues revolve around the council’s inadequate approach to assessing housing need. It was a major topic at the examination and will need to be revisited comprehensively. This seems to have been at the root of the problems, coupled with the inadequate justification for decisions the council took on the green belt.
“The options for the council look stark. The most likely choice out of the options the inspector has presented, none of which will appeal to them, is to suspend and address the inspector’s concerns. But the ability to suspend for more than around six months is doubtful and the big question is can the local planning authority address the major concerns the inspector has raised within these timescales.”
Adrian Fisher, head of planning at the council, said: “We must now do further work to ensure that our housing requirements match up with the economic requirement. We need to integrate our overall assessment of housing needs with our economic strategy.”
Cllr David Brown, deputy leader and Cabinet member in charge of the local plan, said: “It is regrettable that there will now be a delay in getting this finalised. However, we must justify our decisions with work on our objectively-assessed need and economic evidence. Getting the Local Plan right is an absolute priority and we undertake to do this over the next six months.”
Cllr Michael Jones, council leader, said: “This is a regrettable situation but my focus will now be on protecting the open countryside and our greenbelt from unplanned development. This means more neighbourhood plans and some interim policies put in place, as well as communications with the Government, which have already begun, to ensure that Cheshire East Council’s Local Plan is brought to fruition as soon as possible.”
Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, MP for Tatton, said: “I very much regret that there will be a delay to the long-awaited Local Plan. I know Cheshire East Council have worked hard to put this in place and I’ve spoken to them about it.
“The key thing is that more work is now done over the next few months to get it absolutely right and I’m glad Michael Jones and Cheshire East Council are going to do that.”