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Wealden local plan halted on duty to cooperate

Words: Laura Edgar
Failing to cooperate / iStock-176431462

The Planning Inspectorate has advised Wealden District Council that it cannot proceed with its local plan as it has ‘failed in its legal duty’ to comply with the duty to cooperate.

Inspector Louise Nurser's central concern was the lack of constructive engagement with neighbouring authorities and Natural England, with particular regard to the impacts on habitats and landscape and unmet housing need in Eastbourne.

Ashdown Forest Special Area of Conservation (SAC) lies in the district, while the Pevensey Levels SAC is located in both Wealden district and Rother District Council's area. The neighbouring Lewes Downs SAC lies within the administrative boundary of Lewes District Council and the South Downs National Park Authority.

For Nurser, it was “unreasonable and lacking in scientific credibility” for the council to use an emissions model that did not allow for emission improvements over the plan period, which runs to 2028. This went against the advice of Natural England, as well as the council’s own air quality advisers, the inspector noted.

She said: “Whilst the council may be entitled to take a different view from the advice of a nationally important body and an acknowledged expert in the subject, it needs to support its position with adequate evidence. It did not do so, but instead took a position which was in scientific terms lacking in credibility."

Regarding cross-boundary issues, Nurser highlighted that the Ashdown Forest Working Group (AFWG) was formed to address the effects of traffic generation that arose from proposed development in local plans on the Ashdown Forest SAC through the Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA). Each local authority is represented, as is Natural England.

Wealden District Council has data that could have been of use to neighbouring authorities in the working group in producing their evidence bases and would support cross-boundary work on air quality. However, Nurser concluded that the council “did not share the information on a constructive basis with all its fellow members of the AFWG”.

The council said it withheld the information as monitors have been vandalised in the past, and as their locations would be subject to Freedom of Information requests, it could happen again. However, Natural England did have access to the data, with Nurser saying “it was clearly illogical not to share the information with the other councils on a similar basis”.

“By repeatedly refusing to release data, the council did not work constructively or in the spirit of cooperation.”

Eastbourne borough's unmet housing need is down to the area’s physical capability and infrastructure limitations to growth. The area lies within Wealden’s Housing Market Area. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) are clear that local planning authorities should meet their own housing need and meet the needs of other authorities in the same housing market.

Some of Eastbourne’s unmet need was catered for in an earlier version of the plan, when it covered the period to 2037. When it changed to cover the period to 2028, this allocated contribution was dropped. Nurser notes that the evidence indicates that “there was no meaningful discussion about how Eastbourne’s unmet needs could be met”.

She concluded that because of the council’s failure to cooperate on several issues, the plan could not proceed to examination.

Bob Standley, leader of Wealden District Council, said the council tried to find the “right balance” between growth in housing and employment land and protecting the environment.

“Unfortunately, the planning inspector, following last summer’s examination in public of our local plan, has found that we put too great an emphasis on protecting the environment and that we need to do more to build houses in Wealden which our neighbouring councils cannot accommodate.

“Regrettably, this will inevitably have impacts on our communities. We acknowledge that there is already significant pressure on infrastructure, such as roads, doctors, dentists, schools and sports facilities. A requirement to build more homes will only have a greater impact on those facilities, which will require further investment.”

More information about the Wealden District Council Local Plan and the inspector's conclusions can be found on the council website.

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