Thursday, September 24, 2015

A local plan examination

I cling on to the belief that the planning system is (potentially)  one of the best ways for ordinary people to engage in the formulation and application of public policy - and in matters of some real importance; the provision of housing, transport and other services.  At the same time I am aware how off-putting the planning system has become.  I am in the process of writing a book aimed at persuading people to be more engaged and was amused by the response from the first publisher - that they did not think that ordinary people were sufficiently interested in participating in the planning system to buy/read a book on the subject.  Is this a circular argument?

Anyway, I am currently making representations to the examination of a local plan and thought that I should share this experience in case others might want to try their luck.  This has meant that a long written submission had been made at the appropriate time explaining why the draft Plan would not 'contribute to the achievement of sustainable development' in accordance with s.39(2) of the 2004 Act - an important test of soundness of the plan. The submissions were condensed once into a Hearing Statement and then further into reasons to attend the oral examination.  Although these are particular to the Vale of White Horse Local Plan they might create a picture of what I have been saying which might encourage others to challenge plans in their area.
"Matter 1

1.2  Is a Sustainability Appraisal  adequate which is behind policies supporting housing substantially in car dependent rural areas,  with minimal specifications for energy efficiency,  unconcerned about orientation, terracing  or the ‘mix’ (ie to balance with size of households) and without sufficient measures to limit the congestion that is making the area progressively unsustainable for new and existing residents and businesses.

1.4(c) The question of compliance with s39(2) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 – and the contribution that the Plan must/would make to the achievement of sustainable development?  Where is the evidence that carbon emissions would be reduced by about 60% by 2031 while housing and jobs would grow by about 40%?  What measures are included in the Plan to contribute to annual carbon reductions of between 6% and 10%?

Matter 2

2.1(a) & (d)         Does the SHMA properly or adequately take account of the level of under-occupation of the existing housing stock (at least if not more important than the numbers of dwellings) and the declining household size?  Does the SHMA explain the potential for meeting the ‘objectively assessed need’ through building smaller dwellings?

The housing need has been assessed over a period of about 16 years covering specific or potential rural locations where there would be a high propensity for people to want to move within their village. Does the Plan make adequate provision for phasing new developments in the rural areas to accommodate these needs?

Matter 3

3.1(a) & (b)         Are there any policies in the Plan that show how the bus services between Abingdon and Didcot can be made a realistic alternative to the car? Or is this area fundamentally unsustainable until such measures are put in place despite the Plan? And should more emphasis be placed on making Didcot an attractive place for residents until the transport system can be made sustainable.

Matter 4

In the context of local and national support for both self-building (that can deliver housing above that which the housebuilders are prepared to provide) and reference in the SHMA to something like co-housing (senior co-housing would be part of the sustainable provision for potential downsizers) is the Plan adequate to deliver these choices (as per NPF para 50)?  

NB    The plan not been positively prepared nor sound as sustainable development is more likely to occur in spite of the Plan rather than due to its policies.  The clear evidence from recent developments in the area is that developers are not building sustainably and will require strong policies in the development plan to do so. But,
·       The Plan does not include a strategy which seeks to meet objectively assessed requirements of the Climate Change Act and the related carbon reduction budgets.
·       The Plan is not justified because it is not based on the logical implications of the Climate Change Act for the development of land and buildings over the next 15 years. (ie between 6% and 10% annual reductions)
·       The Plan is not based on robust and credible evidence that relates to the necessary reduction in carbon emissions from existing land and buildings as well as all new development.
·       The Plan will not be effective due to the failure to understand the repercussions of the statutory and advisory carbon reduction targets.
·       The development supported by the Plan will not be deliverable in accordance with the criteria in the Plan. Development would need to accord with criteria not included in the Plan in order to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.
·       The Plan is not flexible in the sense that it would need substantial change to be contributing to the achievement of sustainable development.
·       It would not be possible to monitor the contribution it is making to the achievement of sustainable development as it lacks the necessary criteria (eg carbon reduction targets and rates) to carry out that fundamental exercise
·       The Plan is not consistent with national policy in respect of carbon reductions or the Climate Change Act (see NPPF paras 14 and 94)."

(The All Party Parliamentary Group on Housing and Care for Older People found that 8 million people over 60 would be interested in downsizing if the right option was available. Two thirds of whom occupy homes of three or more bedrooms. (Guardian social housing supplement 2015 09 23). Even the Daily Mail is on the case (2015 09 17).)

The inspector seemed to be interested in these submissions and invited me to kick-off the discussions about the sustainability assessment.  I have been in the situation many times where an Inspector appears to be paying a great deal of respect to what I am saying, but only in order to avoid any challenge that I was not given a 'fair hearing', and not with any real intention of giving weight to submissions that could threaten the planning system 'as we know it'.

In this case the inspector was most interested in whether I had objected to any other local plans on a similar basis - rather than questioning the merits of the case.  In fact the QC acting for the Local Planning authority was given the opportunity to rebut the case that the plan did not satisfy s39(2), a response that I don't think made any sense to the Inspector.

This Post is a call to arms so that other inspectors around the country are faced with challenges to local plans (and appeals in respect of development proposals) so that they do not feel isolated in applying the presumption in favour of sustainable development (ie the need to consume its own smoke) in a meaningful way, and not that adopted by the previous Government (we do not know whether Greg Clark is going to be true to his word (see Foreword to NPPF).

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