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Inspector advises Sevenoaks to take back its local plan

Words: Laura Edgar
Sevenoaks / iStock-586186838

The Planning Inspectorate has recommended that Sevenoaks District Council should withdraw its local plan from examination because of reservations over unmet housing need.

Writing to the council, inspector Karen L Baker explained that following what she read and heard during examination, she has “significant” concerns about several aspects of the plan.

Her main doubt related to a “lack of constructive engagement” with neighbouring authorities to resolve the issue of unmet housing need and the absence of cross-boundary planning to identify how this need could be accommodated.

“Indeed, the council did not formally ask neighbouring authorities if they were in a position to address its unmet housing need until just before the local plan was submitted for examination. I am not satisfied, therefore, that the council has addressed this key strategic matter through effective joint working, but has rather deferred it to subsequent plan updates.”

Baker considers this to be a “significant failure” in the council’s duty to cooperate.

Other concerns include the approach to sustainability appraisal and the assessment of the green belt.

Therefore she considers it to be inappropriate to hold the hearing arranged for November and recommends that the plan should be withdrawn.

The plan identifies that over the 20 years of its duration, 13,960 homes need to be built according to the standard method for calculating need. With 93 per cent green belt and 60 per cent designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), the area is constrained and “despite exploring a range of different options including green belt release, we have been unable to meet our housing need in full”.

In response, the council has explained that evidence submitted to the inspector “clearly demonstrates” that the council has worked closely with neighbouring authorities since 2015, when it began work on the plan.

In April, the council said it met the Planning Advisory Service to discuss the ability of neighbouring councils to assist with unmet housing need, which “confirmed neighbouring authorities could not help”. The council added that before submitting the plan it asked a QC and industry experts for their thoughts, including former senior planning inspectors, who advised it that its approach was sound.

The council's view

The council has responded to Baker, asking her to explain the reasons behind her decision while detailing concerns about the impartiality of the examination process.

Peter Fleming, leader of Sevenoaks District Council, commented: “It is clear to me the way this has been handled calls into question the integrity of the whole plan-making system in this country.

“The inspector had our submission for six months and asked over 500 questions. What’s more, the draft plan was independently verified and found sound by three external parties including the government’s own Planning Advisory Service.

“Had there been a fundamental problem, I would have expected the examination not to have gone ahead from the start.”

He said the council decided early that it would follow an evidence-led approach. Questioning this approach, he continued, "comes to the root of our concerns with the actions of the inspector”.

“If we are not to follow the evidence to make our plan, then the government may just as well dictate how many homes an area should have and then pick sites; we need to put an end to the thinly veiled charade that local plans are in any way locally led.

“But the most damning comment has to be left for the inspector’s approach to publish her brief note before allowing the council to either see her full reasoning or have a chance to respond. This suggests her mind is far from open and she and her masters have made their minds up.”

“Sevenoaks District Council will stand up for its residents and the district’s environment against what we believe is a huge abuse of the process by the Planning Inspectorate and the government department responsible. We will not allow them to run roughshod over the huge weight of evidence we have amassed, community views we have collated and the few powers we have left as a planning authority.”

Julia Thornton, the council’s cabinet member for development and conservation, added: “The inspector’s decision to cancel the examination will be a huge disappointment to the thousands of residents who took part in our consultations, helping to shape our new local plan. We received more than 235,000 comments and residents told us loud and clear they wanted us to continue to protect the district while providing new homes and infrastructure for the future. Taking the local plan off the table puts at risk the new infrastructure, including the schools, medical and leisure facilities we really need.

“We are pleased the inspector has not reached a final conclusion on this matter and we will work hard and fast to find a positive and pragmatic way forward.”

The proposed submission version of the plan can be found on the council website.

The inspector’s letter can also be found on the council website.

The council's response to the inspector can be found here.

Image credit | iStock