31 January 2020
Planning Inspectors have dealt a blow to St Albans City and District Council (SACDC) by cancelling the remaining Local Plan examination hearings after just one week of initial discussions.
On 27th January the Inspectors appointed by the Secretary of State to examine the soundness of the draft Plan wrote to the Council to notify them of:
“some serious concerns in relation to legal compliance and soundness.”
The Inspectors’ initial letter doesn’t confirm the cause of the concerns, but it follows discussions on the duty to cooperate, spatial strategy and Green Belt release. The Inspectors will be writing to the Council again soon to provide clarification.
Much of the discussion at the initial hearings focussed upon the proposed allocation of the Park Street Garden Village; a site promoted for around 2,300 new homes despite benefiting from an extant permission for a Strategic Rail Freight Interchange (SRFI) granted at appeal in 2014. During the initial hearing sessions, it was argued that it is wrong in principle and in law for SACDC to propose to allocate the site as a broad location for housing when it has already been granted consent for a piece of nationally important strategic infrastructure by the Secretary of State.
Another key discussion point surrounded a Sustainability Appraisal (SA) addendum published after the Plan was submitted for examination. Whilst there were concerns with the methodology of the SA, crucially, its amendment following submission meant that a key part of the Council’s evidence base was not subject to consultation. SACDC argued that all the changes to the Sustainability Appraisal were updates only and did not change the outcome, therefore there was no requirement to consult.
This decision comes just over two years after the High Court threw out the SACDC Strategic Plan over a failure to fulfil the duty to cooperate with neighbouring authorities.
Dependent upon the Inspectors' feedback, expected ‘as soon as possible’, SACDC may be asked to withdraw or submit main modifications to their Plan. The former appears more likely at this stage. The ramifications of this are yet to be seen.
If the Park Street Garden Village is removed from the strategic allocations, the inclusion of all of the small and medium sized sites would not be sufficient to address housing need and additional allocations may be required. More fundamental changes may be needed if the Inspectors raise serious concerns in respect of legal compliance.
This intervention has been made just two weeks after significant concerns were raised by the same Inspectors in respect of Uttlesford District Council’s emerging Local Plan, and three months on from the cancellation of further hearing sessions for the examination of Sevenoaks’ emerging Plan. It provides a further illustration of how hard it is for authorities to get sound and legally compliant local plans in place, particularly in Green Belt areas, despite the Government having advised the Planning Inspectorate to take a ‘pragmatic’ approach to the examination process last June.
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